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The Life and Legacy of Saint John of the Cross

Articles | December 14, 2023 | by Catholics for Catholics

December 14th marks the liturgical memorial of Saint John of the Cross, a 16th century Carmelite priest renowned for his contributions towards the reformation of his order alongside Saint Teresa of Avila. Saint John is also famous for his spiritual treatise “The Dark Night of the Soul.”

Saint John received the prestigious title of Doctor of the Church in 1926, and is often referred to as the “Mystical Doctor” due to the depth of his teachings on the soul’s connection with God.

Born in 1542 in Fontiveros, near Avila, Spain, Saint John was the youngest child of silk-weaving parents. His father passed away when he was young, and his mother Catalina struggled to provide for the family. Saint John excelled in academics from an early age, but failed in his attempt to learn a trade as an apprentice. Instead, he spent several years working at a hospital for the poor while also continuing his studies at a Jesuit college.

Saint John joined the Carmelite order in 1563 after feeling called to lead a monastic life. Before joining, he practiced physical asceticism and was granted permission to live according to the original rule of life of the Carmelites. This rule emphasized solitude, silence, poverty, work, and contemplative prayer. After studying in Salamanca, he was ordained as a priest in 1567. However, he considered transferring to the more austere Carthusian order rather than remaining with the Carmelites.

Saint John met Saint Teresa of Avila before he could transfer to the Carthusian order. Saint Teresa had made remarkable spiritual progress since joining the order in 1535, and during the 1560s, she initiated a movement to return the Carmelites to the strict observance of their original way of life. She convinced Saint John not to leave the order, but to work towards reforming it.

Saint John began working on reforming the Carmelite order in November of 1568, accompanied by two other members with whom he shared a small and austere house. Saint John was in charge of the new recruits to the “Discalced Carmelites,” the name adopted by the reformed group since they wore sandals as a sign of poverty rather than ordinary shoes. He also spent five years as the confessor at a monastery in Avila led by Saint Teresa.

Their reforming movement grew quickly, but also faced severe opposition that threatened its future during the 1570s. In December of 1577, during a dispute over his assignment within the order, opponents of the strict observance imprisoned Saint John in a tiny cell. His ordeal lasted nine months and included regular public floggings along with other harsh punishments. However, during this very period, he composed the poetry that would serve as the foundation for his spiritual writings.

Saint John escaped from prison in August of 1578, after which he resumed the work of founding and directing Discalced Carmelite communities. Over the course of a decade, he set out his spiritual teachings in works such as “The Ascent of Mount Carmel,” “The Spiritual Canticle” and “The Living Flame of Love,” as well as “The Dark Night of the Soul.” However, intrigue within the order eventually cost him his leadership position, and his later years were marked by illness and further mistreatment.

Saint John of the Cross passed away in the early hours of December 14th, 1591, nine years after Saint Teresa of Avila’s death in October 1582. His reputation had suffered unjustly for years, but this situation soon reversed after his death. He was beatified in 1675, canonized in 1726, and named a Doctor of the Church in the 20th century by Pope Pius XI. In a letter marking the 400th anniversary of Saint John’s death, Pope John Paul II – who had written a doctoral thesis on the saint’s writings – recommended studying the Spanish mystic, whom he called a “master in the faith and witness to the living God.” Saint John’s writings stress the importance of loving God above all else, holding nothing back, and being held back by nothing.

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