By CAROLE BRESLIN
Over 2,000 years ago a child was born into poverty. His advent would change the world to such an extent that even our calendars are numbered according to the days He walked on the earth. About 1,500 years after His death, another child was born into poverty. Although his significance is not nearly as important as the Christ Child’s, he left a great impact on the spirituality of the Catholic Church. The people of Spain have recognized him as the greatest Spanish poet in their history. St. John of the Cross, a man of God, denied himself, took up his cross, and followed Christ.
In 1542, a poverty-stricken weaver, Gonzalo de Yepes, who had been disinherited by his wealthy family for having married beneath his station, and his wife welcomed John into their lives with great joy. He was born in Fontiveros, about 100 miles southeast of Madrid. Not long after his father died, his mother left for Medina to try and provide for her young family. Since young John showed little promise of becoming a weaver, he became a servant to the head of the hospital in Medina.
While there, he studied at the Jesuit school where he was already practicing bodily penances.
In 1563 he took the habit of the Carmelites. Like St. Teresa of Avila, whom he would meet some years later, he sought to follow the original and much stricter rules of the Carmelites and received permission to do so. By 1567, he was ordained and considered joining the Carthusians to live as a hermit.
Providentially, St. Teresa of Avila arrived in Medina to set up a convent for her new Discalced Carmelites. She met with John — still a Carmelite priest — and persuaded him to join her in her endeavor to establish the reformed Carmelites. St. Teresa had received permission to found two reformed houses for men, for which he would be the “first instrument.”
The first house was established in Duruelo, where John took the name John of the Cross. In 1568 two men joined him. The sanctity of this reformed house of Carmelites spread, igniting a fire of holiness requiring the establishment of more houses in Pastrana, Mancera, and eventually a fourth in 1570 at Alcala.
St. Teresa soon made John the first master of novices. His austerity, sacrifices, and holiness drew many more men. He placed great emphasis on solitude, humility, and mortifications, which was a great motivation to his associates. Having experienced some consolations, he now experienced great trials of aridity. He was assaulted by the Devil, and learned the way of purification as a step on the Ascent of Mount Carmel.
St. Teresa was there with him during these trials, so similar to hers. As the number of houses increased, Teresa wrote about the rules in her Book of Foundations. John held his position as novice master for about five years before he was called to the convent of the Incarnation to serve as confessor for the Carmelites under St. Teresa in 1571.
As happens with all endeavors seeking to do God’s will, troubles were brewing. The confusion caused by having three different “superiors” — the officer general, the papal nuncio, and the prior general — resulted in resentment as well. The moderated Carmelites saw the work of John and Teresa as rebellion. They sought to put an end to their work, so they ordered John to return to Medina immediately. John refused, since he had the permission of the papal nuncio.
Hence, armed men came and carried him off to Toledo where he was put in a dark and dank cell. The men there beat him so severely that he bore the scars for the rest of his life. As his biographer noted, this treatment was a stage on the way to holiness and spiritual growth, as Teresa had written — insults, slanders, physical pain, agony of the soul, and the temptation to give in. Obviously, he suffered much, this John of the Cross.
Yet during this period, he wrote some of his most beautiful poetry. You can imprison the body, but never the soul. Perhaps his greatest suffering was not being able to celebrate the Mass. When he mentioned this to his prior, the prior responded that he would not let John say Mass as long as he lived.
Such sorrow was alleviated when the Blessed Mother appeared to John, revealing to him how she would help him escape from the prison. He did so by going through a window and lowering himself down by rags tied together. The circumstances surrounding this escape seem miraculous. He made his way to Monte Calvario, after staying briefly at the friary of Beas de Segura.
In 1579 he went to Baeza to become head of the college. Two years later, he was made prior of the Carmelites at Los Martires near Granada. During this time he began writing down his meditations on mystical theology, which have been so popular down through the centuries. So penetrating and profound, these writings resulted in his becoming a doctor of the Church. (The complete works of St. John of the Cross can be found in one volume — well worth our time.)
When St. Teresa died in 1582, conflicts intensified between the moderate and the extreme Carmelites. John did not favor the separation that some promoted. When he became vicar of Andalusia and sought to institute reforms, his enemies attacked again. Nevertheless, he founded more friaries before becoming prior of Granada. The success of the Discalced Carmelites was so pronounced that the Holy See ordered a separation of the two factions into two separate organizations.
Angered by this, his superior sent him to the friary of La Penuela in 1591. John found peace at La Penuela. It was isolated and far removed from many interactions with men, so that he remarked: “For I have less to confess when I am among these rocks than when I am among men.”
Are we surprised that his enemies still did not rest? John was again slandered and falsely accused so successfully that many burned any of his communications, fearing to be associated with him. He became ill, so he was sent to Ubeda where another antagonist was residing. The journey made the ill priest even worse. He suffered great pain, necessitating several surgeries.
The cruelty of the prior proved itself when he forbade John any visitors, kindness, or food sufficient for recovery. When the provincial learned of this, he brought the prior to repentance by his severe reprimand. John continued to fail and finally died on December 14, 1591.
Dear St. John of the Cross, you knew that God’s yoke was easy and His burden light. Teach us how we may find joy in this life through suffering, knowing that the pleasures are for this world, but joy is for the next. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. Mrs. Breslin’s articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review and in the Marian Catechist Newsletter. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)