John of the Cross, St. (1542-1591)
St. John of the Cross, born John Yepes y Alvarez, a Spanish mystic, is considered one of the greatest poets of the Spanish Renaissance. Also, he is recognized as a leading authority of Western mysticism. He was attracted to the Carmelite order, a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church founded in the twelfth century by a group of hermits on Mount Carmel, Israel, and devoted to the ancient prophets Elijah and Elisha, who are said to once lived on the mount. St. John of the Cross became a Carmelite monk at the age of twenty-one and was ordained a priest when he was twenty-five.
The laxity that he found within the order disheartened him, and cooperating with his confidant and friend St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross worked for reformation of the Carmelites. Both he and St. Teresa of Avila founded other monasteries and convents and advocated disciplinary reforms. Their personal correspondence between each other is intensely mystical, describing in terms of human love the ecstasy and the agony of their struggles for personal spiritual perfection, and specifically the mystical experience of the union of the human soul with God.
When he was thirty-five St. John of the Cross was kidnapped and imprisoned by unreformed Carmelites. After two years he escaped and founded the Discalced Carmelites. (The term “discalced” literally means barefoot; however, the current disclaced monks may wear sandals rather than shoes, as symbolic of their stricter observance.) He was appointed rector of a new Carmelite college at Baeza.
During his two years of imprisonment St. John of the Cross wrote The Spiritual Canticle; and, following his escape he wrote The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Living Flame of Love, and his most famous work The Dark Night of the Soul, which is a continuation of The Ascent of Mount Carmel.
The writings describe the soul’s journey toward God, and detail the three stages of mystical union: purgation, illumination, and union. Detachment and suffering are presented as requirements for the purification and illumination of the soul. St. John of the Cross depicts the “dark night of the soul” as “an inflowing of God into the soul, which purges it from its ignorances and imperfections, habitual, natural, and spiritual, and which is called by contemplatives infused contemplation or mystical theology.” The phrase “dark night of the soul” has since become a reference to the state of intense personal spiritual struggle including the experience of utter hopelessness and isolation.
St. John of the Cross like St. Teresa of Avila was also concerned with the workings of the Devil. He believed Christ protected faithful Christians but tempted when they showed the slightest weakness with ingenious suggestion, which through them off-guard leaving them confused and disgusted with themselves. The Devil often encourages self-righteousness and false humility and discourages us from prayer; he causes us to feel guilty for having received God’s grace and to labor under the impossible burden of trying to earn it; he makes us ill- tempered toward others; he creates illusions and distractions in the intellect; he inspires the doubt and fear that the understanding that we are granted in contemplation is an illusion. Sometimes we feel that we have lost control of our souls, as if demons are tossing us back and forth like balls. Sometimes we feel that we have made no progress, but even when the boat is becalmed, God is secretly stirring in the sails and moving us along.
The poetic genius of St. John of the Cross stems from his Jesuit training and his familiarity with the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, which allowed him to embody scholastic theology and philosophy in his verse. In The Spiritual Canticle he describes the “Spiritual Marriage” of God and the human soul. “In this tranquility the understanding sees itself raised upon a new and strange way, to the Divine Light, much as one who, after a long sleep, opens his eyes to a light which he was not expecting.”
St. John of the Cross died in Ubeda on December 14, 1591. He was canonized in 1726, and two hundred years later was given the extremely rare title of Doctor of the Church, that is, an ecclesiastic of extraordinary learning and saintliness.