Friday, August 16, 2013

Joy Division & John of the Cross

joy division, british, ian curtis, love will tear us apart, music
by John Wallace

Whenever I hear Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” I always think of St. John of the Cross. I know it may sound strange, but reading John of the Cross, he was undone, torn apart by the love of the Divine. Admittedly in a far different way than that which Joy Division’s lead singer Ian Curtis was writing of.

Joy Division kicked up a storm in Britain and Ireland in the late 1970s and early 1980s, pioneering the new post-punk style, which filled the vacuum left by the rapid demise of the British punk rock scene.

They formed in 1976 and then unravelled only four short years later. The band came to an abrupt end on May 18, 1980, just 3 days after my 5th birthday, when Ian Curtis committed suicide.Yet now, nearly 40 years on, Joy Division still manages to mesmerise. And their highest charting release, “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” well, it always makes me think of St. John of the Cross.

Ian Curtis was a deeply troubled man. He suffered from epilepsy, fits of depression, violent mood swings and a controlling nature. But in the end, it may well have been love that tore Ian apart.

He had married his school sweetheart, Deborah Woodruff, at a young age. Later, as the band began to gain notoriety, he met Belgian model Annik Honoré, and embarked upon a long-standing affair with her. Curtis was deeply torn. His love for his childhood sweetheart and for their daughter pulled against his love of music and the excitement offered by Annik. And caught between his competing passions, Ian Curtis wrote what was to become Joy Division’s best-known song, “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” The opening verse is rather telling:

When routine bites hard,
ian curtis, joy division, suicide, love will tear us apart, britishAnd ambitions are low.
And resentment rides high,
But emotions won't grow.
And we're changing our ways,
Taking different roads.
Love, love will tear us apart again

But whenever I hear it, it always makes me think not so much of Ian Curtis, as of St. John of the Cross. John, too, was a man who suffered. He was imprisoned and faced bruising punishment by fellow friars for the reforms he sought to bring to his order. Yet while confined to a narrow cell and subjected to weekly lashings, John wrote a beautiful poem in which he yearns for the love of the Divine to come and undo him, to tear him apart:

Reveal Your presence,
And let the vision and Your beauty kill me,
Behold the malady
Of love is incurable
Except in Your presence and before Your face.

- The Spiritual Canticle, St. John of the Cross

For John of the Cross, despite his hardship and his trials, love was all that concerned him, that consumed him. He wrote, “All that I do is done in love; all that I suffer, I suffer in the sweetness of love.” John’s pain did not break him; it was love that tore him apart.

And this is the key to all his writings, this passion for Divine love; it is the theme of his work and of his life. His writings, reminiscent of the Song of Solomon, have an almost homoerotic undercurrent.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand
He caressed my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

- Ascent of Mount Carmel, St. John of the Cross

saint john of the cross, saint, icon, christ, holySt. John of the Cross abandoned himself to the love of Christ; in his tremulous words, we hear how it overwhelmed him. For John, to be torn apart by love meant to surrender himself fully to the love of the Divine, and let it do with him what it may. And this surrender of self is so often the impediment that heeds the deepening of Christian Divine love. Jesus said to us, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35, ESV).

John of the Cross lived by this counsel. He denied himself and took up the cross of Christ; he allowed selfless love to tear him apart bit by bit; and after he was deconstructed by love, he emerged with deeper strength, profound wisdom, and a radiant devotion to the Divine. Ian Curtis on the other hand... well, let’s just say he didn’t. 

John, a manufacturing engineer working with medical devices, lives in Cork, Ireland with his wife and two young sons, aged 4 and 2. He is a Christian who writes about faith and theology from the perspective of the ordinary man without the walls of doctrine. You can find more of John’s writing and thoughts on or connect with him on Twitter, Google+ or Facebook.

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