St. John of the Cross, Man and Mystic

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St. John of the Cross


Feast Day November 24

The father of St. John was discarded by his kindred for marrying a poor orphan, and the Saint, thus born and nurtured in poverty, chose it also for his portion. Unable to learn a trade, he became the servant of the poor in the hospital of Medina, while still pursuing his sacred studies. In 1563, being then twenty-one, he humbly offered himself as a lay-brother to the Carmelite friars, who, however, knowing his talents, had him ordained priest.

He would now have exchanged to the severe Carthusian Order, had not St. Teresa, with the instinct of a Saint, persuaded him to remain and help her in the reform of his own Order. Thus he became the first prior of the Barefooted Carmelites. His reform, though approved by the general, was rejected by the elder friars, who condemned the Saint as a fugitive and apostate, and cast him into prison, whence he only escaped, after nine months' suffering, at the risk of his life. Twice again, before his death, he was shamefully persecuted by his brethren, and publicly disgraced. But his complete abandonment by creatures only deepened his interior peace and devout longing for heaven.

"the greatest of all mystical theologians"

Thus has Thomas Merton described St. John of the Cross, echoing the considered judgment of most authorities on the spiritual life; and here in this volume is the great mystic's most widely appealing work. Ascent of Mount Carmel is an incomparable guide to the spiritual life -- because its author has lived his own counsel.  Addressed to informed Christians who aspire to grow in union with God, it examines every category of spiritual experience, the spurious as well as the authentic. With rare insight into human psychology it not only tells how to become more closely united with God, but spells out in vivid detail the pitfalls to avoid.

In his Apostolic Letter proclaiming St. John of the Cross a Doctor of the Church, Pope Pius XI wrote that he "points out to souls the way of perfection as though illumined by light from on high, in his limpidly clear analysis of mystical experience.  And although [his works] deal with difficult and hidden matters, they are nevertheless replete with such lofty spiritual doctrine and are so well adapted to the understanding of those who study them that they can rightly be called a guide and handbook for the man of faith who proposes to embrace a life of perfection."

The translation of Ascent of Mt. Carmel by E. Allison Peers was hailed by the London Times as "the most faithful that has appeared in any European language."

St. John of the Cross was perhaps the greatest mystical writer the world has ever known.  Bossuet's famous tribute -- that his writings "possess the same authority in mystical theology as the writings of St. Thomas possess in dogmatic theology" -- remains the most fitting testimonial to his august place among spiritual writers.

John was born in Castile in 1542 -- eve of Spain's century of greatness, to which he himself was to add such lustre.  He studied under the Jesuits and worked for six years in a hospital.  Entering the Carmelites in 1563, he was professed a year later and sent to the great University of Salamanca.  He was ordained in 1567 but, shrinking from the apostolate of a priest in the world, considered entering the Carthusians, a hermitical order.

Then came the turning point in his life.  He met St. Teresa of Avila, who was pursuing her epic work of restoring the pristine, stricter observance of the Carmelite rule.  John and two other members of the order took the vows of the Discalced (or reformed) Carmelites the following year, binding themselves to a more rigorous way of life which included daily (and nightly) recitation of the Divine Office in choir, perpetual abstinence from meat, and additional fasting.

Yet his religious vows were but a part of the rigors John was to undergo. The main branch of the order, the Calced Carmelites, so opposed the Reform that they twice had John kidnapped and jailed -- providentially, so it proved, for much of his writing was done in prison.

The greater part of his twenty-three years as a Discalced Carmelite, however, was spent in filling a number of important posts in the order, among them Rector of two colleges, Prior, Definator, and Vicar-Provincial. But it was in one of his lesser offices that he was to spend the most decisive years of his life: he was confessor to the Carmelite nuns at Avila, where St. Teresa was Superior.

The secret of St. John's unique contribution to mystical theology was not simply his mysticism, for there have been other mystics; not even his profound grasp of Scripture, dogma, Thomism, and spiritual literature, for there have also been learned mystics.  What sets him apart is his extraordinary poetic vision.  To write of mystical experience is to try to express the inexpressible.  Because he was a great poet St. John of the Cross was able, in the realm of mysticism, to push the frontiers of human expression beyond where any writer has succeeded in venturing before or since.  This poetic intensity is found even in his prose, the major works of which are Ascent of Mount Carmel, Dark Night of the Soul, Spiritual Canticle, and Living Flame of Love.

St. John of the Cross died in 1591, was beatified less than a century later in 1675, was canonized in 1726, and was named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI in 1926.

Reflection. -- "Live in the world," said St. John, "as if God and your soul only were in it; so shall your heart be never made captive by any earthly thing."

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Ascent of Mt. Carmel

Dark Night of the Soul

A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul