St. John of the Cross (December 14)
In 1542, eleven years after Mary appeared to Juan Diego in Mexico
to avert an uprising of the native Mexicans against their Spanish conquerors,
another child was born into abject poverty in Spain,
a boy destined to exemplify Catholic mysticism despite
(or perhaps because of?) the turmoil that pervaded his life.
Juan de Yepes, known to us as St. John of the Cross,
might’ve begun life in ease had his father, Gonzalo,
not been disowned for marrying Catherine Alvarez,
a poor silk-weaver who was “beneath his station”.
At any rate, Gonzalo, unaccustomed to the hardships of poverty,
died soon after the birth of Juan, his third (youngest) son,
and his widow had to scrape by as best she could.
Juan, attending a school for the poor, did well in academics,
but seemed incapable of learning anything in his apprenticeship to a weaver.
He finally found a job in a hospital, where he waited on the sick devoutly,
continuing his studies on the side.
In 1563 he entered the Carmelite order, taking the name John of St. Matthias.
The Carmelite order, or to be more complete,
the Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel,
traces its spiritual heritage back to the prophet Elijah
who left hermits on Mt. Carmel,
but history is ambiguous regarding the order until the late 1100’s
when we find reports of a small group of Christian hermits living on Mt. Carmel.
The Patriarch of Jerusalem wrote a brief, strict rule of life for them,
the first sign of official organization into an order.
Because of Saracen (Muslim) persecution,
hermits from Mt. Carmel began emigrating to other countries in the mid-1200’s.
Those who stayed behind were martyred
when the Saracens took the mountain in 1291.
The surviving hermits, now in Europe,
revised their rule to adapt to the European lifestyle
and to develop a more communal way of life.
By 1563, when John entered the order, its rule had been relaxed.
John requested and was granted permission
to observe the original (European) rule in all its strictness,
but he still longed for a more rigorous, contemplative life.
He wanted to identify more intimately, more personally,
with Jesus’ poverty and suffering.
He was sent for further schooling,
at the end of which he was ordained to the priesthood.
Upon ordination he was seriously considering leaving the Carmelites
to join the Carthusians, a more exacting order,
when he made the acquaintance of St. Teresa of Avila.
Teresa, also a Spanish Carmelite who wanted to live a more disciplined life,
was in the midst of founding reformed monasteries of Carmelite nuns
and had been given permission to found houses of reformed Carmelite friars as well.
When she explained her plans to John
and invited him to be one of the first friars of the Carmelite reform,
he accepted eagerly, taking the name John of the Cross.
At first things went well.
John was not the only one seeking a more whole-hearted religious life,
and the new reform, the Discalced (shoe-less) Carmelites, grew rapidly.
Unfortunately, that growth roused envy among his former brothers
(now known as Carmelites of the Ancient Observance)
who saw their best and most promising members going over to the new order.
They tried to suppress the reform, ordering the new monasteries closed
and even kidnapping John,
who was then serving as a spiritual director to Teresa’s nuns.
John was imprisoned in a tiny cell, fed a meager diet of bread, water and sardines,
denounced as a rebel and beaten daily.
He made no protest.
Like St. John the Baptist, he had been called to a difficult life
and this certainly qualified!
Far from being embittered or broken by this time of suffering,
his soul was raised to mystical heights of love of God and of men.
It was during this period of imprisonment
that he wrote some of his most mystical poetry
describing the path of a soul to union with God.
After nine months, the Blessed Mother appeared to him and ordered him to escape,
showing him how herself and preventing his recapture.
Seeking refuge in a house of Discalced Carmelite nuns,
he spoke to them of God and of his captors, whom he considered his benefactors.
His one concern was for his captors’ souls:
“They are free now, from the faults which my wretchedness made them commit.”
Yet another trial awaited John,
this one within the reform he had helped to establish.
His support of a moderate group within the reform
drew upon him the displeasure of his superior, who demoted him
and sent him to one of the poorest houses of the order,
where John developed a painful illness.
Another member of the reform went through the whole region,
trying to trump up charges serious enough
to get John expelled from the order altogether (he failed).
As John’s illness progressed, he was sent to yet another monastery
where he might receive better medical care.
However, given the choice between a monastery where he had a friend
and one where he had an enemy, he chose the enemy and was harshly treated.
In addition, God withdrew from him the spiritual delights he had known in prayer
so that his soul felt dry and desolate.
In the midst of everything, John remained joyful, cheerful and patient.
Finally even John’s enemy came to see the holiness of the man in his care
and begged his pardon.
Here, in St. John of the Cross’ own words,
is what he believed about the death of a saint:
“Perfect love of God makes death well come, and most sweet to a soul.
They who love thus, die with burning ardors and impetuous flights,
through the vehemence of their desires of mounting up to their beloved.
The rivers of love in the heart now swell almost beyond all bounds,
being just going to enter the ocean of love.
So vast and so serene are they that they seem even now calm seas,
and the soul overflows with torrents of joy,
upon the point of entering into the full possession of God.
She seems already to behold that glory,
and all things in Him seem already turned into love,
seeing there remains no other separation than a thin web,
the prison of the body being almost broken.”
(“Flamma Vivi Amoris”)
On December 14, 1591, the prison of his body broke,
and he soared on the wings of love to join his Beloved in the ocean of Love.
In 1947 another man who had been formed in the crucible of suffering
(first Nazi occupation, then Communist oppression),
Karol Wojtyla, began a doctoral dissertation,
“The Doctrine of Faith According to St. John of the Cross”,
in which he emphasized “the personal nature of the human encounter with God,
in which believers transcend the boundaries of their creaturely existence
in such a way that they become more truly and completely themselves”
(-George Weigel, _Witness to Hope_).
Karol Wojtyla then became Pope John Paul II (now Blessed Pope John Paul II!),
who spent the rest of his life calling the whole world
to become more completely ourselves
through a transcendent personal encounter with God.
St. John of the Cross, please pray for us,
that we might fall in love with the One
to whom you dedicated your life with such joyful fervor.