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Posted by on Dec 14, 2007

Saint of the Day – St. John of the Cross

Saint of the Day – St. John of the Cross


December 14 is the feast day of St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), a mystic, reformer, and one of the greatest poets of Spanish literature’s Golden Age. He was born Juan de Yepes y Alvarez into a “converso” or converted Jewish family. His father died when he was young and he and his two older brothers, along with their mother, moved from village to village in Castilla, suffering from poverty and rejection by both Jews and Christians. At Medina del Campo, from 1559 to 1563, he studied humanities at the Jesuit school. In 1563, he entered the Carmelite Order and in 1564, he studied philosophy at the Colegio San Andres at the University of Salamanca. In 1567, he was ordained a priest and wanted to join the Carthusians, since he felt called to a life of silent contemplation. St. Theresa of Avila convinced him to help her reform the Carmelites instead.

In 1568, he co-founded the Discalced Carmelites ,with St. Teresa of Avila. (The were called discalced because they returned to the custom of walking bare foot.) St. Teresa had a vision for restoring the Carmelite order to its original austerity and seclusion from the world. St. John founded the first Discalced Carmelite monastery at Duruelo in 1569. There was great opposition to the reform within the Carmelite Order. He was imprisoned in Toledo by his superiors for 9 months, from December 1577 to August 1578, when he managed to escape after brutal treatment and privation. His tormentors tried to sway him from his leadership of the reform movement, which had been legitimately authorized. Nevertheless, St. John of the Cross went on with the reform and produced wonderful poetry and treatises on the spiritual life.

It may seem incomprehensible to us today that there could be opposition to such a reform that would return an order to its original vision. However, many of the men and women in convents and monasteries at the time were placed there by their families, especially if they were younger sons and daughters. A position in the Church strengthened the family’s position and avoided the costs and alliances that came with marriages. Making the best of a bad situation, many of these men and women with “enforced” vocations tried to live as comfortable a life as possible. They weren’t called to live lives of austere, silent contemplation and fought the reform.

Just as he had suffered from those opposed to the reform, St. John’s latter years would be marked by suffering from those who embraced the reform but went too far in their austerity. When he opposed and corrected their excesses, they did their best to neutralize his influence. St. John of the Cross died in 1591 after he had been denied adequate medical attention and endured isolation. It seems that much of his maltreatment by both sides was not due entirely to his authorized reform activities. He was a “converso” and considered a renegade and certainly beneath the standing of so-called “pure bloods,” who resented and were shamed by his holiness and learning.

el-greco-toledo.jpg El Greco’s “View of Toledo”

St. John of the Cross was a man of great courage, without bitterness, because his suffering never conquered him. Thomas Merton reflects on the imprisonment of St. John of the Cross in Toledo as an example of the holiness of a saint coming from grappling with the problem of evil. Why do good people suffer? Why do I suffer? His response during his inhuman imprisonment was to write a major part of one of his greatest poems on union with Christ, The Spiritual Canticle. Out of great darkness and suffering came great light and peace.

Stanzas Of The Soul

One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
—ah, the sheer grace!—
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
—ah, the sheer grace!—
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

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.

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.

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.

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.

When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

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.

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