Saint John of the Cross: The Patient Reformer

I wrote recently about the mystical theology of Saint John of the Cross – something for which he is justly renowned, and on the basis of which the Church has named him Doctor Mysticus (the ‘Mystical Doctor’). But today* I would like to focus more on his biography, especially the reforms he implemented together with Saint Teresa of Avila, and the patient suffering he endured during that process. Saint John, who was beatified by Pope Clement X in 1675, canonised by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726 and made a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI in 1926, was born Juan de Yepes y Alvarez near Avila in 1542, in the small village of Fontiveros.

His father, Gonzalo, was of noble birth, but had been disinherited and thrown out of his home because he had chosen to marry someone of lower class – a silk weaver named Catalina – and Gonzalo died when John was nine. At this point the family moved to Medina del Campo, near Valladolid, and John attended the nearby Colegio de los Doctrinos, whilst working for the sisters of a local church-convent. He later put these skills to good use as a nurse, before entering the Jesuit College in Medina del Campo at the age of 18 to study humanities, rhetoric and classical languages. In 1563, he entered the novitiate of the local Carmelites, and a year later began further study at the prestigious University of Salamanca, reading humanities and philosophy there for three years.

In 1567, Saint John was ordained to the priesthood, and returned home to Medina del Campo to celebrate his first Mass with his proud family looking on. It was here that he first met Saint Teresa of Avila, who proved to be a kindred spirit and powerful influence on Saint John’s life. She shared with him her plans for reforming the Carmelite order, and encouraged him to help her with reforms for the male branch. On December 28th 1568, the very first house of the Discalced Carmelites was opened at Duruelo in the Province of Avila, with the male community there consisting of Saint John and three other members. It was here that he took the name John of the Cross. At the end of 1572, at Saint Teresa’s request, he became confessor and vicar of the Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila, where Teresa was prioress.

This is when the difficulties began – promotion of the reformed Carmelites was not met with enthusiasm by many superiors, and the task of the Canonical Visitors who had to oversee the reforms was not easy. In Castile, balance was achieved, but in Andalusia the Visitor gave clear preference to the Discalced Carmelites, infuriating the Carmelite Prior General there. This imbalance and subsequent bad feeling flowed over into other provinces, and when in 1577 another Andalusian Visitor supportive of the reformers died, some of the Carmelites opposed to the new reforms kidnapped John and imprisoned him. He had already been warned by some of his superiors, who told him to leave Avila, but John invoked the higher authority of a papal nuncio who supported the Discalced Carmelites.

Nevertheless, Saint John was held for nine months at Toledo in a tiny cell measuring ten feet by six, with no light except that which came through a hole into the adjoining room, was given a diet of water, bread and scraps of salted fish, and on top of this was publicly lashed weekly before the community. Amazingly, despite this treatment and conditions, John managed to compose his famous Spiritual Canticle (as well as some other, shorter, poems) on paper passed to him under the door of his cell by the friar on guard. It seems that the deprivation he experienced during this period was at least in part responsible for the intensely ascetic spiritual vision that he developed, and anyone who sees his teaching as being unduly demanding must remember that it came from the pen of a man who was well acquainted with great suffering.

After escaping on August 15th 1578, Saint John was nursed back to health by some of Saint Teresa’s nuns at Toledo before returning to reform. He was appointed as superior of a monastery near Beas in Andalusia, where he remained for ten years, and continued to write poetry as well as the spiritual commentaries for which he is so well known. However, his suffering was not at an end, as later when disagreement emerged amongst the ranks of the reformed Carmelites (who had been officially granted separation from the original Carmelite order in 1580 by Pope Gregory XIII) John, who took the more moderate position, was removed from his post, again treated badly, and sent to a remote priory at La Penuela. He fell ill there, and died some months later at the Ubeda monastery in 1591.

The consistency of opposition to the Discalced reforms, and the intensity of the ill-treatment which Saint John of the Cross received is a remarkable testimony to the patience of the man and of his fidelity to the Church. The example of Saint John stands in sharp contrast with someone like Martin Luther who, seeing the need for reform in his country at the same time, instead gave a response characterised by hubris and rebellion – what was more important to Luther was that he was in the right, and thus he was willing to cause schism to make his point; what was important to Saint John of the Cross was obedience to the Truth, and thus he was willing to bear all manner of things to see it brought to light in accordance with truths already known.

Furthermore, as noted briefly earlier, the experience of Saint John’s patient suffering had no little impact on his mystical vision – by becoming united to the Cross of Christ in life, he was better able to see that at heart, all Christian spirituality is cruciform, and so requires a stripping away of dependence on things, images, and consolations (both worldly and spiritual). Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI summarised this approach well in a General Audience on Saint John in February 2011:

According to John of the Cross, all that exists, created by God, is good. Through creatures we may arrive at the discovery of the One who has left within them a trace of himself. Faith, in any case, is the one source given to the human being to know God as he is in himself, as the Triune God. All that God wished to communicate to man, he said in Jesus Christ, his Word made flesh. Jesus Christ is the only and definitive way to the Father (cf. Jn 14:6). Any created thing is nothing in comparison to God and is worth nothing outside him, consequently, to attain to the perfect love of God, every other love must be conformed in Christ to the divine love.

From this derives the insistence of St John of the Cross on the need for purification and inner self-emptying in order to be transformed into God, which is the one goal of perfection. This “purification” does not consist in the mere physical absence of things or of their use; on the contrary what makes the soul pure and free is the elimination of every disorderly dependence on things. All things should be placed in God as the centre and goal of life.

Of course, the long and difficult process of purification demands a personal effort, but the real protagonist is God: all that the human being can do is to “prepare” himself, to be open to divine action and not to set up obstacles to it. By living the theological virtues, human beings raise themselves and give value to their commitment. The growth of faith, hope and charity keeps pace with the work of purification and with the gradual union with God until they are transformed in him.

taken from General Audience at Paul VI Audience Hall, February 16th 2011.

            Pope Benedict then goes on to place this process of purification, of preparation for the work of God to be effective in our lives, in the context of the end which all authentic Christian spirituality is oriented towards – immersion in the life of the Most Holy Trinity itself. The essence of all that Saint John of the Cross teaches is that we should walk the Way of the Cross in order that we may love God in the same way God loves Himself as Blessed Trinity, and thereby also love the things He has made in the way He loves them. Thus, as Pope Benedict says:

…there is no true union of love with God that does not culminate in Trinitarian union. In this supreme state the holy soul knows everything in God and no longer has to pass through creatures in order to reach him. The soul now feels bathed in divine love and rejoices in it without reserve.

ibid.

            The life and teaching of Saint John of the Cross are then, as with all the great Doctors of the Church, one. It was through his realisation that the Way of the Cross is the only way to truly immerse oneself in the Triune Love of God that he was able to endure so patiently the suffering that was imposed upon him, and those experiences in turn helped to confirm and expand his initial intuitions. Ultimately it is love that characterises his mystical theology – obedience to the sinful men within the Church during times of strife out of love for her and the One from whom she came; the setting aside of things that may be good in and of themselves out of love for the greater Love that lies behind and gives life to all things; patience and charity in all things through the Charity imparted to his soul by God, who gives freely to all and wishes nothing more than we love as He does.

 

*Today is the feast day of Saint John of the Cross according to the older General Roman Calendar, which was effective until 1969. His feast day is now celebrated on December 14th, the day of his death and therefore his dies natalis or ‘birthday to heaven’ as a saint.

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5 thoughts on “Saint John of the Cross: The Patient Reformer

  1. This is a superb article, bringing so much of the cause (esp. experience of the Cross) for the deep mysticism and holiness of St. John of the Cross to light.

    Interesting comparison between Martin Luther and John: the “hubris and rebellion” of the former, as compared to the humility and “obedience to Truth” of St. John of the Cross!

    • Thank you! I don’t know nearly enough about this period of the Church in Spain, but it seems to me that it was a really fertile time for the Faith. I have also always been interested in the comparison between true reformers such as Saint John and Saint Teresa and the early Protestants, as the difference really does seem to hinge on those two words, obedience and humility – because of a lack of both, men like Luther let their imagination become narrow and distorted, leading to all kinds of errors in their doctrine of the Church, the sacraments, etc.

      They either failed to recognise the Church for what she truly is, or just lacked the self-control and humility to submit their wills to her better wisdom. Saints John and Teresa on the other hand knew the Truth, and knew that playing the ‘long game’ of obedience and faith is always in the best interests of everybody 🙂

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