Feast of St. John of the Cross: 14 December

Author: Paolo Risso

Feast of St. John of the Cross: 14 December

Paolo Risso

'Dark Night' Becomes 'True Light'

We celebrate the liturgical memorial of St. John of the Cross on 14 December. His father, Gonzalo de Yepes, who came from Toledo, Spain, was a wealthy and noble silk merchant. On one of his journeys he met Catalina Alvarez, a silk weaver, who was a poor orphan. He married her against the will of his well-to-do parents, who promptly disowned him.

Three children were born in the small, humble dwelling at Fontiveros, little more than a hut: the last one, born in 1542, was John.

John's parents truly loved each other; however, when John was only 2 years old, his father died, and the family lived in dire poverty. His mother, with her three children, went in search of help, moving from one village to another.

John was sent to a boarding school for orphans in Medina del Campo, where he studied and earned his keep as a hospital orderly. He accepted anything that came his way and offered everything up for the love of Jesus Crucified, the only joy of his youth.

Thirsting for God

At age 21, his heart already consumed by a burning passion for God, the young man felt called to become a Carmelite and a priest. "If you want to reach your destination", the Carmelites taught him, "not only must you avoid what is forbidden, but also all that stands in the way of a more ardent love".

He was sent to the University of Salamanca to study philosophy and theology. Studying interested him greatly, and he refined himself through prayer. Whether in the church or in his small cell where a tiny window onto the church gave him a glimpse of the altar, John would lie prostrate for hours and hours, adoring the Eucharistic Jesus in the Tabernacle.

Yet the life he was leading did not quite satisfy him.

In 1567, he met Teresa of Avila, who had already started her reform of Carmel. She eagerly desired to extend it to the Order's male branch, thus combining contemplation and mission in the friar's life.

She won John over and he agreed to share her ideal. In 1567, he was ordained a priest, while Teresa hunted for a small house for the reformed Carmelites.

She found one in the remote country village of Duruelo. It was a small friary with a raised choir, bordered by tiny cells, with a chapel under the portico and premises for a kitchen and refectory.

There, with a few friends, John of the Cross (this was now his name) began the severe and demanding life of the "Discalced" Carmelites, making prayer his priority and going about the small towns to preach and hear confessions of peasants who had no religious guidance. He was filled with God and his life was steeped in truth and charity.

Life as a love story

In 1572, John was living in Avila, the place where Teresa was a prioress of a large convent in which she was attempting to implement her "reform" by living the Carmelite life in the light and strength of its Primitive Rule. As spiritual director, he helped her with the nun's formation. This work of the reformer saints, however, was viewed by some as an attempt at rebellion within the Order.

Consequently, John was imprisoned in Toledo. To obtain his release, Teresa wrote forceful words to the King of Spain, Philip II. John lived his imprisonment in an ever more intense union with Jesus, enlightened by a unique light that he expressed in fervent, luminous poems on love for God.

"He composes for them from memory and creates an incredible world of images, symbols and sentiments where beauty becomes the cry of the soul that seeks Christ, just as the bride seeks the Bridegroom and becomes an inexorable attraction of God who seeks his creature in Jesus" (A.M. Sicari).

Thus, John of the Cross wrote long romances in which life and history, according to divine Revelation, are seen as a nuptial celebration, a love story between the soul and its God, between God and humanity, in the image of the Song of Songs.

After nine months in prison, the day after the Feast of the Assumption, John managed to escape, seeking refuge in the Carmelite convents in Toledo, then in Beaza.

He was painfully thin, emaciated as a corpse, and unable to speak after the intense suffering he had experienced. He responded with tears to the nuns who sought to comfort him, explaining that he wept "in seeing that God was now sending him little sufferings, so that he might truly savour the love of God!".

He had but 14 years to live and he lived them truly aflame: he was superior of convents born from the Teresian "reform", esteemed and beloved, sometimes set aside but more generally sought above all by those who asked him to lead them to the peaks in their ascent to God. He also became a spiritual director beyond compare.

He lived as one with Jesus in the mystery of his sacrifice on the Cross, in adoration of God and in expiation for human sin, what he called "the absolute religion". He was crucified with Jesus in special joy, a prelude to the resurrection and life. Convents founded by Teresa were clamouring for him as their guide.

Jesus, Jesus alone!

For this very reason, he took up and developed in a commentary the light that he had received in the dark night of prison, utilizing the knowledge he had learned in theology and which God himself had granted to him.

He then wrote his ascetic treatises: The Ascent of Mount Carmel The Dark Night, The Spiritual Canticle, The Living Flame of Love. He also wrote marvelous letters of spiritual direction and poetry of extraordinary beauty and fullness.

He is the "mystical Doctor" whose writings are the most exalted of all the authors of Spanish literature and of the whole world. It is truly impossible for one to sum them up. They must be read, contemplated and lived in life, inspired by God's grace.

His life and writings demonstrate that Jesus Christ is everything for St. John of the Cross, for as the heavenly Father says to him: "If I have told you the whole Truth in my Son and have nothing more to show you, how can I have anything else to reveal to you? Fix your gaze on Jesus alone, through whom I have related and revealed to you all things; in him you will find even more than you can ask or desire".

At age 49, having fully identified with Jesus on the Cross and been transformed through pure love, he went to meet his God in the night of 14 December 1591, kissing the crucifix and saying to the Lord: "into your hands I commend my spirit".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
7 December 2005, page 14

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