Church Mystics:

St. John of the Cross

Saint John of the Cross was born in 1542  to a poor family.  His father died at a young age and he was raised by his mother and the Church.  He had solid formation in Catholic doctrine and ardent love for the Lord Jesus.  St. John was ordained a priest for the Carmelites in 1567 and loved solitude and contemplation.   He considered entering the strictest of Orders, the Carthusians. He met and began to work with  Saint Teresa of Ávila whose combination of charm, intelligence, and drive was difficult to resist.  St. John joined her project to recapture the original purity of the Carmelite Order.    John set out with her to found new, reformed Carmelite houses and to reinvigorate existing ones.

The reforms St. John and St. Teresa of Avila implemented were practical.  The monks and nuns were to spend more hours chanting the breviary in common, to do more spiritual reading, to spend more hours in silence, to practice contemplative prayer, to abstain completely from meat, and to endure longer, more radical fasts. The reformed Carmelites eventually became known after their most noticeable change. They strictly adhered to the Carmelite Rule’s original prohibition against wearing shoes. So by the time they were canonically established as their own Order, distinct from the historic Carmelites, they were called the Discalced, or Shoeless, Carmelites.

Saint John spent his life traveling throughout Central and Southern Spain carrying out an intense priestly ministry all while living a recollected life which his own contemporaries recognized as saintly. He was a chaplain to convents, a spiritual director to university colleges, a confessor, a preacher, a founder, and a superior of monasteries. And, most distinctively, he was a contemplative who wrote with elegance and artistic flower about falling in love with God. His Dark Night of the Soul, Spiritual Canticle, Ascent of Mount Carmel, and Living Flame of Love are, on their surface, poetic masterpieces of the Spanish language. At a deeper level, they each describe, in surprising detail and through various biblical metaphors, the soul’s search for Christ and its joy in finding Him, or its pain in losing Him.

For John, being authentic was not a spirituality. Being bonded to Christ was. To see through material forms into God’s inner life, to contemplate God in His very nature, was prayer. The soul seeks God like the bride seeks her bridegroom. And the Bridegroom did more than manifest an image, He manifested reality. The Church is both mother and bride, and her faithful learn of Christ, and seek Him, only inside of her life. Saint John of the Cross deepened the word “mystery” to include more than its objective meaning in the Sacraments. For John, every soul had a mysterious union with God that had to be, and only could be, cultivated in silent contemplation.