SAINT JOHN of the CROSS (1542-1591), priest and Doctor of the Church – Patron saint of the contemplative life and mystical theology
Today, the universal Church honors Saint John of the Cross, a priest who came to intimately understand the weight that one’s cross can become in one’s life, and who first wrote about the “…long dark night of the soul”.
John was born in 1542 in Spain into a family which had fallen out of wealth. His father, a silk trader, had been disowned by his own family for marrying a woman of a lower social class. The family survived as silk weavers, but John’s father died while John was very young. The boy began to work in a hospital while attending school part time. It is said that he seemed incapable of learning any trade.
He entered the Carmelite Order as a Lay Brother in 1563 assisting the Carmelite friars, who, after perceiving his unusual talents, had him ordained a priest. When he was considering leaving to join the more severe Order of the Carthusians, he met a deeply spiritual woman who would later become known as Saint Teresa of Avila. Together with Teresa, they reformed the Carmelite order by founding the Discalced (literally “shoe-less”) Carmelites.
At the time, many Carmelites had moved from a life of fasting, prayer and penance to a less disciplined lifestyle and resented the reforms, causing Father John to suffer opposition, misunderstanding, persecution, even imprisonment.
Having a great devotion to our Lord’s Passion and not afraid of humiliations, Father John experienced his own passion, in a very personal way, by being kidnapped by members of his own Order and imprisoned in a small, cold and dark cell. He was beaten regularly. He came to know the cross intensely – in the sense that he experienced the dying of Jesus as he sat month after month in his dark, damp, narrow cell with only his God for consolation!
Yet, in this time, he wrote some of his most profound poetry. Eventually, he escaped after nine months of imprisonment, and was able to share some of his mystical writings with the world. He is famous for having written The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, The Dark Night of the Soul, and The Spiritual Canticle. His works of prose are outstanding in underscoring the cost of discipleship and the path of union with God – rigorous discipline, abandonment and purification.
Uniquely and strongly, Father John underlined the paradox of the Gospel message – the cross leads to resurrection, agony to ecstasy, darkness to light, abandonment to possession, self-denial to union with God. He would summarize that if you want to save your life, you must first lose it. John was truly “of the Cross”.
While embracing the crucifix, he died at the age of 49 on December 14, 1591 in Andalusia, Spain. His remains are currently interred in the Carmelite Convent in Segovia, Spain.
Father John was canonized a saint in 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII. And, in 1926, he was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI. Today, Saint John of the Cross is considered one of the great mystics of Christianity.
We commemorate his feastday on December 14.
(From catholicnewsagency.com, saints.sqpn.com, americancatholic.org, catholicculture.org and newadvent.org)
(The following prayer is from the Roman Breviary from the Proper for Saint John of the Cross)
“Father, You endowed John of the Cross with a spirit of self-denial and a love of the cross. By following his example, may we come to the eternal vision of Your Glory.
“We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”