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Confessor and Doctor of the Church, c.1542-1591

 John was in love. So much in love that his passion moved the world and is still moving it. John of the Cross was a mystic. If we think of John as a lover, perhaps his mystical life will become less mysterious to our powers of understanding. John loved God. There is nothing unusual in this, God is easy to love. But John sought to know his Beloved, for love always wants to know. John used all his powers to win his Loved One - he left no act of heroism or courtesy undone, no gift or token ungiven. And God returned John's love with the greatest gift that beloved can give to lover. He gave Himself. To John were given such graces that he tasted the joys of heaven while still on earth, and then ran, never stopping for breath, all the way to heaven.

 John was born in Fontiveros, near Avila, in Spain, in 1542. He was the son of a silk weaver. When he was twenty-one he became a Carmelite at Medina del Campo, receiving the name of John of Saint Matthias. He wished to be a lay brother, but showed such brilliance in his theological studies that he was ordained a priest in 1567.

 At this time Saint Teresa of Avila was in the process of reforming the Carmelites and, hearing of John's holiness, visited him and urged him to found at Duruelo a house of Carmelite friars who would return to the original rule of 1209. John renewed his profession in 1568 and took the name of John of the Cross.

 John inspired his fellow religious with his virtue of humility and his spirit of mortification On the surface his austere penance's must have looked frightening. In reality John was filled with joy, suffering for the One he so loved. But it was at this time that a state which is peculiar to great souls occurred. It would seem that God sent interior trials to John as a kind of purification for the magnificent time that was coming. God knew how much John could love, and He wanted all of it. John was filled with a spiritual dryness that included a distaste for spiritual exercises and a plague of scrupulosity. The devil attacked him with great temptations. These trials are described by John in one of his works, The Dark Night of the Soul. It was a trial followed by a period of light.

 In 1572, John became the confessor of Saint Teresa, and was able to guide and counsel her because of his own mystical experiences.

 Troubles arose between the reformed or discalced ("barefoot") and the calced (shoe-wearing) Carmelites. Some of the older friars felt that the reform was a revolt against their approved traditions; and some of the friars of the reform were tactless and tended to overemphasize their powers. Contradictory orders began to be issued by the prior general and the papal nuncio. In 1577 John was ordered by the provincial of Castile to return to Medina del Campo. John refused, saying that he held his office from the papal nuncio and not from the order. He was seized, taken to Toledo, and imprisoned in a small cell. It was here that he wrote many of his poems. It was here also, in a small, dark cell, that the paradox of sanctity was again revealed; for John, forsaken by the world, gained everything a man can gain in the world. His mystical life reached a new peak, and his love of God brimmed over into the burning words of his poetry. His knowledge of divine love increased until he reached the point where, in comparing divine with all earthly love, he could write: "The knowledge of the world is pure ignorance." A similar experience of the supreme beauty and holiness of God once made no less a person than Thomas Aquinas exclaim that all he himself had written was but straw!

 After nine months at Toledo, John escaped. Soon after this he was made prior at Calvario, then rector at the college of Baeza, and prior at Granada and Segovia.

 Once more, however, differences of opinion in fundamental questions of the Carmelite reform brought John new sufferings. He was literally forsaken by all his friends and completely misunderstood. He became ill and was ordered to go to the convent of Ubeda. The suffering was inevitable, and John embraced it joyfully. He had asked for it. He had wished to share the mystery of the crucifixion; he was more in love than ever. He had not long to wait, however; his Beloved was soon satisfied. It was at Ubeda that John died less than three months later, on December 13, 1591. Typically enough, immediately after his death he was recognized as a saint and was honored by the clergy and laity who flocked to his funeral. His body was taken to Segovia where he had last been prior.

 In 1926 John of the Cross was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church for his mystical writings. These include The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Living Flame of Love, and The Spiritual Canticle.

 John had asked to suffer. The explanation of this to a modern world is not so difficult as it may seem. In his own words John said he wished to be free - "free as the spirit of God is free." He wanted to be full of freedom, this man, and so he sought to be filled with God, the source of all freedom. But the secret of Saint John's life, as of Christianity itself, is love. "Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God" (Matt. 5:8). "So by this mystical theology and this secret love, the soul goes forward, leaving all things and itself, and mounts to God. For love is like a fire of which the flame always mounts higher." And he reminds us further that in the evening of life we will be judged on love.

 Near the end of his life, when through love John of the Cross had reached the forecourt of heaven, he wrote these words: "For now my exercise is in loving alone. For even as in the consummation of marriage according to the flesh the two become one flesh, so when this spiritual marriage between God and the soul is consummated, there are two natures and one spirit and love of God."



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved