Considering St. John of the Cross

Memorial of Saint John of the Cross, Wednesday in the Third Week of Advent, Year A: Isaiah 45:6C-8, 18, 21C-25, Luke 7:18B-23.

I want to consider Saint John of the Cross in just a short reflection. I have always admired his writings. I am drawn to the mystical side of our faith, so forgotten and misunderstood in modern times. It’s not that there haven’t been pretenders forever – there certainly have, and the epistles in the New Testament are full of warnings about people who claim to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ when in fact they were leading Christian communities astray. Our most recent examples are televangelists and cult leaders who have made millions on the backs of the less wealthy and even led them to their deaths (Jonestown, for example). We have the added problem of a culture that overwhelmingly believes mystical knowledge is delusion or fantasy, thanks to the hard and fast technological knowledge that drives us. In my lifetime, hippies and New Age spiritualists seemed to be the inheritors of a precious and deep mystical tradition, now stripped of significance and—crucially—God.

Where, then, does someone like St. John of the Cross fit in today?  

I guess that true Christian mystics were never all that numerous, although their way of experiencing the divine was seen as valid and miraculous, even when met with suspicion. In all circumstances that I know, these true mystics (most of them recognized as saints) pursued God with pure intent, extraordinary persistence, and a Christian acceptance of suffering as part and parcel of the mystical journey.

St. John of the Cross, unknown artist (attributed to Zurbarán, 1656) | Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia.

St. John of the Cross is a good example of all of these characteristics. A short sketch of his life: he was born Juan de Yepes y Álvarez in 1542, in a small village of central Spain about 90 miles northwest of Madrid. His family was distressingly poor, with his father dying when he was three and his older brother dying two years later, likely of malnourishment. Here is where we see a society enmeshed in Catholic structures and traditions making a difference. He went to a boarding school for mostly orphans and some poor children where he was instructed in basic Christian doctrine. While studying there, he was chosen to serve as an altar boy at a nearby monastery of Augustinian nuns. Growing up, John worked at a hospital and studied the humanities at a Jesuit school from 1559 to 1563. Keeping up this Catholic education experience, he went to Salamanca University and studied theology and philosophy and became a priest in 1567.

That same year, he met the influential Carmelite nun, religious reformer, and fellow mystic, Teresa of Ávila, 27 years older than him. This was to be a huge turning point in his life. She convinced him to join the Carmelites (he was considering joining the Carthusian order), in particular the much stricter observance that she was implementing in the order in her zeal for monastic reform. This group became known as the Discalced (“shoeless”) Carmelites because they observed the original tradition of either going barefoot or only wearing sandals. This was but a small bit of their reforms, which included much more solitude, silence, study, and praying of the Divine Office, as well as total abstinence from meat and many months of solid fasting. These reforms would be vigorously opposed by much of the Carmelite order, friars and nuns, up to the point of violence.

Ten years into his commitment to the Discalced Carmelites, tensions had boiled over. On the night of 2 December 1577, a group of Carmelites opposed to reform broke into John’s dwelling in Ávila and took him prisoner. He was jailed in a monastery where he was kept under a brutal regime that included public lashings before the community at least weekly, and severe isolation in a tiny stifling cell measuring barely 10 feet by 6 feet. Except when rarely permitted an oil lamp, he had to stand on a bench to read his breviary by the light through the hole into the adjoining room. He had no change of clothing and a penitential diet of water, bread and scraps of salt fish. Eight months later, he managed to escape thanks to a tiny window to a room adjoining his cell.

View of Toledo, El Greco (1596-1600) | Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia. El Greco’s landscape of Toledo depicts the priory in which John was held captive, just below the old alcázar (fort) and perched on the banks of the Tajo on high cliffs.

A few years later, in 1580, Pope Gregory XIII granted a petition by the Discalced Carmelites to be considered their own, separate order, and the violent tensions soon ended. St. John of the Cross’s imprisonment, while horrific, kick-started his writing and mystical experiences. But he was not granted the solitude we associate with great mystics. He served as a rector of a new college, was sent by Teresa to found a convent, founded a different monastery, and then in 1580, was elected Vicar Provincial of Andalusia, a post which required him to travel frequently, making annual visitations to the houses of friars and nuns in Andalusia. During this time he founded seven new monasteries in the region, and is estimated to have travelled around 25,000 km!

As we consider John’s life, it is extraordinary in its physical deprivations as well as his public works. Here is a saint who experienced nearly all of the aspects we associate with a Christian life (although rarely in one person apart from the apostles): poverty, humility, openness to God’s will, study, wisdom, persecution, good works, mystical union with God, spiritual writings, and more.

I think what is perhaps most underrated today is the centrality of suffering to the Christian mystical experience. Sharing in Christ’s suffering, in his Cross, seems to be an ingredient in reaching union with God. It’s leagues away from taking those 5 minutes of mindfulness a day to increase your focus at work!

I’d just like to close with a few paragraphs from St. John of the Cross himself, as we read in today’s Office of the Readings (from a spiritual Canticle by Saint John of the Cross): 

We must then dig deeply in Christ. He is like a rich mine with many pockets containing treasures: however deep we dig we will never find their end or their limit. Indeed, in every pocket new seams of fresh riches are discovered on all sides.

For this reason the apostle Paul said of Christ: In him are hidden all the treasures of the wisdom and knowledge of God. The soul cannot enter into these treasures, nor attain them, unless it first crosses into and enters the thicket of suffering, enduring interior and exterior labors, and unless it first receives from God very many blessings in the intellect and in the senses, and has undergone long spiritual training.

All these are lesser things, disposing the soul for the lofty sanctuary of the knowledge of the mysteries of Christ: this is the highest wisdom attainable in this life.

Would that men might come at last to see that it is quite impossible to reach the thicket of the riches and wisdom of God except by first entering the thicket of much suffering, in such a way that the soul finds there its consolation and desire. The soul that longs for divine wisdom chooses first, and in truth, to enter the thicket of the cross.

St. John of the Cross, Francisco Antonio Gijón (1675), Carmelite convent of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, Seville, from 1675 until 1810 or 1835 | Public Domain, courtesy National Gallery of Art.


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