Saint John of the Cross: a sound life teacher of true love

Today, 14 December, we celebrate the feast of a great Spanish mystic, a friend and a co-reformer of the Carmelite religious family, namely Saint John of the Cross.

Born in Fontiveros, Avila, Spain in 1542, as Juan de Yepes y Alvares, John came from a family who turned poor overnight. His father, who was employed by a wealthy family, was disowned simply because he married a poor woman.

From its earliest days, John’s life was destined for great suffering. He not only was born from a poor family but, to add insult to injury, his father died when he was just three years old. Family poverty killed his older brother Louis, two years, due to malnutrition. Finally, John’s mother found a job, weaving, that could support her and her family.

He received his primary education at a boarding school for the poor and orphaned children. His religious education assisted him to select a religious vocation from his childhood. John served as an acolyte at an Augustinian monastery and when he grew older he started working in hospital and attending a Jesuit school simultaneously.

It was in 1563 when John could join the Carmelite Order and took the religious name “John of St. Matthias”. After professing his first vows obedience sent him to Salamanca to delve deeper into the philosophical and theological studies. He immersed himself so much in his studies that he became a biblical expert and translated the Book of the Song of Songs into the Spanish language, a very courageous act to do in those days since the Church did not permit such translations to safeguard the original meanings of the biblical texts.

When he was ordained a priest in 1567 John was considering leaving the Carmelites and enter instead the Carthusians to live a simple and quite life within his individual cloistered cell. But Divine Providence made him meet Saint Theresa of Avila, a great mystic and a very charismatic Carmelite sister. Theresa requested John to join her. John was decisively attracted by Saint Theresa’s strict routine which she wanted to introduce in her order together with her formidable dedication to prayer as well as simplicity of life. Those who followed Saint Theresa went barefoot, and from here they earned for them the name Discalced Carmelites.

When on 28 November 1568 Theresa established a new monastery it was then that John also altered his named to John of the Cross. At the invitation of Theresa herself, in 1572 John travelled to Avila and became her personal confessor and spiritual director. He stayed in Avila for five years. During his stay he had a vision of Christ and made a drawing of this intense spiritual experience he experienced. This famous painting, which is still with us, is called “Christ from above”. This intriguing drawing shows Christ on the cross, who is looking down on him from above.

In approximately 1575 the Carmelite order experienced a division which kept growing and creating heaps of controversy in many monastic houses. The air of disagreement between the Discalced Carmelites and the remaining Carmelites over how the reform was to be conducted was huge. According to their view, the Discalced Carmelites tried to revert back to the original spirit of the Carmel based on strict rules and government of the Order. For some Carmelites, such as Theresa of Avila and John, when the strict rules of the order were lessened with them the spirit of Carmel also waned since it put both the order and practice into jeopardy. Thus, both Theresa and John tried to rightly restore the order back to its glorious original beginnings.

Officially the Carmelites were going through reforms from the year 1566, guided by two Dominican Canonical Visitors sent purposely by the Vatican. However, the very unfortunate political intrusion of King Philip II and his court fomented violent rifts between the Carmelites. In fact, towards the end of 1577 John was ordered to leave his hometown monastery in Avila and go back to his first house. Nonetheless his work of reform had, by that time, been approved by none other than the Papal Nuncio, who truthfully was a higher authority. Hence, John, conscientiously, opted to reject the lower order and remained there.

A said incident occurred on 2 December 1577 when a group of Carmelites raided John’s monastery and captured him. John was forcibly taken back into the main order’s house in Toledo. He was charged for disobedience and was sentenced to imprisonment. For that purpose a cell was prepared for him within the monastery walls. The conditions of this cell were really shocking. He could hardly lie on the floor. Furthermore, he was simply fed with simply water and bread, and casually chunks of salt fish. Every week he was publicly lashed then put back in his cell. His only comforts were a prayer book and an oil lamp thanks to which he could read. He spent his time writing poems on paper that was hidden to him by the friar who was responsible for guarding his cell of imprisonment. It is interesting noting that John became worldwide known as an outstanding and leading poet, particularly after his death. He had exerted and still exerts his influence on many poets, mystics together with artists.

Following nine months of harsh imprisonment John was able to burst in his cell door from its hinges and finally escaped. Immediately he reached Teresa’s nuns who were in Toledo and was hospitalized for six weeks to regain his health. In 1579, John was sent to the town of Baeza to be the new college rector and help the Discalced Carmelites in Andalusia.

A year after, in 1580, Pope Gregory officially sanctioned the split between the Discalced Carmelites and the remaining friars of the Carmelite Order, thus ending the separation within the order. During that time there were around 500 members in the order who were dwelling within 22 houses. In the last few years of his earthly life, John travelled and founded new houses across Spain. After he became ill due to skin condition which culminated into an infection, John died on December 14, 1591. Pope Clement X in 1675 beatified him whereas Pope Benedict XIII canonized him in 1726. Saint John of the Cross is patron saint of contemplatives, mystics and Spanish poets.

In all this troubled and challenging life one thing stands clear: Saint John of the Cross was a man of God because he was full of love of the Crucified Christ. Instead of disseminating bitterness, hatred and resentment at the deluge of evil he received John spread love everywhere! His years in captivity taught him to exclaim: Oh cherished cross! Through thee my most bitter trials are replete with graces! It is clear that his years of imprisonment have surely helped him focus on Christ Crucified, the best school of love. He said: Whenever anything disagreeable or displeasing happens to you, remember Christ crucified and be silent.

Yes! Silent! Because, in that silence, you and me can recognise true love, its cost but also how to make ourselves available to receive it! He said: The road is narrow. He who wishes to travel it more easily must cast off all things and use the cross as his cane. In other words, he must be truly resolved to suffer willingly for the love of God in all things. John’s sufferings presented to him a very important life insight: suffering can be a magnificent grace for those who silently listen to the language of love which is hidden in it. He said: What we need most in order to make progress is to be silent before this great God with our appetite and with our tongue, for the language he best hears is silent love.

And this silent love is translated into a faith, which, Saint John of the Cross explains, is like the feet wherewith the soul journeys to God, and love is the guide that directs it. The direction and essence of love culminates in contemplation. He said: Contemplation is nothing else but a secret, peaceful, and loving infusion of God, which if admitted, will set the soul on fire with the Spirit of love. For John the Spirit of love means befriending and marrying God. He said: Take God for your spouse and friend and walk with him continually, and you will not sin and will learn to love, and the things you must do will work out prosperously for you. True love entails detachment from what is not love to love the Love, the Beloved. Thus notes John: Love consists not in feeling great things but in having great detachment and in suffering for the Beloved. And this purgation of the self from the eros of love in order to give itself completely for the loved one is what characterises the purity of love. He said: Beloved, all that is harsh and difficult I want for myself, and all that is gentle and sweet for thee. And what is this soul so imbued with love? How can it be recognised? Thus, answers John: A soul enkindled with love is a gentle, meek, humble, and patient soul. All these noble attributes can be summarized in one word: HUMILITY. For a humble soul John says: To be taken with love for a soul, God does not look on its greatness, but the greatness of its humility. After all, humility makes the soul focus entirely on its object of love, God himself. That is why John said: Wisdom enters through love, silence, and mortification. It is great wisdom to know how to be silent and to look at neither the remarks, nor the deeds, nor the lives of others.

Saint John of the Cross was really a very practical man. In fact, his poetry and mysticism led him to suggest the following two foundational life maxims. First, where there is no love, put love and you will find love. Second, in the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.

Can we write these two life principles down and read them frequently into our daily routine and then do a daily examen to see if we are really doing our best to live them up to the utmost? Are they not the summation of what true love is all about?

Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap