St. John of the Cross: Mystic, Poet and Reformer

John_of_the_CrossSt. John of the Cross: Mystic, Poet and Reformer

(Published in Leadership magazine, Uganda, January 2017)

Often situations that we experience in our family and early years in life shape us into what we would be in the future. It is also true in the life of many saints such as St. John of the Cross. He was born on 24th June 1542 at Hontoveros in Spain. His baptismal nam was Juan (John) de Yepes. He died on 14th December 1591. His father Gonzalo de Yepes was born in a wealthy and noble family but by marrying Catherine Alvarez a poor silk weaver she lost all his family inheritance. Thus he was pushed into many years of hardship. At his father’s death John was only a little child and his widowed mother underwent all sorts of difficulties in caring for the family.

Though attending a poor school John proved to be an attentive and diligent pupil. Financial constraints made him to drop out of school and do menial jobs such as caring for dying and chronically ill patients. It was out of this poverty and suffering John learned to search for beauty and happiness not in the world, but in God.

Since true joy comes only from God, John believed that someone who seeks happiness in the world is like “a famished person who opens his mouth to satisfy himself with air.” He taught that only by breaking the rope of our desires could we fly up to God. Above all, he was concerned for those who suffered dryness or depression in their spiritual life and offered encouragement that God loved them and was leading them deeper into faith. The following verse from his poetry highlights his disclaim of the world and embrace of God’s beauty and providence.

“What more do you want, o soul! And what else do you search for outside, when within yourself you possess your riches, delights, satisfaction and kingdom — your beloved whom you desire and seek? Desire him there, adore him there. Do not go in pursuit of him outside yourself. You will only become distracted and you won’t find him, or enjoy him more than by seeking him within you.”

Seeking God above the worldly pleasures and glory, John learnt to treat his body with utmost vigour which even led to deterioration of his health. Often only with the intervention of the Blessed Virgin saved him from death. It was revealed to him in prayer that he was to serve God in an order that would help him to preserve his baptismal innocence. This made him to enter the Carmelites at Medina and received his religious vest on 24th February 1563. But soon he found that his Carmelite Order was not good enough for a rigorous life and so he contemplated to choose a monastic life with Carthusian Monastery.

But his acquaintance with St. Theresa of Avila persuaded him to remain a Carmelite and dedicate his life to reform the Order. He was also encouraged to found monasteries with a name Discalced Carmalites with stricter and more committed way of life. He visited convents that are more faithful and live a life that that is worthy of evangelical life. From now on he called himself John of the Cross. He also assisted the nuns with spiritual counselling and personal example. But his strict way of life and total detachment from the world always faced resistance from fellow religious and even from Church’s hierarchy. Indeed it is always difficult to fight human passion.

Once he was ordered by his superiors to leave his new found monastery and return to the original community where he made his vows. But he disobeyed his superior for the fact that the Apostolic Legate had authorized his reformation efforts and new establishments. In the scuffle he was arrested to a dark cell and was tortured in body and mind. He miraculously escaped by using a rope made from a blanket and descending through a window. He was further punished by assigning him to poorest communities which took toll on his health.

One of his opponents went so far as to go from monastery to monastery gathering materials in order to bring grave charges against him, hoping for his expulsion from the order which he had helped to found. His adversaries wanted John to go through suffering and scorn. But at last even his adversaries came to acknowledge his sanctity, and his funeral was the occasion of a great outburst of enthusiasm.

Among his numerous mystical writings, “Dark Night of the Soul” and “The Ascent of Mount Carmel” are most popular. His writings have strong allusion to psychology and express a great mastery of the Bible of which he knew long passages by heart. He was also well acquainted with the theology of the time, the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas. His axiom is that the soul must empty itself of self in order to be filled with God, that it must be purified of the last traces of earthly dross before it is fit to become united with God. He teaches that we all need to go through the “Dark Night of the Soul” and be purified with trails and finally attain the perfection in God. Let St. John of the Cross Continue to inspire us in this spiritual journey.

Fr. Lazar Arasu SDB

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