Friday, 14 December 2012

With the Saints through Advent (15): 14 December, Saint John of the Cross

Saint John of the Cross ... Spanish mystic, poet, reformer, and author of ‘The Dark Night of the Soul

Patrick Comerford

The calendar of Common Worship in the Church of England and, since 2009, the calendar of the Episcopal Church (TEC) commemorate Saint John of the Cross as a “Teacher of the Faith” and “Mystic” on this day, 14 December.

He was once described by Thomas Merton as “the church’s safest mystical theologian.” Others have called Saint John of the Cross “the poet’s poet,” “spirit of flame,” “celestial and divine.” He was a Spanish mystic and a reforming Carmelite friar. He and Saint Teresa of Avila are the founders of the Discalced Carmelites, or Carmelites of the strict observance.

He is known for his wresting with what he calls “the Dark Night of the Soul,” and for his axiom that the soul must empty itself of self in order to be filled with God, that it must be purified of the last traces of earthly dross before it is fit to become united with God. His writings on the soul united with God in prayer reveal the most profound mystical expressions, experiences and insights.

He is often portrayed as a grim character. But, while was austere in the extreme with himself, and with others, his writings the accounts of those who knew him show him to have been a man overflowing with charity and kindness, and with a poetical mind that was deeply influenced by all that is beautiful and attractive.

Saint John of the Cross was born John de Yepes y Álvarez at Fontiveros, near Ávila in Spain on 24 June 1542. His father’s family were descended from Jews who had converted to Catholicism at the time of the Spanish Inquisition, and his father, Gonzalo de Yepes, was an accountant whose immediate family were prosperous silk merchants.

At an early age, John learned the importance of self-sacrificing love from his parents. His father, Gonzalo de Yepes, gave up wealth, status, and comfort when he married, Catalina Alvarez, the orphaned daughter of a poor silk weaver, and was disowned by his noble family. After his father died, his mother kept the destitute family together as they wandered homeless in search of work. These were the examples of sacrifice that John followed with his own great love for God.

When the family finally found work, John still went hungry in Medina del Campo, one of the wealthiest cities in Spain. At 14, he took a job caring for hospital patients who suffered from incurable diseases and psychiatric illnesses. It was out of this poverty and suffering that John learned to search for beauty and happiness not in the world, but in God.

By the age of 17, he had learned carpentry, tailoring, sculpturing, and painting through apprenticeships to local craftsmen. After university studies with the Jesuits, John entered the Carmelite Order in Medina del Campo.

He received the Carmelite habit on 24 February, 1563, and took the name of John of Saint Matthias. After his profession, he obtained leave from his superiors to follow to the letter the original Carmelite rule without the relaxations and exemptions granted by successive Popes. He was sent to Salamanca to complete his university studies, and was ordained priest in 1567.

After John joined the Carmelite order, Saint Teresa of Avila asked him to help her reform the Carmelites. John supported her belief that the order should return to its life of prayer. He accompanied her to Valladolid in order to gain practical experience of the manner of life led by the reformed nuns.

However, many Carmelites felt threatened by the reforms being introduced by these Discalced Carmelites, and John, who now called himself John of the Cross, was kidnapped by some members of the order on 3 December 1577 and took him away to Toledo, where he was held captive in the Carmelite Priory, just below the old Muslim Alcazar.

John was locked in a cell six feet by ten feet and was beaten three times a week by the friars who held him prisoner. There was only one tiny window in his cell and that was high above him, near the ceiling. Yet in that unbearable dark, cold, and desolation, his love and faith were like fire and light. He had nothing left but God – and God brought John his greatest joys in that tiny cell.

After nine months, John escaped in August 1578 by unscrewing the lock on his door and creeping past the guard. Taking with him only the mystical poetry he had written in his cell, he climbed out a window using a rope made of strips of blankets.

He had no idea where he was, and followed a dog to safety. He hid from his pursuers in a convent infirmary where he read his poetry to the nuns. From then on his life was devoted to sharing and explaining his experience of God’s love.

His life of poverty and persecution could have produced a bitter cynic. Instead it gave birth to a compassionate mystic, who lived by the beliefs that “Who has ever seen people persuaded to love God by harshness?” and “Where there is no love, put love – and you will find love.”

John left many books of practical advice on spiritual growth and prayer that are just as relevant today as they were when he wrote them.

He was appointed to various positions of leadership among the reformed Carmelite friars, but then dissension broke out among the reformers between “moderates” and “extremists.”

John supported the moderate party, and when the extremists gained control, they denounced him as a traitor to the reform. He was sent to a remote friary, and fell ill, and finally died in Ubeda in Andalusia during the night preceding 14 December 1591.

His body was later buried in Segovia. He was beatified on 25 January 1675, and he was canonised a saint by Pope Benedict XIII on 27 December 1726. He was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI.

His works were first published in 1619. The best known poets include:

The Ascent of Mount Carmel is an explanation of some verses beginning: “In a dark night with anxious love inflamed.” Written between 1581 and 1585, this poem was to have been a compilation of four books, but ends in the middle of the third book.

The Dark Night of the Soul, probably written in 1578 or 1579, narrates in poetry the journey of the soul from her bodily home to her union with God. This happens at night, which represents the hardships and difficulties the soul meets in detachment from the world and reaching the light of the union with the Creator. There are several steps in this night, which are related in successive stanzas. The main idea of the poem can be seen as the painful experience that people endure as they seek to grow in spiritual maturity and union with God.

A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul is a paraphrase of the Song of Songs, beginning: “Where hast Thou hidden Thyself?” In this book, the bride, representing the soul, searches for the bridegroom, representing Christ.

The Living Flame of Love is a four-stanza poem about the soul transformed by grace.

He is regarded as one of the foremost poets in the Spanish language, and his writings, along with those of Saint Teresa of Ávila, are the most important mystical works in Spanish. He has influenced many later spiritual writers, including TS Eliot, Thérèse de Lisieux, Edith Stein, and Thomas Merton, theologians such as Hans Urs von Balthasar, activities and campaigners like Dorothy Day and the Berrigan brothers Daniel and Philip, and artists from El Greco to Salvador Dalí.

El Greco's landscape of Toledo depicts the Priory in which John was held captive, just below the old Muslim Alcazar and perched on the banks of the Tajo on high cliffs

El Greco moved to Toledo, a center of religious reform in Spain, by 1577, and was painting in Toledo when Saint John of the Cross was in prison there. El Greco remained there for the rest of his life. At a time when pure landscape painting, devoid of human activity, was a rarity, El Greco’s View of Toledo, (ca 1597-99) is a milestone in the history of art. The composition leads the viewer across the landscape to where the city rises up through the hills, finally culminating in the church tower that thrusts our eye into the sky.

El Greco’s View of Toledo s now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Although its subject is secular has an undeniably spiritual, even apocalyptic, dimension. The work has an air of expectation, that something has begun to unfold, the main act is about to reveal itself, and the whole earth is being transformed into a temple, the New Jerusalem. In this painting, the darkness is banished by the divine light.
Salvador Dalí, The Christ of Saint John of the Cross

From the Dark Night of the Soul:

On a dark night, Kindled in love with yearnings — oh, happy chance! —
I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest.
In darkness and secure, By the secret ladder, disguised — oh, happy chance! —
In darkness and in concealment, My house being now at rest.

Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the Beloved!


Psalm 121; Song of Solomon 3: 1-4; Colossians 4: 2-6; John 16: 12-15, 25-28.


O God, by whose grace your servant John of the Cross, kindled with the flame of your love, became a burning and a shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Judge eternal, throned in splendour, you gave Juan de la Cruz strength of purpose and mystical faith that sustained him even through the dark night of the soul: Shed your light on all who love you, in unity with Jesus Christ our Saviour; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Song of Solomon 3: 1–4; Psalm 121; Colossians 4: 2–6; John 16: 12–15, 25–28.


Judge eternal, throned in splendour, you gave John of the Cross strength of purpose and mystical faith that sustained him even through the dark night of the soul: Shed your light on all who love you, in unity with Jesus Christ our Saviour; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Tomorrow (15 December): John Horden and Robert McDonald.

Canon Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.