Hello everyone, a blessed feast day to you all! Today we celebrate the feast of one of my personal favorites – St. John of the Cross. St. John was one of the great reformers of the Carmelite Order and, together with St. Teresa of Avila, helped to found the Discalced Carmelites. St. John possessed a remarkable depth of spiritual character and many beautiful and sometimes mysterious writings concerning the journey of the soul issued forth from his core. This is just one of many reasons why we honor John of the Cross as a Saint and a Doctor of the Church.
We don’t exactly know a whole lot about John’s early life. We do know that from 1559 – 1563, he worked in a hospital and studied the humanities from the Jesuits. In 1563, John entered the Carmelite Order as a lay brother and took the name “John of St. Matthias.” His hope was to continue as a lay brother, but because of his intellectual capacity, his superiors advised him to seek Ordination to the Priesthood. John professed his vows in the following year and then was sent to Salamanca to study Philosophy and Theology. He was Ordained to the Priesthood in 1567.
After Ordination, John sought to join the Carthusian Order – their austerity and focus on silent contemplation he found particularly appealing. However, God had other plans. Later in 1567, he met the zealous Carmelite sister Teresa of Jesus (Teresa of Avila). She, rather energetically expressed to John her desire to reform Carmel. Soon John found himself working with Teresa to accomplish this reform.
True reform is necessary for our continued spiritual health. We, as part of our fallen human nature, always seem to find ourselves veering off the road here and there. Thus we constantly need someone to straighten us out and remind us where we are really trying to go. Yet, the duty of reform never comes without some cost to the reformer. St. John of the Cross’ case is famous.
After meeting with St. Teresa of Jesus, John returned to his own monastery and preached the reform. Unfortunately, this made his fellow brothers so angry that they locked him in the monastery prison for nine months. The friars would have held John captive longer had he not escaped, barely alive. He fled to the Carmelite convent in Toledo where he was nursed back to health.
Even after this incident, St. John continued his ministry of reforming the Carmelite friars. All the while he continued to face resilient resistance. Yet this did not stop him from spreading the reform. He continued in this labor of love, producing many beautiful and mystical writings for the benefit of many souls.
John of the Cross died on the 14 of December, 1591 – 420 years ago this very day. In 1675, he was beatified by Pope Clement X. St. John of the Cross was canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726. St. John was made a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI in 1926.
As I mentioned above, St. John of the Cross is known primarily for his many writings, a considerable number of which were written in his time of imprisonment. These writings are one of the reasons that we honor St. John as a Doctor of the Church. Now I’ll have to admit, for one discerning a vocation as a Discalced Carmelite, I’m not very fluent in his writings. Yet there is one particular quote, a “Christmas Refrain” that I find quite pertinent to contemplate as we journey through Advent:
“The Virgin weighed
with the Word of God,
comes down the road:
if only you’ll shelter her.”
St. John welcomed the Virgin into his soul and she shared with him the Word of God with which she was weighed. The Word of God welled up in the depths of his heart and spilled out onto the many pages he penned. Although we may not produce great volumes as did St. John of the Cross, like him we too are called to be saints. The surest way to Heaven is to follow the Blessed Mother. Therefore, let us welcome the Virgin into our souls, this Advent, and ask her to share with us the Word of God.