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John of the Cross, St.


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.

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 also 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 Matía. After his novitiate and profession of vows, he went for studies to his order's College of San Andrés at Salamanca.

He enrolled at the university in Salamanca in the school of arts from 1564 to 1567 and in the theological course from 1567 to 1568. 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 as prefect of studies while still a student. As prefect his duties were 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 he made profession of the Carmelite Primitive Rule at Duruelo, Nov. 28, 1568, 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 John was appointed subprior and novice master. Later he was named rector of a newly established house of studies in Alcalá. 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.

While he was confessor there, the reform grew rapidly. But the attitude of the Carmelite Order toward the reform began to change mainly due to a conflict of jurisdiction. 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, maintaining that he had remained at the Incarnation by order of the nuncio. They declared him a rebel and imprisoned him. He lived nine 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 devoted much time to the guidance of lay people as well as giving spiritual direction to the Carmelite friars and nuns.

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 to expel 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. As 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, O 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 CarmelThe 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 CarmelThe 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 because 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 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.

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 contradiction 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 writes 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 ten poems. These minor works deal chiefly with the same themes as the major works.

Feast: Nov. 24.

Bibliography: The Collected Works of Saint John of the Cross, trans. k. kavanaugh and o. rodriguez, rev. ed. (Washington, D.C. 1991). k. kavanaugh, John of the Cross: Doctor of Light and Love (New York 1999). c. thompson, The Poet and the Mystic: A Study of the Cantico Espiritual of San Juan de la Cruz (Oxford 1977). r. hardy, Search for Nothing: The Life of John of the Cross (New York 1982). i. matthew, The Impact of God: Soundings from St. John of the Cross (London 1995). e. pacho et al, Introdccion a la lectura cde San Juan de la Cruz (Salamanca 1991). s. payne, John of the Cross and the Cognitive Value of Mysticism: An Analysis of Sanjuanist Teaching and Its Philosophical Implications for Contemporary Discussions of Mystical Experience (Dordrecht 1990). f. ruiz et al, God Speaks in the Night, trans. k. kavanaugh (Washington, D.C. 1991, repr. 2000). g. tavard, Poetry and Contemplation in Saint John of the Cross (Athens, Ohio 1988). k. wojtyŁa, Faith according to St. John of the Cross, trans. j. aumann (San Francisco 1981).

[k. kavanaugh]

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