St. John of the Cross, a “Master of Faith” for St. John Paul II
By Jean M. Heimann
Today, December 14, is the feast of St. John of the Cross, priest and doctor of the Church. He is the patron saint of mystics, contemplatives, mystical theology, and poets. He was, in fact, one of Pope St. John Paul II’s favorite saints and spiritual mentors in the faith. St. John Paul II revealed: “I got to know St. John of the Cross in my youth and was able to dialogue with this master of faith. I wrote my Doctoral thesis on ‘Faith in St. John of the Cross.” I have found him a friend and master who has shown me that light shines in darkness.”
St. John of the Cross (along with St. Teresa of Avila) is one of the founders of the Discalced Carmelites and today is one of their major feast days. Among the Church’s contemplatives, St. John is one of the recognized masters of mystical theology. Indeed, perhaps no other writer has had greater influence on Catholic spirituality.
In 1542, John (Juan de Yepes y Álvarez) was born into a family of Jewish converts in a small town near Avila. He was the third son of Gonzalo de Yepes and Catalina Alvarez. Gonzalo became seriously ill and died young, three years after John’s birth.
John received his elementary education in Medina del Campo at an institution for the children of the poor, in which he was also fed and clothed. He was a pious young man who had a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
One day, while playing with friends, John fell into a well and went under sinking to the bottom several times. His peers fled the scene, fearing that they would be blamed. When the adults discovered him, John said, “I didn’t drown. Our Lady protected me. Throw me a rope. I’ll tie it to myself and you can pull me out.”
At seventeen, he found work at a hospital in Medina as a nurse and alms-collector for poor people with the plague or other infectious diseases. He also enrolled in the Jesuit College, where he was educated in the humanities.
At the age of twenty-one, John entered the novitiate at Santa Ana in Medina. He enrolled at the university in Salamanca, where he studied theology and philosophy. He was a gifted and outstanding student.
John was ordained at the age of 25, and while in Medina to sing his first Mass, he met Teresa of Avila, who had begun a reform within the order. She was 52 at the time; he was 25.
“When I spoke with this friar he pleased me very much. I learned from him how he also wanted to go to the Carthusians. Telling him what I was attempting to do, I begged him to wait until the Lord would give us a monastery and pointed out the great good that would be accomplished if in his desire to improve he were to remain in his own order and that much greater service would be rendered to the Lord. He promised me he would remain as long as he wouldn’t have to wait long.” – St. Teresa of Avila in The Foundations
St. Teresa of Avila had obtained permission from the Prior General Rossi to found two communities of contemplative Carmelite Friars in order that they might help the communities of nuns that she had established. A year later November 28, 1568, John became part of the first group of Reformed Carmelites at Duruelo, changing his name from John of St. Matthias to John of the Cross.
John of the Cross was then appointed general confessor for the monastery of the Incarnation in Avila, where Saint Teresa was Prioress. The new life in keeping with the Primitive Rule was ascetic and primarily contemplative. But the active apostolate was not excluded; it consisted mainly of preaching and hearing confessions. The friars of this new reform wore sandals and were soon referred to as Discalced Carmelites.
At Duruelo, Father John was appointed subprior and novice master. Later he was named rector of a newly established house of studies in Alcala. In the spring of 1571, Teresa was ordered to govern the Convent of the Incarnation and to reform its 130 nuns. Realizing the need of a prudent, learned, and holy confessor at the Incarnation, she obtained permission from the apostolic visitor to have Father John as confessor. While he was confessor there, the reform grew rapidly. But the attitude of the Carmelite Order toward the reform, for reasons due mainly to a conflict of jurisdiction, began to change. In 1575, in a chapter at Piacenza, it was determined to stop the expansion of the reform of the order.
On the night of Dec. 2, 1577, some Carmelites seized Father John, took him to Toledo, and demanded a renunciation of the reform. He refused to renounce it, maintaining that he had remained at the Incarnation by order of the nuncio. They declared him a rebel and imprisoned him. He lived 9 months in a cell 6 feet wide and 10 feet long, with no light other than what came through a slit high up in the wall. During this imprisonment he composed some of his great poems. In August 1578, in a perhaps miraculous way, he escaped; eventually he journeyed to a monastery of Discalced in southern Spain.
The following years were given to administration: he was prior on several occasions, rector of the Carmelite College in Baeza, and vicar provincial of the southern province. in 1588 he was elected major definitor, becoming a member of the reform’s new governing body, headed by Father Doria.
During these years as superior he did most of his writing. He also, besides giving spiritual direction to the Carmelite friars and nuns, devoted much time to the guidance of lay people.
His deep life of prayer is evident in the splendid descriptions of The Spiritual Canticle and The Living Flame of Love. He once admitted: “God communicates the mystery of the Trinity to this sinner in such a way that if His Majesty did not strengthen my weakness by a special help, it would be impossible for me to live.”
Toward the end of his life, a controversy arose within the reform. Father Doria desired to abandon jurisdiction over the nuns founded by St. Teresa and also the expulsion of Father Gratian, a favorite confessor of Teresa, from the reform. As a member of the governing body, Father John of the Cross opposed Doria in both matters. For obvious reasons John was not elected to any office in the chapter of 1591. He was instead sent to a solitary monastery in southern Spain. While there, he heard news of the efforts being made to expel him also from the reform.
In mid-September, he noted a slight fever caused by an ulcerous inflammation of the leg. Since the sickness grew worse, he was obliged to leave the solitude he so loved for the sake of medical attention. He chose to go to Ubeda rather than Baeza because “in Ubeda, nobody knows me.”
The prior of Ubeda received him unwillingly and complained of the added expense. On the night of December 13, at the age of 49, John of the Cross died, repeating the words of the psalmist: “Into your hands, 0 Lord, I commend my spirit.”
In 1592 his body was transferred to Segovia. He was beatified by Clement X in 1675, canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726, and declared a Doctor of the Church by Pius XI in 1926.
~ Adapted, in part, from Welcome to Carmel, Teresian Charism Press
Favorite Quotes from St. John of the Cross
If you do not learn to deny yourself, you can make no progress in perfection.
Where there is no love, pour love in and you will draw love out.
In detachment, the spirit finds quiet and repose for coveting nothing.
To be taken with love for a soul, God does not look on its greatness, but the greatness of its humility.
The Lord measures our perfection neither by the multitude nor the magnitude of our deeds, but by the manner in which we perform them.
I wish I could persuade spiritual persons that the way of perfection does not consist in many devices, nor in much cogitation, but in denying themselves completely and yielding themselves to suffer everything for the love of Christ.
Live in the world as if only God and your soul were in it; then your heart will never be made captive by any earthly thing.
O you souls who wish to go on with so much safety and consolation, if you knew how pleasing to God is suffering, and how much it helps in acquiring other good things, you would never seek consolation in anything; but you would rather look upon it as a great happiness to bear the Cross of the Lord.
In giving us His Son, His only Word, He spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word — and He has no more to say … because what he spoke before to the prophets in parts, he has now spoken all at once by giving us the All Who is His Son.
God desires the smallest degree of purity of conscience in you more than all the works you can perform.
With what procrastinations do you wait, since from this very moment you can love God in your heart?
Prayer of Peace
by St. John of the Cross
O blessed Jesus,
give me stillness of soul in You.
Let Your mighty calmness reign in me.
Rule me, O King of Gentleness,
King of Peace.