Faith Under Fire

How Roy Campbell Saved the Writings of St John of the Cross From the Bonfires of the Spanish Civil War

by Meghan Ferrara

PHOTO CREDITS: Teresa Limjoco

It may seem improbable to consider that St. John of the Cross, the Spanish Civil War, and JRR Tolkien have anything in common. However, all three share one important connection: the South African poet Roy Campbell, and therein lies a tale of intrigue, bravery and faith.

This remarkable narrative is set against the upheaval of the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s. There was much unrest in Spain leading up to the elections of February 1936, as ordinary Spaniards from various factions sought to oust the Republican junta. This tension evolved into full-blown riots that swept through the entire country. Demonstrations soon turned virulently anticlerical and resulted in the destruction of churches and persecution of priests, monks, and others in the consecrated life. 

It was no longer safe to publicly express one’s religious vows. By the end of the War, twelve bishops, 4,184 priests, 2,365 monks and approximately 300 nuns made the ultimate sacrifice for the Church.

It was amid this peril that Roy Campbell and his family converted to the Catholic faith, though this journey had been years in the making.

Early Years in South Africa and Oxford

Born in 1901, Campbell spent much of his youth in South Africa. He arrived at Oxford in 1919 to begin his collegiate studies. The poet enjoyed a meteoric rise to success in the English literary world and by the age of 22 his works were compared to those of T.S. Elliot of whom he was a contemporary along with Dylan Thomas, Edith Sitwell, and Percy Wyndham Lewis.

Campbell also counted George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, T S Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, J.R.R Tolkien and C S Lewis among his friends. These friendships were a defining characteristic of his professional career as well as his personal life. J.R.R. Tolkien’s first impression of Campbell proved to be particularly memorable. One night in 1944, he observed the poet secluded in the dark corner of a pub peering intently at C.S. Lewis and listening to his lively conversation. This encounter vividly reminded Tolkien, in the midst of writing The Lord of the Rings, of the enigmatic Aragorn whom the hobbits meet in a similar fashion at the beginning of the trilogy. Campbell’s previous experiences and adventures heavily influenced the further development of this pivotal character.

POET ROY CAMPBELL (LEFT) WAS KNOWN FOR HIS CATHOLIC FAITH. The path to his conversion began with his marriage to his wife, Mary (pictured here with writer Jacob Kramer and famous artist’s model ‘Dolores’). Mary’s passionate, lifelong devotion to St. Teresa of Avila spurred an avid interest in Spain, both of which she eventually shared with her husband.

A Dangerous Time To Be Catholic

The Campbell family, which grew to include daughters Anna and Teresa, moved to Barcelona in the autumn of 1933 after living in Provence for several years. It was during this time that the family began to convert to the Catholic faith. They moved to Altea, near Alicante, in May 1934. It was here that the whole family was formally baptized into the Catholic Church in June 1935. By 1936 the Campbells had moved to Toledo. Little did they imagine that their newfound faith would be severely tested in the months ahead.

By this point, Spain was embroiled in a full-blown civil war and it was a dangerous time to be Catholic. Nonetheless, Campbell and his family befriended the Carmelite monastery in Toledo and in March of 1936, the monks briefly took refuge in his home. Then, on July 21st, Republican forces marched on the city. The Carmelites again sought assistance from the Campbells. This time, however, it was not for their own safety, but to protect the Carmelite archives, including the personal papers of St. John of the Cross. Campbell agreed and that night a trunk with the precious legacy was delivered to him.

TOLEDO’S HOUSES AND CHURCHES WERE LOOTED AND ENORMOUS BONFIRES WERE BUILT ON THE MAIN SQUARE, fueled by crucifixes, vestments, missals and any other religious items that the pillaged buildings yielded. (PHOTO CREDIT: Teresa Limjoco)

THE 1936 ATTACK ON TOLEDO: Over the next few days the poet and his family watched in horror as the violence committed by the Republican forces overtook the city. Many Catholic religious, including their friends the 17 monks from a nearby Carmelite monastery, were martyred.  (PHOTO CREDIT: Teresa Limjoco)

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Begging the intercession of St. John of the Cross

Several days later, on July 31st, the militia arrived to search the Campbell home. Anticipating such a visit, Roy and Mary had already taken the precaution of concealing all their crucifixes and religious images.

The Campbells’ greatest concern, however, was the discovery of the Carmelite trunk. During the soldiers’ presence in his house, Roy implored the intercession of St. John of the Cross, [i] promising to translate the saint’s works into English if the lives of his wife and daughters were spared.

Campbell’s prayers were answered. The search was not especially meticulous, the militia even leaning their rifles on the trunk at one point without seeking to examine its contents. The significance of the rescue of these documents became evident as the Campbells observed the republican forces burn the rest of the 30,000 works of the Carmelite library.

Campbell honored his promise to St. John and his translations were received to great popular and critical acclaim. As a reward for their courage, Cardinal Gomá, the Catholic Primate of Spain, confirmed the Campbells, though even this held great risk and had to be undertaken in the secrecy of night.

THROUGH HIS PERSEVERANCE AND FAITH, ROY CAMPBELL SAVED ONE OF SPAIN’S AND THE CHURCH’S GREATEST TREASURES. Today, both St John’s poetry and his studies on the growth of the soul are considered the summit of mystical Spanish literature and one of the peaks of all Spanish literature.

“In March 1936 the anti-clerical contagion spreading across Spain reached the streets of Toledo, the ancient city in which the Campbells had made their home. Churches were burned in a series of violent riots in which priests and nuns were attacked. During these bloody disturbances, Roy and Mary Campbell sheltered in their house several of the Carmelite monks from the neighboring monastery. In the following weeks, the situation worsened. Portraits of Marx and Lenin were posted on every street corner, and horrific tales began to filter in from surrounding villages of priests being shot and wealthy men being butchered in front of their families. Toledo’s beleaguered Christians braced themselves for the next wave of persecution, and the Campbells, in an atmosphere that must have seemed eerily reminiscent of early Christians in the Catacombs of Rome, were confirmed in a secret ceremony, before dawn, by Cardinal Goma, the elderly Archbishop of Toledo and Primate of Spain. In July 1936, the civil war erupted onto the streets of Toledo, heralded by the arrival in the city of Communist militiamen from Madrid. With no one to defend them, the priests, monks, and nuns fell prey to the hatred of their adversaries. The seventeen monks from the Carmelite monastery were rounded up, herded on to the street and shot. Campbell discovered their murdered bodies, left lying where they fell. He also discovered the bodies of other priests lying in the narrow street where the priests had been murdered. Swarms of flies surrounded their bodies, and scrawled in their blood on the wall was written, ‘Thus strikes the CHEKA.'” — Joseph Pearce, Literary Giants, Literary Catholics, 2001


[i] Canonized in 1726, St John of the Cross is one of the thirty-five Doctors of the Church.

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