Monday, December 17, 2007

St. John of the Cross

The Feast Day of St. John of the Cross was on Friday, but unfortunately I didn't get around to posting about him until today, thanks to all the Christmas cards I've been writing.

I've been receiving daily "Saint of the Day" e-mails from, and here is their write-up of St. John of the Cross:

December 14, 2007
St. John of the Cross

John is a saint because his life was a heroic effort to live up to his name: “of the Cross.” The folly of the cross came to full realization in time. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34b) is the story of John’s life. The Paschal Mystery—through death to life—strongly marks John as reformer, mystic-poet and theologian-priest.

Ordained a Carmelite priest at 25 (1567), John met Teresa of Jesus (Avila) and like her vowed himself to the primitive Rule of the Carmelites. As partner with Teresa and in his own right, John engaged in the work of reform, and came to experience the price of reform: increasing opposition, misunderstanding, persecution, imprisonment. He came to know the cross acutely—to experience the dying of Jesus—as he sat month after month in his dark, damp, narrow cell with only his God!

Yet, the paradox! In this dying of imprisonment John came to life, uttering poetry. In the darkness of the dungeon, John’s spirit came into the Light. There are many mystics, many poets; John is unique as mystic-poet, expressing in his prison-cross the ecstasy of mystical union with God in the Spiritual Canticle.

But as agony leads to ecstasy, so John had his Ascent to Mt. Carmel, as he named it in his prose masterpiece. As man-Christian-Carmelite, he experienced in himself this purifying ascent; as spiritual director, he sensed it in others; as psychologist-theologian, he described and analyzed it in his prose writings. His prose works are outstanding in underscoring the cost of discipleship, the path of union with God: rigorous discipline, abandonment, purification. Uniquely and strongly John underlines the gospel paradox: The cross leads to resurrection, agony to ecstasy, darkness to light, abandonment to possession, denial to self to union with God. If you want to save your life, you must lose it. John is truly “of the Cross.” He died at 49—a life short, but full.

John in his life and writings has a crucial word for us today. We tend to be rich, soft, comfortable. We shrink even from words like self-denial, mortification, purification, asceticism, discipline. We run from the cross. John’s message—like the gospel—is loud and clear: Don’t—if you really want to live!

Thomas Merton said of John: "Just as we can never separate asceticism from mysticism, so in St. John of the Cross we find darkness and light, suffering and joy, sacrifice and love united together so closely that they seem at times to be identified."

In John's words:
"Never was fount so clear,
undimmed and bright;
From it alone, I know proceeds all light
although 'tis night."

Father Acker prayed a Collect regarding our following the example of St. John of the Cross at the Friday service, but I can't locate it via Google. Aaah, well.

I first came across St. John of the Cross in the wonderful collection by Richard Foster called Devotional Classics which I often use as a Lenten devotional. His idea of the "dark night of the soul" is encouraging to me. Basically, St. John states that with some believers, God removes the emotional component in our devotional life so that we are worshipping God not for ourselves (for the feelings evoked by prayer and reading of the Scriptures) but completely, wholly, totally for God's sake alone. This "dark night of the soul" seems to have been extremely evident in the recently published works of Mother Teresa, who experienced nearly a lifetime of "dark nights" with no feeling of spiritual communion with God in the least which, according to his writings, St. John would have viewed as an enormous gift of God.

From the exerpt of St. John's writings in Devotional Classics:
"At a certain point in the spiritual journey God will draw a person from the beginning stage to a more advanced stage. At this stage the person will begin to engage in religious exercises and grow deeper in the spiritual life.

Such souls will likely experience what is called 'a dark night of the soul.' The 'dark night' is when those persons lose all pleasure that they once experienced in their devotional life. This happens because God wants to purify them and move them on to greater heights." St. John then sets out seven sins: spiritual pride, spiritual greed, spiritual luxury, spiritual wrath, spiritual gluttony, spiritual envy, and spiritual sloth, with details regarding the conquering of each through the gift of the "dark night of the soul."

At the end of the excerpt given in Foster's compilation, St. John states: "Through the dark night pride becomes humility, greed becomes simplicity, luxury becomes peace, gluttony becomes moderation, envy becomes joy, and sloth becomes strength. No soul will ever grow deep in the spiritual life unless God works passively in that soul by means of the dark night." This "dark night" is truly a GIFT of God to aid in spiritual maturity, to avoid misuse of spiritual devotions, and to "purify the soul from these imperfections." He uses the Scriptural analogy of moving from "milk to meat" in feeding our spiritual lives, and St. John of the Cross views the "dark night of the soul" as being an important part of the transition from a spiritual baby to a spiritual adult, maturing from one who desires "milk" to one who craves the "solid food [that] is for the mature who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil" (Hebrews 5:14).


Michael Krahn said...


I just put up a series of posts about Thomas Merton that I think you’d enjoy at:

Susanne B. said...

Oh, I'm a big Merton fan -- will check it out! Many thanks.


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