The Spanish madman who started St Johns. I know that today we mark International Women’s Day and we will witness marches and calls for women’s rights but I want to remember the life of a Spanish madman who lived 500 years ago called John of God because I believe his work among the poor and the ill particularly commend this man to be remembered on this day. John was born João Cidade Duarte today in 1495 in Portugal and he died on this same day in 1550. The madness of this man lay in the fact that from the time he was eight to the day he died, John followed every impulse of his heart. But unlike many who act impulsively, when John made a decision, no matter how quickly, he stuck with it, no matter what the hardship.
At eight years old, John heard a visiting priest speak of adventures that were waiting in an age with new worlds being opened up. That very night he ran away from home to travel with the priest and never saw his parents again. The two begged their way from village to village across Portugal and through Spain before John fell ill. The man who nursed him back to health, the manager of a large estate in Spain, adopted John. John worked as a shepherd in the mountains until he was 22. Feeling pressure to marry the manager’s daughter, whom he loved as a sister, John took off to join the Spanish army in the war against France. As a soldier, he was hardly a model of holiness, taking part in the gambling, drinking, and pillaging that his comrades enjoyed. One day, he was thrown from a stolen horse near French lines. Frightened that he would be captured or killed, he prayed for his life and vowed impulsively to make a change.
When he returned he kept his spur of the moment vow, made a confession and immediately changed his life. His army comrades didn’t mind so much that John was repenting but hated that he wanted them to give up their pleasures too. So they used his impulsive nature to trick him into leaving his post on the pretext of helping someone in need. He was rescued from hanging at the last minute and thrown out of the army after being beaten and stripped. He begged his way back to his foster-home where he worked as a shepherd again until he heard of a new war with Moslems invading Europe. Off he went to war again in Hungary but after the war was over, he decided to try to find his real parents. To his grief he discovered that both his parents had died in his absence.
When he decided at the age of 38 that he should go to Africa to ransom Christian captives, he left immediately and set off for the port of Gibraltar. He was on the dock waiting for his ship when he saw a family obviously upset and grieving. When he discovered they were a noble family being exiled to Africa after political intrigues, he abandoned his original plan and volunteered to be their servant. The family fell ill when they reached their exile and John kept them alive not only by nursing them but by earning money to feed them. His job building fortifications was gruelling, inhuman work and the workers were beaten and mistreated by people who called themselves Catholics. Seeing Christians act this way shook his faith. A priest advised him not to blame the Church for their actions and to leave for Spain at once. He left as soon as his adopted family were pardoned.
On his return to Spain he spent his days as a stevedore on the docks and his nights visiting churches and reading spiritual books. Reading gave him so much pleasure that he decided that he should share this joy with others. He quit his job and became a book peddler, travelling from town to town selling religious books and holy cards. By the time he was 41 years old, John was living in Granada where he sold books from a little shop.
One day he went to hear a sermon from the famous John of Avila on repentance, he was so overcome by the thought of his sins and by all accounts went mad. After the sermon John rushed back to his shop. In a frenzy, he tore up any secular books he had, gave away all his religious books and all his money. Clothes torn and weeping, he was the target of insults, jokes, and even stones and mud from the townspeople and their children. He was taken to the local hospital and interned with the lunatics. John suffered the standard treatment of the time which involved being tied down and whipped daily. John of Avila came to visit him there and told him his penance had gone on long enough and had John moved to a better part of the hospital. John could never see suffering without trying to do something about it. Now that he was free to move, although still a patient, he immediately got up and began to help the other sick people around him. The hospital staff were glad to have his unpaid nursing help and were not happy to release him when one day he walked in to announce he was going to start his own hospital.
John may have been certain that God wanted him to start a hospital for the poor who got bad treatment, if any, from the other hospitals, but everyone else still thought of him as a madman. It didn’t help that he decided to try to finance his plan by selling wood in the square. At night he took what little money he earned and brought food and comfort to the poor living in abandoned buildings and under bridges. Thus his first hospital was the streets of Granada.
Within an hour after seeing a sign in a window saying “House to let for lodging of the poor” he had rented the house in order to move his nursing indoors. Of course he rented it without money for furnishings, medicine, or help. After he begged money for beds, he went out in the streets again and carried his ill patients back on the same shoulders that had carried stones, wood, and books. Once there he cleaned them, dressed their wounds, and mended their clothes at night while he prayed. He used his old experience as a peddler to beg alms. Within the rented house John did all the work himself. He had at first no servants, no nurses; his experience in the wars now stood him in good stead, for there his natural charity had taught him something about wounds and bandages. So he set to work with the little he knew. He could wash his patients and dress their sores; he could kiss their feet and let them feel that somebody cared; he put them to bed and gave them a sense of home; he would sit by their side and be merry with them, and then could induce them to go to confession and pray; it was all very rough and ready, but it suited his household.
Throughout his life he was criticized by people who didn’t like the fact that his impulsive love embraced anyone in need without asking for credentials or character references. When he was able to move his hospital to an old Carmelite monastery, he opened a homeless shelter in the monastery hall. Immediately critics tried to close him down saying he was pampering troublemakers. His answer to this criticism always was that he knew of only one bad character in the hospital and that was himself. His urge to act immediately when he saw need got him into trouble more than a few times. Once, when he encountered a group of starving people, he rushed into a house, stole a pot of food, and gave it to them. Another time, on finding a group of children in rags, he marched them into a clothing shop and bought them all new clothes. Since he had no money, he paid for it all on credit.
Inviting snide comments and accusations by cynics,he used to visit sex workers in various bordellos about town and even bought a house for those women wanting to get out of this work. He served them diligently and despite many trials and taunts, never failed in his care for them.
John’s impulsive wish to help others saved many people in one emergency. The alarm went out that the Royal Hospital, where he had been incarcerated as a lunatic was on fire. He dropped everything an ran there, he found that the crowd was just standing around watching the hospital and its patients go up in flames. Without a second thought, he rushed into the blazing building and carried and led the patients out. When all the patients were rescued, he started throwing blankets, sheets, and mattresses out the windows. At that point a cannon was brought to destroy the burning part of the building in order to save the rest. John stopped them, ran up the roof, and separated the burning portion with an axe. He succeeded but fell through the burning roof. All thought they had lost their hero of the hour until John of God appeared miraculously out of smoke.
Fifteen years into his work in Granada, John heard that a flood was bringing precious driftwood near the town. He jumped out of bed to gather the wood from the raging river. Then when one of his companions fell into the river, John without thought for his illness or safety jumped in after him. He failed to save the boy and caught pneumonia. He died on March 8 1550, his fifty-fifth birthday, of the same impulsive love that had guided his whole life. There is little doubt that John was one seriously crazy guy. His madness though, did good for the poor and the suffering. Around him grew a company of women and men who were inspired by the work he was doing.
Today, almost 500 years after his death, the Brothers Hospitallers of St. John of God work in 53 countries and run more than 300 hospitals, clinics and health centres that respond to a whole variety of needs, not just in the area of mental health and psychiatry. Popes get medical and dental care from this Order. The Family of Saint John of God, as the Order is referred to today, is made up of more than 45,000 members, Brothers and Co-workers and supported by tens of thousands of benefactors and friends who identify with and support the work of the Order for sick and needy people across the world
– Douglas Racionzer (see more of madman Racionzer’s maverick daily updates at http://serendipiday.blogspot.