Saint John of the Cross - A Portrait of the Saint
Continued from Saint John of the Cross - Final Years
The following selection, a brief biography of St. John of the Cross, is taken from The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD, with revisions and introductions by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD. Revised edition, copyright 1991 by the Washington Province of Discalced Carmelite Friars, Inc. Published by ICS Publications, Washington, D.C.
A Portrait of the Saint
These main events in the short life of St. John of the Cross do not leave us with the full picture of his character and personal spirituality. His early first-hand acquaintance with deprivation, the later misunderstandings and imprisonment, the final persecution that he suffered, all might more easily have brought forth a bitter cynic; instead, the result was a man purified and enlightened. Events outwardly sad but inwardly transforming bore fruits in charity toward others and deep compassion for the sufferer. Together with these came a rare, clear vision of the beauty of God's creation and an intimacy with the Blessed Trinity that John found somewhat describable only through comparisons to the life of glory.
But first, regarding the physical appearance of Fray John of the Cross, he was a small man, measuring four feet, eleven inches. Whenever St. Teresa referred to him she seemed almost obliged to use the diminutive. In describing his imprisonment, she writes: "For the whole nine months he was in a small prison where, little as he is, there was not enough room for him to move." He was also thin, but his lean, oval face and his broad forehead, receding into baldness, gave him a venerable appearance. His nose was slightly aquiline, his eyes dark and large. Rounding off this figure of Fray John was his old, rough, brown habit and a white cloak so coarse it seemed made of goat hair.
Marked by the poverty he suffered as a child and even as a friar, he found it hard to ignore others in the distress of material need. With his penitents he did not limit himself to seeking their spiritual good, but he looked for ways to help them when they were in want. Sometimes he gave them alms from the meager funds of the monastery, or sometimes he begged alms for them from other devout people. Noticing once that a priest who came to him for confession was wearing a worn-out cassock, he asked some benefactors for money to buy the priest a new one. He grieved over the poverty of many of the nuns at the Incarnation who didn't have the material resources enjoyed by those from well-to-do families.
One day, entering the convent for his ministry, he saw a nun sweeping the floor barefooted, and doing so not out of penance but because she had no shoes. Immediately he trudged up to the city and asked some charitable persons for money, which he in turn gave to the nun so she could buy shoes for herself. Then there was the year 1584, a year of barrenness and hunger in Andalusia. As prior in GranadaJohn did everything he could to help with either food or money all the needy who came to the monastery gate. Those of higher lineage he helped secretly because, even though in want, they were ashamed to beg openly.
Finding the poor wherever he journeyed, he also found the sick. He began to understand intimately the affliction of the latter during his hospital work as a youth in Medina. Taking pains to show the most delicate sympathy for the sick, he knew how to care for them, comfort them, and give them hope. He would not allow the question of money to interfere with his desire to give his sick friars the best possible care. He once asked a doctor if there were any remedy for a lay brother who was undergoing extraordinary suffering. The doctor answered that the only medicine he knew was very expensive and would do no more than relieve the suffering somewhat. Despite the penury of the community John sent for the medicine and administered it to the sick brother himself, and did so happily. On arriving at a monastery he always made it a point first to greet the sick after his visit to the Blessed Sacrament.
Quick to perceive sadness or depression in another and eager to comfort the downcast, he could appreciate humor. Surprisingly, witnesses have told of his gift for humor and the enjoyment he got from making others laugh. They looked forward to having him present.
As prior he accepted the responsibility of having to call others to account, but he was intent on not discouraging anyone. His opinion was that people "become pusillanimous in undertaking works of great virtue when they are treated harshly by superiors." Nor did he think he had the answers to all problems. His practice was to consult others in the community, a method of government that helped to create an atmosphere of serenity. Being a saint does not free one from the capacity for making mistakes, nor does being a superior, and John once remarked of himself at the end of his life: "When I recall the foolish mistakes I made as superior, I blush."
Human needs are not only material and psychological; there are distinctive spiritual needs as well. In his oral teaching John used to point out that the more you love God the more you desire that all people love and honor him and as the desire grows you work harder toward that end, both in prayer and in all other possible works. His preferred work was spiritual direction, whereby he could help to free individuals from their moral and spiritual illnesses.
In this endeavor he did not spare himself, so special was his awareness of our exalted destiny. From university professor to humble, unlettered shepherds' wives, people of all classes felt the allure of his confessional. The ease the humble lay sister, Catalina de la Cruz, experienced in his presence is evident in the kind of question she once asked him: "Why when I go to the garden do the frogs jump in the water?" Quickly seizing an opportunity to draw out a spiritual lesson, John replied that it was because they felt safe in the depth of the pool and "that is what you must do, flee from creatures and hide yourself in God." Sinners also found their way to him without fear. "The holier a confessor," he used to say, "the less fear one should have of him."
In his spiritual direction of others John focused on communion with God in faith, hope, and love, called by some the "theological life." This life is both active and passive and encompasses everything, from the first steps in Christian living to the highest reaches of the mystical journey. In an age that found severe austerities a fascinating and necessary part of spiritual pursuit, his ascetical teaching pointed to faith, hope, and love as the way to sanctity in the following of Christ.
But his deepest concern was for those who were suffering in their spiritual life. The needs of souls struggling with inner trials stirred him to write The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night. If his intense portrayal of the afflictions of the dark night can prove frightening to some, his desire in so presenting them was to include everyone by describing these sufferings in their extreme form. He wanted everyone to find comfort in the thought that however severe it may be, purification is still the work of God's gentle hand, clearing away the debris of attachment and making room for the divine light. Pain for him was not a misfortune but a value when suffered with and for Christ.
Nothing about John's life indicates that he thought he should have a specialist's priorities in the use of his time. He participated in all the different tasks necessary to keep a community running. We find him in the choir, the confessional, the kitchen, weeding the garden, decorating the altars, making architectural plans, joining in construction work, visiting the sick and, of course, writing. Hard physical labor, small and delicate though he was, seemed to attract him. Was it his way of protesting the thought of the Illuminists who held that the servants of God should not undertake manual labor? At both Granada and Segovia, when these monasteries were being built, he joined the workmen in quarrying stone for the construction. AtBeas, when free from counseling the nuns he would do chores for them, setting up partitions, laying bricks, and scrubbing floors.
He observed how creatures can enslave and darken and torment. But the deceptive delights of those who are attached to creatures cannot compare with the joy of people who are detached from them. Beholding in creation a trace of the divine beauty, power, and loving wisdom, John could not easily resist the enchantment of nature. Because he missed the lyric country solitude of El Calvario after founding the student college in Baeza, he acquired some property in the country, making it possible for him and the young Carmelites to escape from the bustling city. He would take the friars out to the mountains, sometimes for the sake of relaxation, "to prevent their wanting to leave the monastery from spending too much time in it," as he once remarked; sometimes, so that each might pass the day alone there "in solitary prayer." At Segovia he had his favorite grotto, hollowed out by nature, high up on the back bluff overlooking a marvelous stretch of sky, river, and landscape. He grew to love this silent grotto and spent all the time he could spare there.
John's letters exhibit the warmth with which he usually communed with others. But his brother Francisco seems to have given him special happiness. He used to introduce Francisco by saying, "May I introduce you to my brother, who is the treasure I value most in the world." St. Teresa, also, it should go without saying, awakened in him particular admiration, so much so that he carried her portrait about with him.
Accompanying the outward, evangelical simplicity of his manner was a soul on fire, like Teresa's. Of his intimacy with God he once admitted in Granada: "God communicates the mystery of the Trinity to this sinner in such a way that if His Majesty did not strengthen my weakness by a special help, it would be impossible for me to live." Overwhelmed with awareness of God's goodness, he was frequently heard to exclaim, "Oh, what a good God we have!" Requiring little sleep, he spent much of the night in prayer, sometimes kneeling at the altar steps before the Blessed Sacrament; at other times he knelt beneath the trees in the garden, and sometimes at the window of his cell, from which he could look out at the heavens and all the countryside. In the latter years of his brief life, his absorption in God could become so profound that he experienced difficulty in attending to ordinary affairs, secretly having to hit his knuckles against the wall so as not to lose the trend of conversation.
His experience of God was always rooted in the life of the Church, nourished by the sacraments and the liturgy. Witnesses of his life spoke of the devotion with which he celebrated Mass. A center of his contemplation, Mass often proved to be an occasion for special graces. During the celebration he could become so lost in God that he had no consciousness of his surroundings. His greatest suffering during the imprisonment in Toledo was being deprived of the Eucharist. The Blessed Sacrament was "all his glory, all his happiness, and for him far surpassed all the things of the earth." The one privilege he accepted when major superior in Segovia was the cell closest to the Blessed Sacrament.
The liturgical feasts and seasons meant more than an external commemoration; they were the occasion of an interior transformation in the spirit of the mystery being celebrated. On the day before Christmas he used to organize with the friars a kind of paraliturgical procession to recall how Mary and Joseph went in search of lodging for the divine Infant. At Christmas time above all he felt his heart pulsate with love for the Child Jesus. One Christmas, seeing a statue of the Infant lying on a cushion, he cried out, "Lord, if love is to slay me, the hour has now come." Another Christmas, taken with love, he took the statue of the Infant in his arms and began to dance with enraptured joy.
His countenance, in fact, corresponded with the Church's liturgy. Once during Holy Week he suffered so intensely from the Passion of Christ that he found it impossible to leave the monastery to hear the nuns' confessions. Among his favorite feasts, besides those of the Blessed Trinity and Corpus Christi, were the feasts of the Blessed Virgin. In his prison cell, on the Vigil of the Assumption, after nine months of severe privation, he was asked what he was thinking of. He replied, "I was thinking that tomorrow is the feast of our Lady and that it would give me great joy to say Mass." The sight of an image of the Mother of God brought love and brightness to his soul. Once, on seeing an image of our Lady while he was preaching to the nuns in Caravaca, he could not conceal his love for her and exclaimed: "How happy I would be to live alone in a desert with that image."
The Bible, the book he cherished most of all, helped him to enter into intimacy with the three Persons of the Trinity. He loved to withdraw to hidden parts of the monastery with his Bible. While he was in Lisbon, the other friars urged him to come with them to visit a famed stigmatic of that city, but he refused; drawn by the ocean, he remained on the shore reading his Bible while the others went off to observe the curious phenomenon.
From his Bible and his nearness to God, John knew that loving confidence in Providence was the appropriate response to life's worries and anxieties. He observed that when God, like a loving mother, wants to carry us, we kick and cry and insist on walking by ourselves, and get nowhere. Some thought that since he was prior of a poor monastery he should show more concern about material needs. They would have liked him to worry. But his habit of seeing the hand of God in all things contributed, in fact, to an air of peace and calm.
This was his way, too, in persecution. He saw the hand of God there and urged others not to speak uncharitably of his persecutors, but to think "only that God ordains all." He wrote that trust in God should be so great that even if the whole world were to collapse one should not become disturbed. Enduring things with equanimity reaps many blessings, he said, and helps a person in the middle of adversity to make an appropriate judgment and find the right option. This total trust in God gave him peace in his final illness. Being reminded of all he had suffered, he replied with these remarkable words: "Padre, this is not the time to be thinking of that; it is by the merits of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ that I hope to be saved."
This selection from The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross is offered for your personal use as an individual reader only. Please note that this material is copyrighted. It may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information, storage or retrieval system without prior written permission from the publisher.
- Mark Leopold