St. John of the Cross

December 14, 1997
Brother John Raymond

I just can't pass over December 14 without writing about my original inspiration to prayer and to monastic life, St. John of the Cross.

John was born at Fontiveros in Old Castile, Spain in 1542. At twenty-one years of age he took the religious habit among the Carmelite friars at Medina, receiving the name of John of St. Matthias. After his profession he asked for, and was granted, permission to follow the original Carmelite rule, without the mitigations approved by various popes and then accepted in all the friaries. It was John's desire to be a lay brother, but this was refused him. After finishing his theological studies, in 1567 he was ordained to the priesthood.

St Teresa of Avila was then establishing her reformation of the Carmelites and, coming to Medina del Campo, heard of Brother John. She admired his spirit, and told him that God had called him to sanctify himself in the Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel; that she had received authority from the prior general to found two reformed houses of men; and that he himself should be the first instrument of so great a work. Soon after the first monastery of discalced (i.e. barefooted) Carmelite friars was established in a small and dilapidated house at Duruelo. St John entered this new Bethlehem in a perfect spirit of sacrifice, and about two months after was joined by two others, who renewed their profession in 1568, St. John taking the new religious name of John of the Cross.

St. John, after tasting the first joys of contemplation, found himself deprived of all sensible devotion. Interior trouble of mind, scruples and a dislike of spiritual exercises followed this spiritual dryness, and, while the devil assaulted him with violent temptations, men persecuted him by calumnies. The most terrible of all these pains was that of scrupulosity and interior desolation, which he described in his book called "The Dark Night of the Soul." This was succeeded by another more grievous trial of spiritual darkness, accompanied with interior pain and temptations in which God seemed to have forsaken him. But following this terrible tempest he was filled with divine love and new light.

Grave troubles were arising between the Discalced and the original Carmelites. The old friars looked on this reformation as a rebellion against their order. On the other hand, some of the Discalced exceeded their powers and rights. At length, in 1577, the provincial of Castile ordered St. John to return to his original friary at Medina. He refused on the grounds that he had permission from the papal nuncio and not from the order. St. John was kidnapped and suffered terribly under certain members of the original Carmelites including beatings and imprisonment.

John made his escape after nine months in prison. He then began those writings on the spiritual life that made him a Doctor of the Church in mystical theology.

Certain friars of his own reform had it in for John. They spread false accusations against him to try to get him removed from the order. St. John, in the midst of all this, became ill and he chose to reside at a friary, which had a prior of the reform who held a grudge against him. Here he suffered great pain and submitted cheerfully to several operations. But the prior treated him very inhumanly. The provincial did all he could for the saint and reprimanded the prior so sharply that he was brought to repentance for his malice. After suffering acutely for nearly three months, St. John died on December 14, 1591. He was later made a Doctor of the Church and his feast day is December 14.

Prayer of a Soul Taken with Love

"Lord God, my Beloved, if You remember still my sins in such a way that you do not do what I beg of You, do Your will concerning them, my God, which is what I most desire, and exercise Your goodness and mercy, and You will be known through them. And if it is that You are waiting for my good works so as to hear my prayer through their means, grant them to me, and work them for me, and the sufferings You desire to accept, and let it be done. But if You are not waiting for my works, what is it that makes You wait, my most clement Lord? Why do You delay? For if, after all, I am to receive the grace and mercy which I ask of You in Your Son, take my strength, since You desire it, and grant me this blessing, since You also desire that.

Who can free himself from lowly manners and limitations if You do not lift him to Yourself, my God, in purity of love? How will a man raised and brought up in lowliness rise up to You, Lord, if You do not raise him with Your hand which made Him?

You will not take from me, my God, what You once gave me in Your only Son, Jesus Christ, in Whom You gave me all I desire. Therefore, I rejoice that if I wait for You, You will not delay." Amen.

(Prayer taken and adapted from "The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross," ICS publications, Washington D.C., 1979, pp. 668, 669)