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St John of the Cross – champion of reforming humility

Features

Mgr John Broadbent
7 November 2011

altSt John of the Cross [Feastday November 24] was born in Castile, Spain in 1542. With his mother a widow, the family were poor and he went to a poor school at Medina del Campo and became a servant of the governor of the hospital in that town. He stayed there for seven years and had already undertaken bodily austerities when he moved to a Jesuit college to continue his studies.

At 21 he joined the Carmelite friars at Medina. After his profession, he was granted permission to follow the original Carmelite rule which went back several hundred years to some austere hermits living on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land and then spread throughout Europe.

The Reformation
This was a sad time for the Church. A quarter of a century before John was born, protestant reformers had broken from the Church and were spreading rapidly especially in Northern Europe. Many Catholics left the Church because of the worldliness and often evil lives of many of the clergy from the popes down, as the recent television series the Borgias depicted.

Even many religious orders, having been lured into a life of comfort, needed tightening up. The Council of Trent [1545-1563] for reforming the Church finally got underway three years after John was born and ended about the time of his profession. The spirit of toughening up the Church trickled downwards. John had caught it and really desired to revive the austerity and prayerful living of the first hermits on Mount Carmel.

Maintaining humility
At first he wanted to be a lay brother to keep humble. Superiors, however, saw his potential and he was ordained priest in 1567. He longed for a life of solitude and prayer. Soon after St Teresa of Avila, who had started a reform of the Carmelite sisters, sought out John at Medina del Campo. She had received permission from the head of the order to found two houses for the reformed Carmelite men and asked John and several others to start one. They renewed their profession on Advent Sunday 1568 and John added ‘of the Cross’ to his name.

Dark night scruples
But instead of the great peace he desired, John went through terrible spiritual dryness, scruples and a distaste for spiritual exercises. When, after a long period of these temptations, John was restored to peace of mind and contemplative prayer, he saw that this period of purification was meant to prepare him for higher states of prayer and spirituality. It was during this period, he wrote his book The Dark Night of the Soul.

Tension was growing between the reformed or discalced Carmelites (wearing only sandals on their feet) and the unreformed. St Teresa received permission to call John to be confessor and spiritual director to the convent of Avila which she was reforming.

Kidnapped and tortured
But John was attracting criticism for his tough reforms and finally a gang of thugs, sent by the unreformed Carmelites, kidnapped him and, knowing how popular he was at Avila, took him to their house in Toledo, more than 100 kilometres away on today’s roads. There he was tortured by flagellation three times a week, pressed to give up his ideas, and imprisoned in a room not much bigger than a cupboard with a window allowing just enough light for him to read his office.

Said one of his biographers, ‘He was treated in a way that shows only too clearly how little, nearly 1600 years after the incarnation, the spirit of Jesus Christ had penetrated the hearts of many who claimed his name’.

Escape and final separation
After nine months, John escaped from his prison to a Discalced Carmelite house nearby. Through Teresa’s diplomacy with King Philip II and the Pope, the discalced Carmelites were separated into another Province in 1580 and became virtually independent.

John was now regarded as their founder and spiritual leader. He was able to give himself more to his writings especially The Ascent of Mount Carmel written from his own experiences but based on the writers of the early church. He developed with a surprising knowledge of psychology the three stages of holiness and prayer – the purgative, illuminative and unitive ways corresponding to St Teresa’s mansions.

There are specific directions for the types of prayer and penance the pilgrim must go through and thousands of people in subsequent centuries have used them as a guide.

The love of God became, for John, his very life blood. Even within the Discalced Carmelites, two parties emerged. John wanted the religious to spend more time in prayer and only occasionally to go out and preach.

A sacrificial suffering
In 1590 John became very ill and needed nursing. The new provincial did not like him, but gave him a choice of two houses, one governed by a friendly religious and the other by a religious who did not like him.

John chose the latter. The superior gave John a hard time, forbidding him the special food needed for his sickness and removing the infirmarian who was kind to him.

The provincial visited the monastery just before John died and reprimanded the superior for his treatment. John died on December 14, 1591.

Already his holiness was acknowledged in Spain and abroad. Many flocked to his funeral. He was canonised in 1726 and in 1926 declared a Doctor of the Church for his mystical theology. Much of his writing is in the form of poetry and he is regarded as one of the greatest Spanish writers.

Other saints in this series
St Francis of Assisi – 4 October 2011

St Nicholas of Tolentino – 10 September 2011

St Bernard of Clairvaux – 20 August 2011