September 21-27, 2003
Time After Pentecost
vol 14, no. 37

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Saint John of the Cross

Apostle of Perseverance

    The twenty-ninth Doctor in this chronological series on the Doctors of the Church was born in Spain and throughout his life had obstacle after obstacle placed in his path. Despite the roadblocks, from the earliest possible drowning accident he was protected - under the mantle of the Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph. He longed for perfection, desiring to please only Our Lord, so much so that he accepted pain and suffering willfully, even to being demeaned and ridiculed, called an apostate and worse. Through all of this he still kept the Faith when all about him wanted to take it away. He was encouraged by a saintly pupil whom he aided greatly in reform of the Carmelites. God confirmed to all his persecutors that this holy priest was right and deserved the aura of sanctity at his death which this saint had foretold the exact year, month, day and hour. He wrote a book that boosts the confidence of so many who have those times of doubt about their Faith. He showed where faith is not about feelings, but about perseverance during those dark nights of the soul. He was the dauntless Saint John of the Cross.

    He was born Juan de Yepes y Alvarez in Fontiveros at Old Castile, Spain on June 24, 1542 of very poor parents, Saint John of the Cross was the youngest son of a silk weaver who died shortly after his birth. John's mother moved to Medina del Campo where he was educated in the catechism school under the Jesuits there and learned to love his faith greatly at an early age.

    As a child, he was playing near a pond one day when he slid into the depths of the water, but came up unharmed and did not sink again. A tall and beautiful Lady came to offer him Her hand. “No,” said the child, “You are too beautiful; my hand will dirty Yours.” Then an elderly gentleman appeared on the shore and extended his staff to the child to bring him to shore. These two were Mary and Joseph. Another time he fell into a well, and it was expected he would be retrieved lifeless. But he was seated and waiting peacefully. “A beautiful lady,” he said, “took me into Her cloak and sheltered me.” Thus John grew up under the gaze of Our Lady.

    Though he had developed the trade of male nurse, he opted for the Carmelites by entering the seminary in 1563 for he had been praying for Christ to make known his vocation to him. An interior voice said to him: “You will enter a religious Order, whose primitive fervor you will restore.” He was twenty-one years old when he entered Carmel, and although he concealed his exceptional works, he outshone all his brethren. He dwelt in an obscure corner whose window opened upon the chapel, opposite the Most Blessed Sacrament. He wore around his waist an iron chain full of sharp points, and over it a tight vestment made of reeds joined by large knots. His disciplines were so cruel that his blood flowed in abundance.

    The priesthood only redoubled his desire for perfection. After ordination he returned to Medina del Campo where he first met Saint Teresa of Avila, a spiritual and philosophical bonding that would carry on through their lifetimes. Though he yearned to join the Carthusians because they offered a deeper comtemplative way of life where he could find solitude, it was Saint Teresa, whom God enlightened as to his merit, who made him the confidant of her projects for the reform of Carmel and asked him to be her auxiliary. She was able to convince him to stay and join her in reforming the Carmelite Order for both priests and nuns. Re-energized, he changed his name from John of Saint Matthias to John of the Cross dedicated to living Christ's words in Luke 9:23, "If anyone wishes to follow Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily."

    John retired alone to a poor and inadequate dwelling and began a new kind of life, conformed with the primitive Rules of the Order of Carmel. Shortly afterwards two companions came to join him; the reform was founded. It was not without storms that it developed, for hell seemed to rage and labor against it, and if the people venerated John as a Saint, he had to accept, from those who should have seconded him, incredible persecutions, insults, calumnies, and even prison. When Our Lord told him He was pleased with him, and asked him what reward he wished, the humble religious replied: “To suffer and to be scorned for You.” His reform, though approved by the General of the Order, was rejected by the older friars, who condemned the Saint as a fugitive and an apostate and cast him into prison, from which he only escaped, after nine months’ suffering, with the help of Heaven and at the risk of his life. He took refuge with the Carmelite nuns for a time, saying his experience in prison had been an extraordinary grace for him. Twice again, before his death, he would shamefully be persecuted by his brethren, and publicly disgraced.

    On November 28, 1568, aided by four others which included the former prior of the Carmelite Order in Medina Antonio de Heredia, he founded the first house of reform for Carmelite men at Durelo, Spain which marked the beginning of the Discalced Carmelites. Two years later he became rector of the Discalced house of studies at Alcala and in 1572 was reunited with St. Teresa when he was appointed spiritual director of her Convent of the Incarnation at Avila. During his five year stay here the Calced Carmelites, unhappy with the conservative bent of John and Teresa, mounted a campaign against the two saints.

    In 1577 those pre-modernist clerics and prelates kidnapped John and held him prisoner in Toledo, subjecting him to great hardships behind bars as well as intense pressure to give up his crusade for reform and holiness. It was during this time he wrote his famous "The Dark Night of the Soul" where only his faith and goal of the cross kept him sane. After nine months of this intensive punishment that challenged John's inner faith, he escaped the clutches of the Calced and, through the tireless efforts and never-say-no attitude of Teresa the Discalced Carmelites were finally officially recognized in 1579. Immediately John was placed in charge of the Discalced Carmelite College at Baeza for two years before being elected prior at Granada in 1582.

    Three years later he was appointed provincial of Andalusia and in 1587 selected prior at Segovia, Spain. Through out a twelve year period he established several Discalced houses for men, but in early 1591 the Madrid general chapter dealt the Discalced Carmelites a terrible blow by stripping John of all his offices because of his support for the conservative cause and reduced him to a simple monk, sending him to La Penuela Monastery in Andalusia. His enemies had hoped he'd become so discouraged he'd leave the order or do something that would prompt him to be expelled.

    Shortly after arriving at the monastery, John, ever the humble one, contracted a fever from which he never recovered. When he fell ill, he was given a choice of monasteries to which he might go; he chose the one governed by a religious whom he had once reprimanded and who could never pardon him for it. In effect, he was left untended most of the time, during his last illness. Though he had been moved to such an orthodox house - the priory at Ubeda - he knew he would never leave this priory again no matter how much medical attention he migth receive. True to his own prediction, he died shortly after arriving there on December 14, 1591. He had prophecied the day, date, time and place of his death and true to his words he passed on to a Greater Glory just as the friars began the midnight office.

    Immediately upon his death the room was filled with a marvelous light, and his unhappy Prior recognized his error, and that he had mistreated a Saint. After a first exhumation of his remains, they were found intact; many others followed, the last one in 1955. The body was at that time found to be entirely moist and flexible still. A true sign of his sanctity in that his body remained incorrupt.

    Saint John wrote spiritual books of sublime elevation. His own elevation to sainthood was completed by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726. This great mystic's writings, which, besides his famous "Dark Night of the Soul", also include "The Ascent of Mount Carmel," "The Spiritual Canticle," and "The Living Flame of Love," merited this "Apostle of Perseverance" the title of Doctor of the Church - which Pope Pius XI decreed in 1926.

    Note: [editor's bold, brackets and italicized for emphasis] Some of the sources taken from: Dictionary of Saints, John J. Delaney (Doubleday); Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints, a compilation based on Butler’s Lives of the Saints and other sources by John Gilmary Shea (Benziger Brothers: New York, 1894; Saints of the Roman Calendar, Enzo Lodi).

For the chronological list of the Doctors of the Church to date, see Archives.

      Doctors of the Church Series