December 13, 2017

St. John of the Cross, Patron of Mystics

Saint John of the Cross

Memorial - December 14th

"How gently and lovingly
You wake in my heart, 
Where in secret You dwell alone; 
And in Your sweet breathing, 
Filled with good and glory, 
How tenderly 
You swell my heart with love."

At first glance, you might think that the lines of poetry quoted above were the work of one of the great English Romantic poets, like Wordsworth or Keats; if so, it may come as a surprise that this beautiful verse was actually written by an ascetic Carmelite. "The Living Flame of Love," from which this stanza was taken, was composed by one of the great mystics and doctors of the Church, St. John of the Cross, and expresses "the soul in the intimate communication of loving union with God."

St. John of the Cross was born into poverty in Spain in 1541. After the death of his father, John’s widowed mother struggled to keep her family together despite homelessness and destitution. At the age of 14, John went to work in a hospital, where he cared for patients suffering from incurable diseases and mental illness; at night, he studied Latin and rhetoric. Though later offered a position as hospital chaplain, John instead decided to join the Carmelite Order. He lived more strictly than the Rule required and, for a while, even considered becoming a Carthusian monk. His plans changed, however, when he met St. Teresa of Avila in 1567.

It was she who persuaded him to work with her to establish "discalced" or reformed Carmelite houses for men as she had for women. This he undertook with fervor, but it wasn’t long before the price of reform caught up with him. Many of his fellow Carmelites were not as enthusiastic about reform as John, and misunderstanding, persecution and even imprisonment by his own order soon followed.  For nine months, he was kept in a cold, dark cell that measured six feet by ten feet. Alone and seemingly abandoned by God, John could have become a bitter and cynical man. Instead, it was here that he composed some of his most lyrical poetry as he came to experience mystical union with God.

John finally managed to escape from his cell, unscrewing the lock on his door and then lowering himself out a window with a rope made of strips of blanket. He sought sanctuary in a convent infirmary, where he read his poetry to the nuns who were caring for him. From then on, John devoted his life to sharing, through his writings, his profound experience of God’s love.

When the discalced Carmelites were granted autonomy, John was able to live out the rest of his life in relative peace. But his life of poverty and persecution had in the meantime produced a mystic who felt nothing but love for God and compassion for his people. "Who has ever seen people persuaded to love God by harshness?" he once said, and again, "Where there is no love, put love — and you will find love."

St. John of the Cross, who died in 1591, left behind many written works that are as relevant for us today as they were for the Christians of his own time. "Ascent of Mount Carmel,"  "Dark Night of the Soul" and "A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul" are some of the more familiar ones which also earned him the title of doctor of the Church. This designation, which he received in 1926, means that his writing is of great advantage to the faithful living in any age of the Church.

No comments :