09 December 2022

Saint of the Week – St John of the Cross

It wasn’t so long ago (15th October) that we featured St Teresa of Avila as our saint of the week, with whom St John of the Cross forged a deep spiritual friendship. Their two lives are closely intertwined, united by their Carmelite spirituality and a desire to plumb the depths of self-renunciation and soar to the heights of mystical contemplation. They are considered the two great reformers of the Carmelites and part of the sixteenth century counter-reformation renewal of the Church.

Name: Juan de Yepes y Álvarez (Juan de la Cruz)

Born: 24 June 1542 ; Fontiveros, Ávila, Castille (Spain)

Died: 14 December 1591; Úbeda, Castille (Spain)

Feast Day: 14th December

Patron Saint of: Contemplatives, mystics, and poets.

John’s own life was marked by tragedy from childhood. His father died when John was about three and this reduced the family to extreme poverty. John’s brother died of malnutrition in childhood, and John was sent to a boarding school for orphans and poor children. In spite of these difficult circumstances he demonstrated a refinement of manners and intellect and in 1563 entered the Carmelite Order. John was ordained a priest in 1567 and some time shortly after he met St Teresa, from which point his life took a new course. Teresa was some twenty-seven years John’s senior, and well advanced along the path of reforming the Carmelite nuns; even so, Teresa recognised the spark of genuine sanctity in the young priest and took him as the spiritual director for herself and her convent of 130 nuns.

John recognised the need for a similar work of reform among the Carmelite Friars and was greatly encouraged by St Teresa to take up the task. Perhaps not surprisingly, this was not well-received by the majority of the friars who were quite comfortable, and wanted to remain so! As often happens in the Church, the work of reform became entangled in politics and the opposition to John turned violent. He was effectively taken prisoner by a faction of friars and taken by force to a monastery in Toledo. Imprisoned in a tiny, stifling cell with no windows, and kept alive on starvation rations, John was only taken out weekly to be publicly beaten before the other friars. In spite of this monstrous injustice which he endured from his own religious confreres, during this period John secretly composed some of his most profound and moving poetry and religious canticles. His imprisonment experience formed the basis of his theology on the ‘dark night of the soul’, in which he sought to examine how God is able to use suffering to purify the soul from worldly attachments which can prepare the soul to enter the unitive stage, opening up to mystical contemplation.

On 15th August (the feast of the Assumption) in 1578, John managed to escape during the night and immediately sought refuge with Teresa’s nuns in Toledo. Much of the next two years was spend recovering his shattered health. In 1580 the Pope sought to resolve the conflict within the Carmelites by separating the Order between the older unreformed Carmelites and the newer, reformed (or ‘discalced’) Carmelites – so-called because they would not wear closed shoes as a penance. The remainder of John’s years were spent continuing the work of reform and in writing. His most systematic treatment of mystical theology is “The Ascent of Mount Carmel”, which (like the works of St Teresa of Avila), is largely drawn from his personal experience.

Although John was small in stature and died quite young (aged 49), he is regarded as a giant in the area of mystical theology. In 1926 Pope Pius XI declared St John of the Cross a Doctor of the Church. John ‘of the Cross’ truly lived up to his name. Suffering in all its forms was a seemingly constant feature of his life: physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual. In spite of this John learned to embrace the cross. Instead of allowing suffering to ruin him by making him cynical, embittered or depressed, he saw in his sufferings the invitation to unite himself to Christ crucified. The furnace of suffering became a means to purify his love for God and neighbour, according to the wisdom of St Paul: “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5).

Today there is a crisis of spiritual immaturity, whereby many people reduce the value of religious experience to mere ‘feelings’. These spiritual juveniles judge the value of everything on the basis of how it makes them feel. When they feel that going to Mass, or reading the Bible, or praying the rosary, is ‘boring’ they wrongly conclude that it is therefore of no value. In fact, feelings are a terribly unreliable indicator of true spiritual progress or value, which is why the masters of the spiritual life invariably stress the importance of depriving our sensible appetites through fasting, abstinence and the discipline of mental prayer – all of which are difficult and ungratifying in the moment, but which clear the ground for God’s grace. Through the example and intercession of St John of the Cross may we learn to tenderly embrace the crosses the Lord sends us, and seek more perfectly that union with God for which we were created.

St John of the Cross, pray for us!