St. John of the Cross

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Memorial of St. John of the Cross, called the Doctor of Mystical Theology. John was a 16th Century Spanish monk and one of the most acclaimed of the Christian mystical theologians (as well as one of Spain’s greatest lyrical poets).

John wanted nothing more than to be a hermit. But then he met Teresa of Avila, who enlisted him in her plans to reform the Carmelites, thus pulling him into a life of public service and controversy.

One of John’s most persistent prayers was that God would enable him “to suffer and be despised,” and his opponents in the Carmelite order helped answer that prayer. He was repeatedly kidnapped, imprisoned and even tortured. At one point, he was imprisoned for six months deep in the bowels of a Carmelite monastery. It was so cold he developed frostbite and he was given so little food that, in the words of one author, “anyone less accustomed to fasting might have given up in despair.”

At another time, he was imprisoned for nine months for refusing to renounce the Carmelite reforms he and Teresa were pushing. He escaped from that prison, reportedly by picking the lock of his cell, slipping past a guard and climbing out a window using a rope made of strips of blankets.

John lived a life of constant prayer and during his imprisonment he composed poems. Dark Night of the Soul and Ascent of Mount Carmel, both classics of Western Christian writing, began as a series of prison poems. Subsequent to his release, he wrote long commentaries on these and others of his poems.

In 1591, John became ill from fevers and gangrenous sores on his leg. By December his condition worsened and he asked for last rights on December 11th. Two days later he asked forgiveness for any problems he may have caused. He died as the clock struck midnight (as he had predicted, so he could sing matins in heaven). On his lips as he died were the words of Christ: “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”

In the darkness as well as in the light, John found God. He is a model of faith in God, especially at those times when God seems absent or far away.