Saturday, December 14, 2002

14 DECEMBER

. . . .is the feast of St. John of the Cross in the Pauline rite and throughout the Carmelite Order. The Ancient Observance Carmelites keep it as a Feast and the Discalced Carmelites as a Solemnity.

Let us be clear. We are not talking about a man who lived in a world of fantasy. Today we appreciate him as a mystic and a poet, but he lived out these values in a busy life. Early in life he experienced pain and suffering. When he was two, his older brother died. When he was eight he lost his father and when he was twelve his mother sent him to an orphanage for poor children. At the age of fifteen he began to work in a hospital for infectious diseases. At the age of twenty-one he joined the Carmelite Order. At the age of twenty four, still a newly ordained priest, he underwent a serious vocational crisis. He met Saint Teresa who persuaded him to start a reform in his own Carmelite Order. At the age of thirty five, he suffered imprisonment – nine months on a diet of bread, water and sardines. At the age of forty seven, his own colleagues turned their backs on him and he had to taste the bitterness of injustice. But this suffering did not make him cynical. On the contrary, it led him to enter deeply the mystery of human existence. He experienced that dark night which he described so well in his writings:

O night that has united
the lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her lover.


All this moulded his character. An independent character, he was careful not to lose his precious energy in peripherals. He kept non-essential things at a distance not for mortification sake, but because superfluous things kept him from his aim in life. He was a pensive, dignified person, rather reserved but at the same time jovial. He enjoyed making others happy. Still waters ran deep. His writings are the result of long years of maturing both of his own personal interior experience as well as of his oral teaching. This interior experience flowered first into poetry and later in his doctrinal commentaries. In his writings we have the two faces of the soul of Saint John of the Cross: song and passion on the one hand, reflections and analysis on the other.

He was a very dynamic man. It is calculated that he traveled more than 26,000 kilometres during his lifetime (and at that time traveling was not at all comfortable); but throughout this activity he was able to keep a serene and contemplative depth. He was very sensitive in his relationships with men and with nature. Very tender in his relationship with God.

The sacristan of the Granada monastery tells us: “He used to be very grateful to whoever brought a rose or a carnation to honour the Blessed Sacrament.” He loved sculpture, painting and music. All his poems are hymns, songs of joy, of sorrow, of hope, most of all of love and praise. This is how his earliest disciples read them and sang them. Saint Teresa used to enjoy singing his most renowned poem ‘Adonde te escondiste?” and she herself taught her nuns a melody so that they could sing it frequently in the community. It is a shame that tape-recorders had not been invented! -from “God is a Feast” by Fr. Pius Sammut, O.C.D.

St. John was “buried under the dust of indifference” for centuries after his death. St. Teresa wrote angrily to Fr. Gracian, “I cannot understand why no one remembers this saint!” He was finally canonized in 1726 and declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI on August 24, 1926.

Some of his writings in the modern translation of Fr. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. can be found here. One of the great spiritual historian Fr. Jordan Aumann, O.P.'s essays on St. John is available on line here. The E. Allison Peers translation of The Dark Night of the Soul and The Ascent of Mount Carmel are available here along with the complete works in the original Spanish.