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MYSTICAL WRITER AND REFORMER

Father Francis's picture
Saint John of the Cross

Today is the feast of St. John of the Cross. Towards the end of his life he wrote to a friend, "Do not be surprised if I show a great love of suffering. God has given me a high idea of its value."

John was born in 1542 in Avila and his childhood was marked by poverty. His father died when the boy was only seven years old, leaving his wife destitute. She moved with her children to Medina del Campo to look for work. John tried his hand at several trades, including weaving and nursing, but showed little aptitude for any of them. At the age of 21 he joined the Carmelite friars at Medina, taking the name John of St. Mathias and happy to be a lay brother, but the Order sent him to study theology at the University of Salamanca and was ordained to the priesthood.

It was around this time that he first met St. Teresa of Avila. She too was a Carmelite and wanted to open a reformed Carmelite friary for men, offering a life of prayer and contemplation. She saw that John would be the ideal person to help her. She said of him, "Small in stature though he is, I believe he is great in the sight of God."

In 1568 he became the first Discalced Carmelite friar, changing his name to John of the Cross. This partnership between the 26 year old friar and the 52 year old nun proved to be highly successful and new friaries and convents began to be opened throughout Spain. John had a great love for contemplative prayer and was especially devoted to the image of Christ on the cross.

But around 1570 he began to experience great spiritual desolation - he could not pray properly, suffered many temptations and felt very far away from God. But these trials eventually passed and he later described these experiences in his book "The Dark Night of the Soul" in which he gives guidance to others in similar difficulties.

More trials were to come. The friars of the old Carmelite Order regarded the Discalced friars as rebels and in 1577 the Provincial of Castile ordered John to return to his original friary. He refused, was imprisoned in Toledo in a tiny cell – he had to stand on a stool to find enough light from a high window to read his office – but after nine months managed to escape. From his terrible prison experiences John drew inspiration for his "Spiritual Canticle" and his poems which were the fruit of the sufferings he had endured. He began work on “The Ascent of Mt. Carmel" in which he wanted to guide readers on their journey towards God having come to understand that suffering is one step on that journey. His advice to a young friar was, "Do not seek Christ without the cross".

For the rest of his life, John was surrounded by strife and ambition within the very Order he had helped to found. When he became ill he chose to go to a prior who was hostile to him. He suffered great pain for nearly three months, and died on 14th. December 1591 at the age of 49.

John of the Cross has been declared a Doctor of the Church because of his extraordinary writings inspired by his contemplative approach to prayer, his mystical experiences and his great love for Christ. For John, the whole purpose of prayer, is to lead us to the perfect love of God. Through all his sufferings he never became bitter or disillusioned, but tried to love those who hurt him. His message to us is "Where there is no love, put love, and you will draw out love."