Skip to comments.St. John of the Cross
Posted on 08/04/2002 5:46:22 PM PDT by JMJ333
ON JULY 27, I 926, the Prince of Mystics, the singer of the "dark night of the soul", the teacher of the "all and nothing" (todo y nada), was raised to the dignity of a "Doctor of the Church" by Pope Pius XI. The doctrine of the mystical life, as elucidated and lived by St. John of the Cross (1542 91), was thereby given official sanction.
If one were to ask why this particular time was chosen for the papal declaration, several answers suggest themselves. A global war had been waged, but peace had only outwardly re turned to an ailing world. Peace, "the tranquillity of order", was not residing in the hearts and minds of men. The Bolshevik revolution had passed through the early stages of its violent course, and at Fatima, an obscure Portuguese village, the Virgin Mary had spoken to three poor shepherd children and had asked them to convey to the world her request for a crusade of prayer.
But this had been only the first chapter in the contemporary epic of war, revolution, and attempted restoration; in the apocalyptic struggle of powers, of darkness and light; in the continuing efforts to destroy and the heroic endeavors to save the image of man and the meaning of human existence. The end was not yet. The battle grew more intense. There followed the internecine war in Spain, the extermination of ethnic and racial minorities, the horrors of the concentration camps, the second global war, the obliteration of cities, the unspeakable suffering of millions, the martyrdom of thousands.
Need the question be asked: why is St. John of the Cross the saint who speaks to this day and age directly, from heart to heart and from soul to soulthe contemporary of our deepest woes and our secret hopes, of our abandonment and our redemption? This generation is rapidly gaining experiential knowledge of one stage at least of St. Johns way to the fulness of life. Many have learned to understand the meaning of the "dark night", the meaning of "nothingness", of forlornness, nakedness, and emptiness. To enter into this dreadful night their own experiences were pointing the way, and to make these experiences articulate the contemporary "existential" thinkers, such as Jaspers, Sartre, and Heidegger, were eager to extend a helping hand. But who was to aid in the attempt at finding an exit? Was there a trustworthy guide to lead men from the "nothing" (nada) to the "all" (todo)?
On the steep and narrow path from nothingness to the fulness of being, from the "naught" that man is without God or over against God to the "whole" that he is called to become in union with Him Who Is, St. John of the Cross is an authentic leader. Though he himself reached heights of the interior life and was granted a union of love with God to which only a few chosen souls have been admitted during their earthly pilgrimage, his life and his works hold consolation and encouragement also for those who are not privileged to follow him all the way on the ascent to the peak of the mountain. The saint himself has described this journey of the soul in a famous drawing. And we know from his testimony as from that of Christian mystics generally that the trials of the "dark nights" are necessary stages on the road from "things which, though seen, are not, to those things which, though not seen, are".
Those who have lost all their treasured earthly goods may learn from the Spanish saint how "to own nothing and possess everything". Those still in the possession of riches may learn from him the meaning of "detachment", so that, become spiritually poor, they will own their goods "as if they had them not". And those whose families have been disrupted, dispersed, and destroyed may find consolation in St. Johns cautelas (warnings), wherein he speaks of and to souls who are willing to surrender everything, including their own selves, for love: "You must", he says, "detach yourselves in a way even from your relations, fearing that, through the natural love which always exists between members of the same family, flesh and blood may come to life again."
Is this a new doctrine? Certainly not. It merely restates and paraphrases Christs saying, "If any man comes to me without hating his father and mother, his wife and his children, his brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. A man cannot be my disciple unless he takes up his cross, and follows me" (Lk 14:26; 27). Is this severity incompatible with the tender love Jesus bore his own mother, or with the love his disciple, John of the Cross, bore his mother and his brother Francisco? By no means, if we have rightly understood the lesson of detachment: when we have offered up to God the precious gifts he has bestowed on us, they are then restored to us, so that we may truly own them with the freedom of children of God. Thus Isaac was given back to Abraham, "the Knight of Faith", and all his former possessions were doubly restored to Job, "the Knight of Infinite Resignation" (Kierkegaard). For to lose all is then to gain all, and he who possesses nothing is so much less possessed.
My own acquaintance with St. John of the Cross dates back about thirty years. I was a student at the University of Freiburg in Germany, engaged in writing my doctoral dissertation. It was to deal with the mystical elements in the German literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To place the writers whose works I analyzed in the proper historical perspective I had to delve into the mystical movements of the Middle Ages and of the Baroque period. It was then that I discovered St. John of the Cross.
Only a few years earlier I, who had grown up in the climate of modern paganism, had discovered and embraced Christianity. I had found Christ in his Mystical Body, the Church. The years 1918 and 1919 had turned out to be the decisive years of my life, years of physical and spiritual crisis. In the sanatorium for consumptives in the Swiss Alps I had lived in the vicinity of death. These yearsfollowing the war that Germany had lost, and the privations of the "hunger blockade"had begun for me with fear and trembling, but they ended in joy and peace of mind. I remember them as the happiest years of my life.
The message of St. John of the Cross was a strange one, hard to understand, harder to accept, and hardest to translate into terms of actual and personal life. Two men were instrumental in deciphering the saints language for me, who was a bungling neophyte in the ways of the interior life. The one was the professor of dogmatics at the local university; he had just published a work on mystical theology, and he was a great admirer of St. John of the Cross. A saintly and sensitive scholar, he was also the fatherly spiritual guide of many young souls in search of truth. Two decades later, he underwent the fearful trial of the "dark night" when a large part of his beloved city, including the ancient structure of his family residence, was destroyed in a matter of minutes, with thousands of the inhabitants buried under the rubble. A cloud of incurable melancholy descended upon his brilliant mind. He has now entered into the mansions of eternal peace.
The other was a young Benedictine scholar of the monastery of Beuron in the valley of the Danube, who was enamoured of the Spanish mystics and had published several stuçiies on St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross. It was he who further stimulated my interest in the two great saints and mystics, and I began reading their works in a German translation. Not un til many years later did I become acquainted with Fr. Brunos standard biography of St. John of the Cross and with Allison Peers English translation of his works. Finally, I learned to master the Spanish language sufficiently to be able to read the saints works in his own tongue. And I followed the trail of his life as it was dramatically traced out by Fr. Silverio de Santa Teresa.
Not long ago, a friend in Germany sent me Edith Steins Kreuzeswissenschafi (The Science of the Cross) ,2 a profound phenomenological study and interpretation of St. Johns personality and mystical doctrine. The author, a German Jewess and a pupil of Edmund Husserl, the founder of "Phenomenology", became a convert to Catholicism and later on entered the Carmelite order as Sister Teresia Benedicta a Cruce. A true daughter of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, she learned to know the meaning of the "dark night" by passing through it on her way to the light of glory. She had entered the Carmelite convent at Cologne in 1934. When the persecution of Jews in Germany was nearing its climax, the ecclesiastical authorities ordered her transfer to the Dutch Carmelite community at Echt. There, in 1942, she was found by the German Secret Police. She was first thrown into a Dutch concentration camp, then deported to the notorious camp at Auschwitz in Silesia, and finally gassed and burned. Thus Sister Teresia Benedicta practised the "science of the cross" which she had learned from her spiritual father, St. John of the Cross. Serene and humble in her self-immolation, she followed in the footsteps of him who had foretold that his disciples would stand in the world as a sign of contradiction, that they would be hated and persecuted, and that they would have to lose their lives if they wanted to gain them.
The age in which St. John of the Cross lived bore in many respects a close resemblance to our own. It was a period of unrest and violent change, of the social and religious upheavals marking the death-throes of the Middle Ages and the birth-throes of the modern world. The epoch was, on the one hand, rife with sceptical doubt, moral libertinism, and an iconoclastic frenzy and, on the other, filled with an as yet inarticulate longing for new spiritual and moral guideposts that might aid in restoring order and balance to human existence.
In Spain a vigorous renascence of scholastic theology and philosophy and a new wave of mystical devotion coincided with the "Golden Age" of Spanish culture and literature. Thus the brilliance of style and artistic form that generally characterizes the great literary and artistic creations of the siglo de oro is reflected in the writings of the theologians, philosophers, and mystics. The Spanish reform of ecclesiastic and monastic life achieved its most splendid successes through the labors of St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross. Both were members of the order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which had been formally instituted about the middle of the twelfth century as an order of hermits on Mount Carmel in Pales tine. In 1206 A.D., St. Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, gave the Carmelite order its first monastic rule. When, in the course of the thirteenth century, the Carmelites made their first appearance in Europe, they tried to combine the austere life of the early hermits of the eastern deserts with the apostolic missionary zeal of the medieval Mendicant orders. They vied with Franciscans and Dominicans in their efforts to kindle in the hearts of the people a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin. In 1432, the rule of St. Albert was mitigated by Pope Eugenius IV, and the Reform of the sixteenth century was a protest against this relaxation of Carmelite discipline and an attempt to restore the full rigor of the cloistered contemplative life. The final result of the Reform was the division of the order into two separate branches: (i) The Calced (shod) Carmelites, who continued to live under the mitigated rule; and (2) the Discalced (unshod; barefooted) Carmelites, who reverted to the original rule of St. Albert.
In closest collaboration St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross carried the Reform to a successful conclusion. They did so in the face of the most violent opposition on the part of the advocates of the Mitigated Observance. Undergoing incredible hardships and overcoming almost insuperable obstacles, they introduced the rule of St. Albert into many of the established communities and founded numerous new ones. Their extraordinary understanding of human souls was the fruit of a rare combination of gifts: spiritual inwardness, sober practical sense, and a sustained force of will. Both saints lived the lives of Mary and Martha in unison, knowing how to sit in stillness at the feet of the Lord, listening to his voice, but knowing equally well how to be busy with Martha after having refreshed and strengthened themselves at the font of Eternal Wisdom and Love.
As to St. John of the Cross, his significance as a Christian thinker and saint far transcends the boundaries of his country and his age. He is today generally recognized as the greatest among the masters of mystical theology. No one has either more lucidly or more succinctly spoken of the interior life of the soulthe experiential knowledge of Godand the way of the rational creature toward God. Nor has any one equalled him in the lapidary and beautiful simplicity of his language. Groping for the enunciation of the unutterable and ineffable, he succeeded in impressing the severe beat and rhythm of his life upon the style of his works.
St. John is a great poet, aside from being a great saint, and his strangely "surrealistic" drawing of the crucified Christ shows an immediacy and spontaneity of expression that have evoked the admiration of art connoisseurs. It is a receptivity indicative of that integrity with whichon different levelsthe child, the genuine artist, and the saint experience reality.
Juan de Yepes, who later on was to adopt the name Juan de la Cruz, was born at Fontiveros near Avila, in the southern part of old Castile. He was the youngest of three sons. His brother Luis died as an infant, while his brother Francisco lived to testify during the initial stages of his brothers process of beatification. The father, Gonzalo de Yepes, was a member of the lower nobility, but he had been cast off by his family when, following the call of his heart, he had married Catalina Alvarez, who was of humble parentage, beautiful and devout, but poor. While Gonzalo was alive, the family lived on his meagre earnings as a weaver. When the father died, John was only seven years of age, and Catalina found herself and her children without even the bare necessities of life.
In Medina del Campo, to which the family had moved, John was apprenticed in the workshops of some of the local artisans and craftsmen, then became an attendant at a smallpox hospital. In the spare moments which care of the contagiously sick left him, he began his studies for the priesthood. At the age of thirteen he was sent to the new Jesuit college in the town.
John was twenty-one years of age when, in I 563, he entered the novitiate of the Carmelite order. In 1564, he was sent to the Carmelite College of St. Andrew at Salamanca to finish his studies in theology and philosophy. Salamanca was at that time the center of Thomistic thought and widely renowned as "the Athens of Christendom". There he acquired the thor ough knowledge of the principles of scholastic theology and philosophy of which there is such ample evidence in all of his writings.
In 1567, John was appointed master of students and com missioned to lecture to the scholastics of the Carmelite College. Ordained a priest in the same year, he returned to Medina del Campo and shortly afterward he met Mother Teresa, who had come to Medina del Campo to found one of the convents of the Carmelite Reform. For both saints, and for the future course of the Reform as well, this first encounter had far-reaching consequences.
Despite the fact that after his profession John of St. Mathias upon his request had been given permission to live according to the primitive rule of the Carmel, it now appeared that even so the cloistered monastic life did not fully satisfy his long ing for solitude, austerity, and heroic discipline. At any rate, he had intimated to his superiors that it was his intention to become a Carthusian and that he hoped to be received into the Carthusian settlement of Paular in Segovia. Mother Teresa, however, succeeded in persuading him to defer a final decision in this matter.
Mother Teresa had been offered a small farmhouse in the hamlet of Duruelo, in the vicinity of Medina del Campo. It was little more than a shack, but for John of the Cross it had all the attractions he could have wished for: the place was lonely and desolate, the climate severe; he could live there in absolute poverty and practise total detachment. Already at the College of St. Andrew he had lived in a tiny cell whose single small window opened toward the tabernacle of the college chapel, and he had slept (he never needed more than about three hours of sleep) on an old board covered with straw, with a piece of wood as a pillow.
The ramshackle farmhouse at Duruelo became the first monastery of the Teresian Reform. John arrived there in 1568 and immediately began to undertake the repairs which were necessary to make the place habitable for a group of contemplatives. His knowledge of the masons and carpenters trade now stood him in good stead. His bed was the naked floor, his mat tress a bundle of hay, his pillowan extraordinary luxurya piece of sackcloth filled with straw. Again the small windows of the cells offered a plain view of the altar and the Blessed Sacrament. Seven Friars in all, the vanguard of the Reform, were joined together in the Carmelite community at Duruelo.
A few months later, Mother Teresa passed through the village on her way to Toledo, where she was about to establish another convent for her nuns. "When I entered the chapel," she writes:
I was filled with admiration, seeing the spirit of devotion which the Lord had diffused here. And I was not the only one so impressed; two merchants, friends of mine, who had accompanied me on the way from Medina del Campo, could not help but shed tears at what they saw. . . . I shall never forget a little wooden cross that was placed beside the holy water stoup; affixed to the latter was a paper picture of Christ which, it seemed to me, inspired more devotion than if it had been a great work of art.
John was fond of carving crucifixes and of drawing sketches of Christ in his agony.
John and his companions, at Duruelo as at all times, joined action to contemplation, preaching and teaching in the neighboring villages. When, after a year and a half, the place proved definitely too small to house the growing community, the monks gratefully accepted the more spacious quarters which had been offered to them in the neighboring town of Mancera. John had been appointed master of novices at Duruelo and he continued in the same office at Mancera and, two years later, in the newly founded monastery at Pastrana. In 1571, he founded a Carmelite College at Alcalá de Henares and became its first Rector.
In 1572, Teresa was made prioress of the convent of the Incarnation at Avila, one of the largest communities of Calced Carmelite nuns and one in which laxity and a spirit of worldliness were quite conspicuous. The saint therefore assumed her new responsibilities with grave apprehensions. Almost immediately she called on John of the Cross to aid her in the difficult task of leading the nuns back to a stricter Carmelite way of life. John, though twenty-seven years younger than Teresa, became her spiritual director. Moreover, he and one of his companions were the confessors of the 130 nuns at the Incarnation.
Meanwhile, storm clouds had been gathering. They were threatening with destruction the still tender and fragile tree of the Carmelite Reform. During the night of the third to the fourth of December 1577, Carmelites of the Mitigated Observance entered the little hut at the southeastern corner of the Convent of the Incarnation which housed the two Father confessors; they seized John of the Cross and took him to Toledo as their prisoner. A General Chapter of the Carmelite Order, convoked at Piacenza in 1575, had virtually outlawed the Discalced as dangerous innovators and rebels who must be subdued by force, if necessary. Father Tostado, a learned and energetic Carmelite of the Mitigated Observance, had been given authority to deal with the recalcitrant members of the order and to put an end to the Teresian Reform. All the Discalced were to be compelled to rejoin the communities of the Mitigated Observance.
In the Carmelite monastery at Toledo, John of the Cross found himself face to face with Father Tostado, who tried every means of persuasion to make the saint renounce the Reform. Johns refusal was taken as a sign of malicious obstinacy and flagrant disobedience, and thereupon he was imprisoned in the monastery. His prison cell was about ten feet long and six feet wide and so low that "he could hardly stand erect, even though he was very short in stature", as Mother Teresa wrote later on. In this airless and windowless dungeon the prisoner was to spend almost nine months. There was only a tiny grated opening, big enough for a cat (una gatera), near the top of the wall.
At first every evening, later on three times a week, the prisoner was taken to the refectory to eat his only mealbread and waterseated on the floor. Then, on his knees, he received a scourging from every member of the community. All this he suffered "in patience and love", without ever uttering a word of complaint. After the saint had regained his freedom, he called his jailers "his great benefactors", adding that never before had he received "such a plenitude of supernatural light and consolation" as during the time of his imprisonment. But whenever he was asked to recant and to renounce the Reform, he showed himself "immovable as a rock".
St. Johns abduction and incarceration had taken place under the veil of deepest secrecy. For nine months Mother Teresa was entirely in the dark as to the saints whereabouts. She had learned of his arrest, and that was all she knew. Her urgent letters to King Philip II produced no results. St. John had disappeared. As a matter of fact, he was leading a "hidden existence" in more than one sense. He was hidden from his friends and hidden in the love of God which bore down on him heavily, demanding that total surrender of self which marks "the narrow road" that leads on to life. The disciple of the Lord was given what he had so ardently desired, "sufferings to be borne for Thy sake, and that I may be despised and counted as nothing". The "Doctor of Nothingness" (doctor de Ia nada) had come into his own: "Only when the soul in deepest humiliation has truly been reduced to nothing, can it become spiritually united to God.... This union... Consists solely in being crucified alive, in the senses and in the spirit, outwardly and inwardly" (The Ascent to Mount Carmel).
Speaking of Johns imprisonment, Teresa not only laments the inability of his friends to come to his assistance: she is amazed that hardly anyone seemed to remember the saint. Meanwhile, St. John was cut off from all human consolation andto increase his sufferingalso from the sacramental life of the Church. But while his tortured body was slowly wasting away, his spirit was drawn to the eternal source of light and love. In the darkness and abandonment of his prison his soul began to chant the immortal songs of the Spiritual Canticle:
In this blissful night
Secretly, no man seeing me,
I seeing nothing,
With no other light or guide
But that which burned in my heart.
And it led me
Surer than the light of the noonday.
In the dark nights of Toledo the ancient theme of the bridal song of the human soulthe Song of Songswas born anew in St. Johns heart. The sponsa Christi experiences her betrothal to the divine Bridegroom as the eternal paradigm of all human and finite bridal relationships. In his prison the saint composed the first thirty stanzas of the Canticle. Without this total denudation and cleansing of soul, without this passage through the night of sense and spirit his future works might never have been written.
The way to the heavenly light leads through the fearful "passive nights of the spirit". The way of the Cross is the way of Life. But beyond this, St. John learned at Toledo the lesson of "the darkest night": he knew already that no human power could ever separate him from his Creator and Redeemer. But who can measure or comprehend the suffering of the soul that feels itself abandoned by God himself? Who can fathom the forsakenness that overcame even the dying God-Man in the darkest hour of his agony?
Where then hast Thou hidden
O my Beloved,
Leaving me alone
In the tears of my grief?
And yet, for those whose love fearlessly follows their Master into this darkest night, suffering turns into bliss, death into life, night into light:
O night, thou hast been my guide
O night, more lovely than the rosy dawn!
O night, thou hast united
The Lover with his beloved;
Thou hast transformed
The beloved into the Lover.
The story of St. Johns almost miraculous escape is well authenticated and makes exciting reading. The flight was carefully planned and executed without any human help and in the face of overwhelming odds. The little "Brother of Our Lady" was guided by the exalted patroness of his order, who had appeared to him on August i 5th, the Feast of her Assumption. Out of strips torn from two old blankets and a tunic he fashioned a sort of rope and, after having somehow managed to unscrew the heavy locks of his prison and of the adjoining hail, he let himself down through a window high up in the gallery overlooking the river Tagus. From the heights of the ramparts of Toledo he jumped into the darkness and found himself unhurt in the patio outside the enclosure of the Franciscan Convent of the Conception.
With the death of Father Rubeo, the Superior General of the Calced Carmelites, in May 1578, the storms of persecution subsided. The next immediate goal of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross was to bring about the complete administrative separation of the two branches of the Carmelite order. But all efforts in this direction remained unsuccessful, for the time being. Sega, the papal nuncio, issued a decree which placed the houses of the Reform under the jurisdiction of the Mitigated Observance. St. Teresa, in this prelates opinion, was "a restless vagabond woman".
At the General Chapter meeting of the Discalced, held in October, 1578, John of the Cross was appointed prior of the Calvario, a monastery located in the vicinity of Beas de Segura, where Mother Teresa had established one of her convents. It was at the Calvario that St. John wrote the commentaries on his Spiritual Canticle and in all probability also his treatise on the Dark Night of the Soul as well as the first draft of The Ascent to Mount Carmel.
The saint was enchanted with the peaceful solitude of his new abode and the surrounding scenery. Never before had he thus seen divine beauty reflected in the splendor of nature. After matins he would look out from the window of his cell into the majestically austere landscape, rapt in his admiration of the divine artist. In the countryside of beautiful Andalusia St. John fully matured as a mystical writer and as a poet. The Spiritual Canticle received here its final form, and the added stanzas were radiant with new poetic lustre.
The spring of the year 1579, bursting forth with an abundance of blossoms and flowers, filled the saints heart with unspeakable gladness. Walking in this garden of delight as in a heavenly dance, he addresses himself to all the creaturely loveliness that his eye beholds, to groves and thickets, meadows and flowers. Have they not seen his Beloved, him who has adorned them with all their splendor? And the lowly creatures make response to the soul wounded by love: hurriedly, they say, he has passed through these meadows, diffusing his gifts in a thousand ways, and by his fleeting glance he has left us clothed with the vestments of his beauty.
During the priorate of St. John the Calvario monastery became a model school of the interior life. "Sometimes", relates Fr. Alonso of the Mother of God, "he would take the religious entrusted to his care . . . outside the monastery, so that they might spend the hours of prayer in those groves and thickets... . He would then withdraw to the most hidden part of the mountain. And when the hour to retire had arrived and they went to seek him, they found him in rapture, his face brightly shining...
In 1579, St. John assumed the rectorship of the Carmelite College at Baeza. This cultural center of Andalusia was a city with a university renowned for its contributions to scriptural studies. In the two years he spent there the saint worked out in great detail the rules and principles that were to guide the future establishments of the Reform in Andalusia. He had many friends among the learned men of the city; they regarded him as their superior in knowledge and wisdom and frequently asked for his counsel in controversial questions of theology and philosophy.
The prayers of the Discalced were finally answered when Pope Gregory XIII by his Breve of June 22, 1580, made it possible for them to elect their own provincial and thereby establish their independence. In the following year St. John was appointed prior of the monastery of Los Mártires at Granada. This house had been founded as early as 1573 and derived its name from the fact that it was located at the site where formerly the Moorish kings of Granada had held their Christian captives. It was in the picturesque setting of this Andalusian city with its impressive monuments of two cultures Christian and Moslemthat St. John completed most of his works, and it was here that his apostolate in the spiritual direction of souls bore its richest fruits. In1585 John of the Cross was named provincial vicar of Andalusia, and during the following years he founded new houses of the Reform at Córdoba, Seville, Madrid, Manchuela, and Caravaca. In 1588, Nicolás Doria was chosen as vicar general, and with his election new difficulties began to threaten the further consolidation of the Reform, difficulties which this time arose from the conflicting views of the leaders of the Discalced themselves. For John of the Cross this meant a revival of persecution and suffering. The favors he had asked for the declining years of his life, he now received: "Not to die a prelate; to die in a place where he was not even known; and to die after having suffered much."
As against those who wanted the Discalced to devote them selves to missionary activities in foreign lands, and those who stood for the opposite extremecomplete seclusion and the full rigor of the contemplative lifeSt. John, the faithful disciple of Mother Teresa (who had died in 1582), advocated a sane middle course. In 1588, the saint was named prior of the Carmelite community in Segovia. Here his contemplative life reached its greatest heights, notwithstanding the fact that already at Granada, according to his own testimony, be bad experienced the "bliss of mystical union" or "spiritual marriage".
St. Teresa tells of these highest stages of mystical prayer in her work The Mansions of the Soul, ascribing them to the sixth and seventh "mansions". St. John describes the same experience in The Living Flame of Love, written at Granada in the course of two weeks. At the pinnacle of the mystical life the human soul becomes, as it were, "God by participation". It does not see the Tri-Une God face to face, as it will in the "Visio beata" of the life beyond, but it meets him in a perfect union of will or of love. The Living Flame of Love is the Holy Spirit "Whom the soul now feels within herself as a fire which consumes her and transforms her into blissful love . . . a fire which erupts in flames of love." The soul stands here on the threshold of eternal life, "and everything is transformed and transfigured in love and praise". With her newly gained visual power the soul has become fully aware of the fragility of this earthly life. It appears to her "thinner than a spiders web; for now she sees things as God sees them; they are nothing, as she herself is nothing; God alone is everything".
The Chapter of 1591 stripped John of the Cross of all his offices and forbade him any kind of activity in the order. There was even talk of expelling him from the Carmelite community. But had he himself not foretold that he would be "thrown into a corner like a rag or a dish-cloth"? He neither expected nor desired anything else.
It was finally decided to send him into the solitude of Peñuela in the Sierra Morena. There he became seriously ill. When his condition made it necessary to move him to another place, he was given the choice between Baeza and Ubeda. At Baeza was the college which he had founded; he had been its first Rector. There he had friends who would understand him and care for him. Ubeda was a new foundation, headed by Fr. Francis Chrysostom, one of his fiercest opponents. It goes without saying that he chose Ubeda, thus giving living testimony to what he had taught in the first book of The Ascent to Mount Carmel:
Take care that you always choose not the easiest but the hardest; not the most agreeable but the most disagreeable; ... not what consoles but what deprives you of consolation; ... not attachment to things but detachment from them.
Desire nothing but to enter for Christ into absolute nakedness, emptiness, and poverty... If you want to possess all, you must desire nothing. If you want to become all, you must desire to be nothing. If you want to know all, you must desire to know nothing. For if you desire to possess anything, you cannot possess God as your only treasure.
It was in this spirit of total denudation that, on September 22, 1591, St. John, seated on the little mule which a friend had put at his disposal, began his last earthly journey. For days he had been unable to take any food or drink. His swollen leg was covered with festering sores and open wounds. In silence the little Brother of Our Lady and his patient beast of burden travelled over the seven miles of mountainous road.
At Ubeda the dying man is given the poorest and smallest cell. The physician, in an attempt to locate the seat of the infection, resorts to surgery, laying bare the nerves and bones. But the infection spreads; new abscesses appear on thighs and shoulders. The saint, meanwhile, is serenely rapt in prayer. He knows that he will die on Saturday. On Thursday he receives the viaticum. On Friday the prior, in tears of sorrow and contrition, kneels at the foot of the couch, reproaching himself for not having done more to ease the sufferings of his dying brother. "I am perfectly happy, Father Prior," St. John says in reply, "I have received much more than I deserve."
In the night from Friday, December 13, to Saturday, December 14, 1591, the saint listens to the twelve strokes from the belfry, announcing the midnight hour. "Brother Diego," he says, "give the sign to ring the bell for matins." Hearing the familiar sound, St. John pronounces his last words: "Into thy hands, 0 Lord, I commend my spirit." He dies in the arms of Brother Diego. "He shone", this Brother reports, "like the sun and the moon; the lights on the altar and the two lighted candles in the cell appeared as if immersed in a cloud; they gave no light."
John of the Cross was beatified on January 25, 1675, and canonised on December 26, 1726. His feast is celebrated by the Church on November 24.
you endowed St. John of the Cross
with a spirit of self-denial and love of the cross.
By following his example
may we come to the eternal vision of your glory.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
It just made me think of the fact that when Moses tabernacle moved with the tribes protecting it as God looked down he saw a cross
Thank you Jesus for taking my penalty for me..Amen
The bible was the book he cherished most of all; he loved to withdraw to hidden parts of the monastery with his bible. The Gospels, chiefly helped him to enter into intimacy with the three Persons of the Trinity. He so fully understood that in His Son the Father had spoken and revealed everything and that hidden in Christ were all the treasures of the wisdom and knowledge of God. There was no need for him, therefore, when he was in Lisbon to accompany a group of friars on a visit to the famed stigmatic who lived in that city; he had his Bible, and he remained reading and reflecting upon it along the shore of the sea while his companions went off to satisfy their curiosity.
This story is incredible to us moderns but completely understandable if youve read his theology.
"Faith darkens and empties the intellect of all its natural understanding and thereby prepares it for union with the divine wisdom.
"Hope empties and withdraws the memory from all creature possessions, for as St. Paul says, hope is for that which is not possessed. [Rom. 8:24] It withdraws the memory from what can be possessed and fixes it on that for which it hopes. Hence, only hope in God prepares the memory perfectly for union with Him.
"Charity also empties and annihilates the affections and appetites of the will of whatever is not God and centers them on Him alone. Thus charity prepares the will and unites it with God through love."
From "The Dark Night"-Book II Chapter 21: 11.
I completely agree. If you have not read The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis, then you are truly missing something wonderful, whether Protestant or Catholic.
I have recently been intoduced to this whole area of Christian mysticism, through such works as Revelation of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, and The Cloud of Unknowing and it has really opened my eyes to the majesty and mystery of God.
I will certainly pick up Dark Night of the Soul as soon as I can.
I feel like a catholic "pagan". Not once in my 12 years of catholic school education, was this saint's name ever mentioned. I had heard of him in recent years but read nothing until you posted this thread.
Thank you! JMJ333 for enlightening my mind with the story of John of the Cross, and my senses with Dali's Christ. What a beautiful exit to a life of self-sacrifice and devotion to our Savior.
As an aside: I ried to do some further research on St. John at the Catholic Encyclopedia website... but all I got was a "Page Cannot be Displayed" message. Are you having any trouble getting into the website?
I'm glad I looked. I like the graphic they have!
St. John of the Cross
Founder (with St. Teresa) of the Discalced Carmelites, doctor of mystic theology, b. at Hontoveros, Old Castile, 24 June, 1542; d. at Ubeda, Andalusia, 14 Dec., 1591. John de Yepes, youngest child of Gonzalo de Yepes and Catherine Alvarez, poor silk weavers of Toledo, knew from his earliest years the hardships of life. The father, originally of a good family but disinherited on account of his marriage below his rank, died in the prime of his youth; the widow, assisted by her eldest son, was scarcely able to provide the bare necessities. John was sent to the poor school at Medina del Campo, whither the family had gone to live, and proved an attentive and diligent pupil; but when apprenticed to an artisan, he seemed incapable of learning anything. Thereupon the governor of the hospital of Medina took him into his service, and for seven years John divided his time between waiting on the poorest of the poor, and frequenting a school established by the Jesuits. Already at that early age he treated his body with the utmost rigour; twice he was saved from certain death by the intervention of the Blessed Virgin. Anxious about his future life, he was told in prayer that he was to serve God in an order the ancient perfection of which he was to help bring back again. The Carmelites having founded a house at Medina, he there received the habit on 24 February, 1563, and took the name of John of St. Matthias. After profession he obtained leave from his superiors to follow to the letter the original Carmelite rule without the mitigations granted by various popes. He was sent to Salamanca for the higher studies, and was ordained priest in 1567; at his first Mass he received the assurance that he should preserve his baptismal innocence. But, shrinking from the responsibilities of the priesthood, he determined to join the Carthusians.
However, before taking any further step he made the acquaintance of St. Teresa, who had come to Medina to found a convent of nuns, and who persuaded him to remain in the Carmelite Order and to assist her in the establishment of a monastery of friars carrying out the primitive rule. He accompanied her to Valladolid in order to gain practi cal experience of the manner of life led by the reformed nuns. A small house having been offered, St. John resolved to try at once the new form of life, although St. Teresa did not think anyone, however great his spirituality, could bear the discomforts of that hovel. He was joined by two companions, an ex-prior and a lay brother, with whom he inaugurated the reform among friars, 28 Nov., 1568. St. Teresa has left a classical dscription of the sort of life led by these first Discalced Carmelites, in chaps.xiii and xiv of her "Book of Foundations". John of the Cross, as he now called himself, became the first master of novices, and laid the foundation of the spiritual edifice which soon was to assume majestic proportions. He filled various posts in different places until St. Teresa called him to Avila as director and confessor to the convent of the Incarnation, of which she had been appointed prioress. He remained there, with a few interruptions, for over five years. Meanwhile, the reform spread rapidly, and, partly through the confusion caused by contradictory orders issued by the general and the general chapter on one hand, and the Apostolic nuncio on the other, and partly through human passion which sometimes ran high, its existence became seriously endangered.
St. John was ordered by his provincial to return to the house of his profession (Medina), and, on his refusing to do so, owing to the fact that he held his office not from the order but from the Apostolic delegate, he was taken prisoner in the night of 3 December, 1577, and carried off to Toledo, where he suffered for more than nine months close imprisonment in a narrow, stifling cell, together with such additional punishment as might have been called for in the case of one guilty of the most serious crimes. In the midst of his sufferings he was visited with heavenly consolations, and some of his exquisite poetry dates from that period. He made good his escape in a miraculous manner, August, 1578. During the next years he was chiefly occupied with the foundation and government of monasteries at Baeza, Granada, Cordova, Segovia, and elsewhere, but took no prominent part in the negotiations which led to the establishment of a separate government for the Discalced Carmelites. After the death of St. Teresa (4 Oct.,1582), when the two parties of the Moderates under Jerome Gratian, and the Zelanti under Nicholas Doria struggled for the upper hand, St. John supported the former and shared his fate. For some time he filled the post of vicar provincial of Andalusia, but when Doria changed the government of the order, concentrating all power in the hands of a permanent committee, St. John resisted and, supporting the nuns in their endeavour to secure the papal approbation of their constitutions, drew upon himself the displeasure of the superior, who deprived him of his offices and relegated him to one of the poorest monasteries, where he fell seriously ill. One of his opponents went so far as to go form to monastery gathering materials in order to bring grave charges against him, hoping for his expulsion from the order which he had helped to found.
As his illness increased he was removed to the monastery of Ubeda, where he at first was treated very unkindly, his constant prayer, "to suffer and to be despised", being thus literally fulfilled almost to the end of his life. But at last even his adversaries came to acknowledge his sanctity, and his funeral was the occasion of a great outburst of enthusiasm. The body, still incorrupt, as has been ascertained within the last few years, was removed to Segovia, only a small portion remaining at Ubeda; there was some litigation about its possession. A strange phenomenon, for which no satisfactory explanation has been given, has frequently been observed in connexion with the relics of St. John of the Cross: Francis de Yepes, the brother of the saint, and after him many other persons have noticed the appearance in his relics of images of Christ on the Cross, the Blessed Virgin, St. Elias, St. Francis Xavier, or other saints, according to the devotion of the beholder. The beatification took place onb 25 Jan., 1675, the translation of his body on 21 May of the same year, and the canonization on 27 Dec., 1726.
He left the following works, which for the first time appeared at Barcelona in 1619.
"The Ascent of Mount Carmel", an explanation of some verses beginning: "In a dark night with anxious love inflamed". This work was to have comprised four books, but breaks off in the middle of the third. "The Dark Night of the Soul", another explanation of the same verses, breaking off in the second book. Both these works were written soon after his escape from prison, and, though incomplete, supplement each other, forming a full treatise on mystic theology.
An explanation of the "Spiritual Canticle", (a paraphrase of the Canticle of Canticles) beginning "Where hast Thou hidden Thyself?" composed part during his imprisonment, and completed and commented upon some years later at the request of Venerable Anne of Jesus. An explanation of a poem beginning: "O Living Flame of Love", written about 1584 at the bidding of Dona Ana de Penalosa.
Some instructions and precautions on matters spiritual. Some twenty letters, chiefly to his penitents. Unfortunately the bulk of his correspondence, including numerous letters to and from St. Teresa, was destroyed, partly by himself, partly during the persecutions to which he fell a victim.
"Poems", of which twenty-six have been hitherto published, viz., twenty in the older editions, and recently six more, discovered partly at the National Library at Madrid, and partly at the convent of Carmelite nuns at Pamplona. "A Collection of Spiritual Maxims" (in some editions to the number of one hundred, and in others three hundred and sixty-five) can scarcely count as an independent work, as they are culled from his writings.
It has been recorded that during his studies St. John particularly relished psychology; this is amply borne out by his writings. He was not what one would term a scholar, but he was intimately acquainted with the "Summa" of St. Thomas Aquinas, as almost every page of his works proves. Holy Scripture he seems to have known by heart, yet he evidently obtained his knowledge more by meditation than in the lecture room. But there is no vestige of influence on him of the mystical teaching of the Fathers, the Aeropagite, Augustine, Gregory, Bernard, Bonaventure,etc., Hugh of St. Victor, or the German Dominican school. The few quotations from patristic works are easily traced to the Breviary or the "Summa". In the absence of any conscious or unconscious influence of earlier mystical schools, his own system, like that of St. Teresa, whose influence is obvious throughout, might be termed empirical mysticism. They both start from their own experience, St. Teresa avowedly so, while St. John, who hardly ever speaks of himself, "invents nothing" (to quote Cardinal Wiseman), "borrows nothing from others, but gives us clearly the results of his own experience in himself and others. He presents you with a portrait, not with a fancy picture. He represents the ideal of one who has passed, as he had done, through the career of the spiritual life, through its struggles and its victories".
His axiom is that the soul must empty itself of self in order to be filled with God, that it must be purified of the last traces of earthly dross before it is fit to become united with God. In the application of this simple maxim he shows the most uncompromising logic. Supposing the soul with which he deals to be habitually in the state of grace and pushing forward to better things, he overtakes it on the very road leading it, in its opinion to God, and lays open before its eyes a number of sores of which it was altogether ignorant, viz. what he terms the spiritual capital sins. Not until these are removed (a most formidable task) is it fit to be admitted to what he calls the "Dark Night", which consists in the passive purgation, where God by heavy trials, particularly interior ones, perfects and completes what the soul had begun of its own accord. It is now passive, but not inert, for by submitting to the Divine operation it co-operates in the measure of its power. Here lies one of the essential differences between St. John's mysticism and a false quietism. The perfect purgation of the soul in the present life leaves it free to act with wonderful energy: in fact it might almost be said to obtain a share in God's omnipotence, as is shown in the marvelous deeds of so many saints. As the soul emerges from the Dark Night it enters into the full noonlight described in the "Spiritual Canticle" and the "Living Flame of Love". St. John leads it to the highest heights, in fact to the point where it becomes a"partaker of the Divine Nature". It is here that the necessity of the previous cleansing is clearly perceived the pain of the mortification of all the senses and the powers and faculties of the soul being amply repaid by the glory which is now being revealed in it.
St. John has often been represented as a grim character; nothing could be more untrue. He was indeed austere in the extreme with himself, and, to some extent, also with others, but both from his writings and from the depositions of those who knew him, we see in him a man overflowing with charity and kindness, a poetical mind deeply influenced by all that is beautiful and attractive.
The best life of St. John of the Cross was written by JEROME DE SAN JOSÉ (Madrid, 1641), but, not being approved by the superiors, it was not incorporated in the chronicles of the order, and the author lost his position of annalist on account of it.
Blessings upon you.
Hope everone is having a blessed Advent.
That picture takes my breath away every time I see it!
BTTT on 12-14-04, Memorial of St. John of the Cross!
December 14, 2004
St. John of the Cross
John is a saint because his life was a heroic effort to live up to his name: of the Cross. The folly of the cross came to full realization in time. Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me (Mark 8:34b) is the story of Johns life. The Paschal Mysterythrough death to lifestrongly marks John as reformer, mystic-poet and theologian-priest.
Ordained a Carmelite priest at 25 (1567), John met Teresa of Jesus (Avila) and like her vowed himself to the primitive Rule of the Carmelites. As partner with Teresa and in his own right, John engaged in the work of reform, and came to experience the price of reform: increasing opposition, misunderstanding, persecution, imprisonment. He came to know the cross acutelyto experience the dying of Jesusas he sat month after month in his dark, damp, narrow cell with only his God!
Yet, the paradox! In this dying of imprisonment John came to life, uttering poetry. In the darkness of the dungeon, Johns spirit came into the Light. There are many mystics, many poets; John is unique as mystic-poet, expressing in his prison-cross the ecstasy of mystical union with God in the Spiritual Canticle.
But as agony leads to ecstasy, so John had his Ascent to Mt. Carmel, as he named it in his prose masterpiece. As man-Christian-Carmelite, he experienced in himself this purifying ascent; as spiritual director, he sensed it in others; as psychologist-theologian, he described and analyzed it in his prose writings. His prose works are outstanding in underscoring the cost of discipleship, the path of union with God: rigorous discipline, abandonment, purification. Uniquely and strongly John underlines the gospel paradox: The cross leads to resurrection, agony to ecstasy, darkness to light, abandonment to possession, denial to self to union with God. If you want to save your life, you must lose it. John is truly of the Cross. He died at 49a life short, but full.
BTTT on the Memorial of St. John of the Cross, prieist and doctor of the Church, 12-14-05!
1. One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings
- ah, the sheer grace! -
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.
2. In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
- ah, the sheer grace! -
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.
3. On that glad night
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.
4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
- him I knew so well -
there in a place where no one appeared.
5. O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.
6. Upon my flowering breast,
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.
7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.
8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.
St. John of the Cross is one my my heros. Brave and intense in his devotion, and a wonderous poet, to boot.
O cautery so tender!
O pampered wound!
O soft hand! O touch so delicately strange,
Tasting of eternal life
And canceling all debts!
Killing, death into life you change!
O lamps of fiery lure,
In whose shining transparence
The deep cavern of the senses,
Blind and obscure,
Warmth and light, with strange flares,
Gives with the lover's caresses!
How tame and loving
Your memory rises in my breast,
Where secretly only you live,
And in your fragrant breathing,
Full of goodness and grace,
How delicately in love you make me feel!
Thanks for your poetry!
This must be a hymn, correct?