St. John of the Cross

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There is much to be said about St. John and I will try by starting with the Preface of the Paulist Press Publication  "John of the Cross: Selected Writings." 

"The Preface"

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Both seasoned and new readers of St. John of the Cross are in the debt of Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and the Paulist Press for the present volume. Highly esteemed for his translations of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, Kieran Kavanaugh is probably the best informed English speaking scholar on the lives and teaching of the two Carmelite doctors. His choice of texts, therefore, is an expert opinion on what is key in John's synthesis. For newcomers the selections provide easier access to the sometimes prolix author. John's writings lend themselves to this kind of presentation: Certain chapters stand out for their power, lucidity, and summary quality. In short, the volume is a wonderful breviary of the essential John of the Cross.

But is he not an author for specialists only, for the scholar or the saint? The editors of the Classics of Western Spirituality apparently think otherwise. I agree and applaud their decision to produce this collection. While John needs to be read judiciously, he has something for everyone, as he himself suggests in the prologue to The Ascent of Mount Carmel. His goal is that "everyone who reads this book will in some way discover the road he is walking, and the one he ought to follow if he wants to reach the summit"

John of the Cross offers a profound and solid spirituality, suitable for all manner of vocations in the Church today. He is not just a curiosity from the late Middle Ages. He is recognized by the Catholic community as the mystical doctor. A taste for his teaching is a mark of spiritual maturity.

The entire corpus of his works describes the process of assimilation into the Paschal Mystery. There are three phases: It begins with the halcyon days of first conversion, when the gifts of creation, especially other human beings, lead the person into deeper appreciation and love of God; then there is the eclipse of that optimism in the purifying dark nights; finally the journey culminates in divine union, when transcendence and incarnation are complete and the divine and the human interpenetrate. John does not dwell on the first phase, though it is there. His emphasis falls on purification, which is largely the work of contemplation, and divine union. Sometimes people are not aware of his beginnings. I recall in my ardent Charismatic Renewal days friends would sometimes chide me for belonging to the Renewal and at the same time claiming discipleship under John of the Cross. Was this not a contradiction? I would reply that John would have been delighted with the Renewal, but that he would also say: "Now that you have discovered the Lord, read my books. "

The conditions for entering the narrow way are utter simplicity: eyes on Jesus and total honesty. John discloses the secret sins of a self-centered piety. He speaks of renunciation and detachment, not because of any excessively negative view of the human condition, but because of the goal proposed: the divine presence incarnate in the whole of human reality. Transcendence, not moral depravity, is the key to this teaching. In our idiom the language of integration better conveys the meaning. All of life is to be rooted in Jesus Christ. In the process human values may appear to be left in the shadows, but that is a temporary side-effect. After purification they reappear in their true glory, grounded in the pure soil of divine union.

No one has any quarrel with the sublimity of this teaching, but in our anthropocentric times there are sometimes doubts about John's commitment to the human and the world. Let it be said unequivocally that he does not undercut creation. He exalts it, not in its truncated, fragmented form apart from God, but in its truth with God in the center.

Without doubt John's eyes are fixed on God, but the living God, not a counterfeit domesticated and betrayed by human projections. To encounter the real God is not easy; it demands a radical and total redemption of heart and mind. But if our author is the enemy of easy, self-serving ways, he is also the protagonist of the fullest human development. His overriding point is that Christian humanism demands Christ at the center of things.

Herein lies the relevance of St. John of the Cross. He offers the deepest foundation for the promotion of human values. He gives no strategy for changing things from the outside, such as liberation theology or Christian involvement in any form. But he offers something even more important: a soul for the renewal of persons, Church, and world. However foreign his culture or strange his language, however dated his world view or different his life-style, he supplies a spiritual anthropology that has not been superseded by any other author. May this new collection of his thought flourish.

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Saint John of the Cross

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Founder (with St. Teresa) of the Discalced Carmelites, Doctor of the Church, renowned for his poetry and writings in ascetical-mystical theology; b. Fontiveros, Spain, June 24, 1542; d. Ubeda, Dec. 14, 1591 (feast, Nov. 24).

Life. Gonzalo de Yepes, John's father, was disowned by his wealthy family of silk merchants for marrying a humble silk weaver, Catalina Alvarez. When forced to adapt to surroundings of poverty and hard work, Gonzalo died young, shortly after the birth of John, his third son.

John received his elementary education in Medina del Campo at an institution for the children of the poor, in which he was also fed and clothed. Besides his elementary studies, he was introduced to various crafts through apprenticeships. At 17 he found work at a hospital in Medina and was able to enroll in the Jesuit College, where he received solid training in the humanities.

In 1563, he entered the Carmelite Order in Medina and changed his name to Fray Juan de Santo Matia. After his novitiate and profession of vows, he went for studies to his order's College of San Andr6s at Salamanca.

He enrolled at the university in Salamanca in the school of arts for the years 1564 to 1567 and in the theological course, 1567-68. In the school of arts, he attended classes in philosophy; in theology, he probably heard the lectures of Mancio de Corpus Christi, OP, on the Summa of St. Thomas. An indication of Fray Juan's talents is evident in his appointment, while still a student, as prefect of studies. This office obliged him to teach class daily, defend public theses, and assist the regent master in resolving objections.

He was ordained in 1567, and while in Medina to sing his first Mass, he met Teresa of Avila, who had begun a reform within the order. She spoke to him of her plan to restore the Carmelite Primitive Rule for the friars as well as the nuns. Fray Juan, who had been longing for a life of deeper solitude and was thinking about transferring to the Carthusians, promised to adopt this life. With two others, at Duruelo, Nov. 28, 1568, he made profession of the Carmelite Primitive Rule, and changed his name to Fray John of the Cross. The new life in keeping with the Primitive Rule was austere and predominantly contemplative. But the active apostolate was not excluded; it consisted mainly of preaching and hearing confessions. The friars of this new reform wore sandals and were soon referred to as Discalced Carmelites.

At Duruelo Fray Juan was appointed subprior and novice master. Later he was named rector of a newly established house of studies in Alcala. In the spring of 1571, Teresa was ordered to govern the Convent of the Incarnation and to reform its 130 nuns. Realizing the need of a prudent, learned, and holy confessor at the Incarnation, she obtained permission from the apostolic visitor to have Fray John as confessor.

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While he was confessor there, the reform grew rapidly. But the attitude of the Carmelite Order toward the reform, for reasons due mainly to a conflict of jurisdiction, began to change. In 1575, in a chapter at Piacenza, it was determined to stop the expansion of the reform of the order.

On the night of Dec. 2, 1577, some Carmelites seized Fray John, took him to Toledo, and demanded a renunciation of the reform. He refused to renounce it, maintaining that he had remained at the Incarnation by order of the nuncio. They declared him a rebel and imprisoned him. He lived 9 months in a cell 6 feet wide and 10 feet long, with no light other than what came through a slit high up in the wall. During this imprisonment he composed some of his great poems. In August 1578, in a perhaps miraculous way, he escaped; eventually he journeyed to a monastery of Discalced in southern Spain.

The following years were given to administration: he was prior on several occasions, rector of the Carmelite College in Baeza, and vicar provincial of the southern province. in 1588 he was elected major definitor, becoming a member of the reform's new governing body, headed by Father Doria.

During these years as superior he did most of his writing. He also, besides giving spiritual direction to the Carmelite friars and nuns, devoted much time to the guidance of lay people.

His deep life of prayer is evident in the splendid descriptions of The Spiritual Canticle and The Living Flame of Love. He once admitted: "God communicates the mystery of the Trinity to this sinner in such a way that if His Majesty did not strengthen my weakness by a special help, it would be impossible for me to live."

Toward the end of his life, a controversy arose within the reform. Father Doria desired to abandon jurisdiction over the nuns founded by St. Teresa and also the expulsion of Father Gratian, a favorite confessor of Teresa, from the reform. As a member of the governing body, Fray John of the Cross opposed Doria in both matters. For obvious reasons John was not elected to any office in the chapter of 1591. He was instead sent to a solitary monastery in southern Spain. While there, he heard news of the efforts being made to expel him also from the reform.

In mid-September, he noted a slight fever caused by an ulcerous inflammation of the leg. Since the sickness grew worse, he was obliged to leave the solitude he so loved for the sake of medical attention. He chose to go to Ubeda rather than Baeza because "in Ubeda, nobody knows me."

The prior of Ubeda received him unwillingly and complained of the added expense. On the night of December 13, John of the Cross died, repeating the words of the psalmist: "Into your hands, 0 Lord, I commend my spirit."

In 1592 his body was transferred to Segovia. He was beatified by Clement X in 1675, canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726, and declared a Doctor of the Church by Pius XI in 1926.

Writings. The saint's major treatises are The Ascent of Mount Carmel- The Dark Night, The Spiritual Canticle, and The Living Flame of Love. These writings have greatly influenced studies in spiritual theology. Pius XI, in proclaiming St. John of the Cross a Doctor of the Church, stated that they are rightly looked upon as a code and guide for the faithful soul endeavoring to embrace a more perfect life.

The Ascent of Mount Carmel- The Dark Night, beginning as a commentary on the poem The Dark Night, is a treatise on how to reach perfection (union with God). The poem, St. John says, refers to the path of perfection as a dark night for three reasons: the soul on this path must mortify its appetites, journey in faith, and receive God's communication. These reasons involve privation just as night involves a privation of light. The Ascent has three books and the Dark Night, two.

Book One of the Ascent discusses the mortification of all voluntary, inordinate appetites; for these appetites are contrary to the perfect love of God. It frequently refers as well to the active night (or purification) of the senses, teaching that a man must acquire the habit of using his sense faculties only for God's honor and glory, out of love for Christ and in imitation of Him.

Books Two and Three of the Ascent treat of the journey in faith, especially as it is in the active purification of the spirit. The soul must walk in the darkness of faith to reach union with God, and deprive itself of everything contradicting full adherence to God and to the law of Christ and of His Church. In the active night (or purification) of the spirit, a man must endeavor to purge his spiritual faculties through the theological virtues. The saint explains how each of these virtues purifies its respective faculty of whatever is not for God's glory, and unites it to God. In these two books he has especially in mind souls receiving contemplation; hence, in seeking to purify their spiritual faculties they must also turn aside in prayer from particular knowledge in order to receive through a general, loving attentiveness to God in faith the general, loving knowledge of God, which is the meaning of contemplation.

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The two books of the Dark Night describe how God purifies the soul passively. The discussion of God's communication is limited to that communication called purgative contemplation. Because this contemplation is dark and painful to the soul it is called a night.

Book One of the Night deals with the defects of beginners, the signs of initial contemplation, and the benefits of the passive purification of the senses. Book Two gives a vivid picture and analyses of the purgative contemplation that God infuses in the passive night of the spirit.

Through these active and passive purifications, the soul reaches union with God, ridding itself of everything out of conformity with His will. In this union, it habitually employs all its faculties, appetites, operations, and emotions in God, so that in its activity it resembles God; this union is called "the union of likeness."

The Spiritual Canticle comprises a poem (a loving colloquy between the soul and Christ) and its commentary. The stanzas of the poem are like outpourings of that love which arose from the abundant mystical knowledge communicated by God to the soul of the saint. They recount the history of his love of Christ and its forward movement, and mark the degrees and stages of his spiritual life. In its general plan the poem dwells on four main aspects of the life of divine love: (1) the anxious loving search for the Beloved; (2) the first encounter with Him; (3) perfect union with Him; (4) the desire for that perfect union that will be had in glory.

The chief elements of the commentary include: a general summary of the content of each stanza, a detailed explanation of each verse, and frequent doctrinal explanations of the thought.

The Living Flame of Love is also a poem with a commentary. This poem is the song of a soul that has reached a highly perfect love within the state of transformation. The state of transformation in God is the loftiest attainable on earth. It is equivalent to the state called "spiritual marriage" in the Canticle and "the divine union" in the Ascent-Night: a habitual union with God through the likeness of love. The four stanzas of the Living Flame refer to transient, intense actual unions (in contradistinction to the habitual union) experienced by one advanced within this state of transformation.

The commentary, like that of the Canticle, gives a general summary of each stanza, a detailed explanation of each verse, and many doctrinal explanations.

In his major works, therefore, St. John of the Cross treats mainly of how one reaches perfection (or union with God), and of the life of divine union itself. In brief, this union is reached through the practice of the theological virtues, which purify the soul and unite it with God. The life of union with God is a life of perfect faith, hope, and charity.

His remaining writings include relatively few letters, various maxims and counsels, and about 10 poems. These minor works deal chiefly with the same themes as the major works.


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Fray John was ordained to the priesthood in the spring of I567, but not until the beginning of September did he sing his first Mass in his home town, Medina del Campo. This visit to Medina was the occasion for his fateful meeting with Madre Teresa of Jesus, who was in the city arranging the final details of her second foundation of a community of nuns professing the Carmelite life in the Reform which she had begun. She was at the time considering the extension of her strict Reform to the friars. When a young student from the University of Salamanca suggested Fray John as a possible prospect to help her in this new field of endeavor, she immediately arranged for an interview with him. She was fifty-two at this time, and he was twenty-five. Fray Juan told her in confidence about his Ionging to transfer to the Carthusian Order for the sake of embracing a life of deeper solitude and prayer. The holy Madre pointed out to him that he could find this without leaving 'Our Lady's Order," and spoke of her plan to restore the Primitive Rule for the friars of the Mitigation. Showing interest, Fray John promised to adopt this life within the Order, but only on the condition that be would not have too long a wait.

The following summer, after finishing his studies in theology, be was appointed assistant professor at the Monastery of Santa Ana in Medina. By that time the Madre had returned to the city and was able to tell him about the small farmhouse in Duruelo which had been offered her and which might prove adequate for the first monastery of the Reform among the friars. Fray John had long interviews with Madre Teresa to learn about the new form of life he had decided to take up. In order that he familiarize himself further with details of the Reform by observing firsthand the daily routine of the nuns, it was decided that he accompany Madre Teresa to the new foundation in Valladolid as confessor and chaplain to the new community. He remained in Valladolid from August 10 until October 1, when Madre Teresa, fully satisfied with the training of her novice, sent him to Duruelo to adapt the farmhouse according to her plan and direction. Fray John made the journey to Duruelo with a young man aspiring to be a lay brother in the new Reform. By the end of November they had converted this little house with its porch, main room, alcove, and small kitchen into the first monastery of the friars of the Reform. Besides Fray John and the prospective lay brother, three others decided to embrace this new mode of life within the Carmelite Order; one of these was sixty-year-old Fray Antonio de Heredia, the former Prior of the monastery in Medina. On the first Sunday of Advent, November 28, 1568, the Father Provincial said Mass and then received the renunciation of the Mitigated Rule from the little community and their profession of the Primitive Rule. Fray Juan de Santo Matia at that time changed his name to Fray John of the Cross.

The new life they undertook in keeping with the Primitive Rule was predominantly contemplative, but the active apostolate was by no means absent. The contemplative element comprised the recitation of the Divine Office in common, with Matins recited at the hour of midnight; two hours of mental prayer daily; and conventual Mass. The Rule and Constitutions called likewise for fasts and total abstinence from flesh meat; poverty in the type of dwelling, clothing, and food; enclosure and withdrawal from the world. They were also to go barefoot, and thus were soon referred to as the Discalced Carmelites. Their active work consisted mainly of preaching and of hearing confessions.

In the spring of 1569, the Father Provincial raised the status of the new foundation to the rank of a Priory with the authorization to receive novices. Fray Antonio was appointed Prior, and Fray John of the Cross, Superior and novice master.

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