On the 24th of November Holy Mother Church celebrates the feast of one of the holiest Saints to ever walk to earth. His purity, virtue, and incredible closeness with the Hearts of Jesus and His mother Mary are of the highest order. He is the final Doctor of the Church in the liturgical cycle, and he is one of the crowning glories of the calendar and of the Carmelite Order. Saint John is the Doctor of Mystical Theology, and the heights and depths of his teaching are at times so profound that only the holiest souls can fully understand what he is speaking about. Saint John is such an amazing Saint he is even venerated as a “Teacher of the Faith” by the Church of England.
The greatness of his holiness, indeed, is in and of itself difficult to put into words, but one can see it most evidently when one reads about his life. A fantastic biography which also covers the great work of the reform of Carmel can be found for FREE here. Also his holiness can be seen in his influence on the “greatest saint of modern times” as Pope Saint Pius X called her, for indeed Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face was a true spiritual daughter of Saint John of the Cross. One can then highly recommend a very short work by the expert on Therese: Guy Gaucher, Auxiliary Bishop of Bayeux-Lisieux, who wrote her official biography: Story of a Life. As well as the follow up work: The Passion of Therese of Lisieux, which is one of the most intense and spiritually penetrating books ever written on any saint ever. This book is a study of the influences of Saint John of the Cross’ teaching on Saint Therese. It is most interesting and informative. The title is: John and Therese – Flames of Love: The Influence of St. John of the Cross in the Life and Writings of St. Therese of Lisieux.
Saint John’s principle works are: The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night of the Soul, The Spiritual Canticle, The Living Flame of Love, The Cautions, Spiritual Maxims, and his other poetry and letters. He is considered one of the greatest poets ever to write in the Spanish language, and Dark Night and Spiritual Canticle are considered to be two of the best poems ever written in Spanish. All of these are available for free in a two volume set: here and here. They are also available in one volume for purchase here. Finally there is also a wonderful commentary on Saint John’s work The Cautions called The Secret of Sanctity of Saint John of the Cross, by Blessed Lucas of Saint Joseph. This last is most beneficial to anyone considering the religious life. Blessed Lucas also wrote a fantastic commentary on the bookmark prayer of Saint John’s great co-worker Saint Teresa of Avila: St. Teresa’s Bookmark – A Meditative Commentary.
The greatest explication, however, of the doctrine of Saint John of the Cross, synthesized with the other great masters of the spiritual life, can be found in the unparalleled two volume masterpiece: The Three Ages of the Interior Life, by Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. the last truly great Philosopher and Theologian in the Thomistic School who died in 1964. You can read this work for free here or purchase it here.
Of course the most important work of Saint John was the restoration of the primitive observance within the Carmelite Order along with Saint Teresa of Avila. The beautiful flower of Mount Carmel had fallen into disarray and worldliness and into this darkness was sent Saint Teresa. But after some time she began to despair of the reform of the Friars, which was so essential for the reform of the nuns since it would be these men who would be the confessors and spiritual directors to the nuns and who would offer for them the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. God then sent today’s glorious Saint the complete the other half of the restoration of Carmel. From this family of Carmelites, known as “Discalced” or “without shoes”, we have been given such wonderful Saints as Saint Therese of Lisiuex in France, the first canonized Saint of Chile: Saint Teresa of the Andes, and that glorious martyr of the 20th Century: Blessed Lucas of Saint Joseph who was martyred at the hands of the communists in Barcelona, Spain in 1936.
Wisdom from the Doctor of Mystical Theology…
“Mine are the heavens and mine is the earth; mine are the people, the righteous are mine and mine are the sinners; the angels are mine and the Mother of God, and all things are mine; and God Himself is mine and for me, for Christ is mine and all for me. What then do you ask for and seek, my soul? Yours is all this, and it is all for you.”
“To be taken with love for a soul, God does not look on its greatness, but the greatness of its humility.”
“Wisdom enters through love, silence, and mortification. It is great wisdom to know how to be silent and to look at neither the remarks, nor the deeds, nor the lives of others.”
“God desires the smallest degree of purity of conscience in you more than all the works you can perform.”
“A soul enkindled with love is a gentle, meek, humble, and patient soul.”
“What we need most in order to make progress is to be silent before this great God with our appetite and with our tongue, for the language he best hears is silent love.”
“To deprive oneself of the gratification of the appetites in all things is like living in darkness and in a void. … Hence, we call this nakedness a night for the soul. For we are not discussing the mere lack of things; this lack will not divest the soul., if it [still] craves for all these objects. We are dealing with the denudation of the soul’s appetites and gratifications; this is what leaves it free and empty of all things, even though it possesses them. Since the things of the world cannot enter the soul, they are not in themselves an encumbrance or harm to it; rather, it is the will and appetite dwelling within it that causes the damage.”
“To reach satisfaction in all,
desire its possession in nothing.
To come to the knowledge of all,
desire the knowledge of nothing.
To come to possess all,
desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all,
desire to be nothing.
To come to the pleasure you have not,
you must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not,
you must go by a way in which you know not.
To come to the possession you have not;
you must go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not,
you must go by a way in which you are not.
When you turn toward something,
you cease to cast yourself upon the all.
For to go from the all to the all,
you must leave yourself in all.
And when you come to the possession of all,
you must posses it without wanting anything.
In this nakedness, the spirit finds its rest,
for when it covets nothing, nothing raises it up,
and nothing weighs it down,
because it is in the center of its humility.”
Hymn to Our Lady of Mount Carmel
Flower of Carmel,
Mother so tender,
Strong stem of Jesse,
Purest of lilies,
Strongest of armor,
Our way uncertain,
O gentle Mother
Hail, Gate of Heaven,
The Liturgical Year
Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B.
Saint John of the Cross
Let us go with the Church to Mount Carmel, and offer our grateful homage to John of the Cross, who, following in the footsteps of Teresa of Jesus, opened a safe way to souls seeking God.
The growing disinclination of the people for social prayer was threatening the irreparable destruction of piety, when in the sixteenth century the divine goodness raised up Saints, whose teaching and holiness responded to the needs of the new times. Doctrine does not change: the asceticism and mysticism of that age transmitted to the succeeding centuries the echo of those that had gone before. But their explanations were given in a more didactic way and analyzed more narrowly; their methods aimed at obviating the risk of illusion, to which souls were exposed by their isolated devotion. It is but just to recognize that under the ever fruitful action of the Holy Ghost, the psychology of supernatural states became more extended and more precise.
The early Christians, praying with the Church, living daily and hourly the life of her Liturgy, kept her stamp upon them in their personal relations with God. Thus it came about that, under the persevering and transforming influence of the Church, and participating in the graces of light and union, and in all the blessings of that one Beloved so pleasing to the Spouse, they assimilated her sanctity to themselves, without any further trouble but to follow their Mother with docility, and suffer themselves to be carried securely in her arms. Thus they applied to themselves the words of our Lord: Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. We need not be surprised that there was not then, as now, the frequent and assiduous assistance of a particular director for each soul. Special guides are not so necessary to the members of a caravan or of an army: it is isolated travelers that stand in need of them; and even with these special guides, they can never have the same security as those who follow the caravan or the army.
This was understood, in the course of the last few centuries, by the men of God who, taking their inspiration from the many different aptitudes of souls, became the leaders of schools, one it is true in aim, but differing in the methods they adopted for counteracting the dangers of individualism. In this campaign of restoration and salvation, where the worst enemy of all was illusion under a thousand forms, with its subtle roots and its endless wiles, John of the Cross was the living image of the Word of God, more piercing than any two-edged sword, reaching unto the division of the soul and the spirit, of the joints also and the marrow; for he read, with unfailing glance, the very thoughts and intentions of hearts. Let us listen to his words. Though he belongs to modern times, he is evidently a son of the ancients.
“The soul, he says, is to attain to a certain sense, to a certain divine knowledge, most generous and full of sweetness, of all human and divine things which do not fall within the commonsense and natural perceptions of the soul j it views them with different eyes now, for the light and grace of the Holy Ghost differ from those of sense, the divine from the human. (Dark Night of the Soul, Book ii. chap. ix.) The dark night, through which the soul passes, on its way to the divine light of the perfect union of the love of God—so far as it is in this life possible—requires for its explanation greater experience and light of knowledge than I possess. For so great are the trials, and so profound the darkness, spiritual as well as corporal, which souls must endure, if they will attain to perfection, that no human knowledge can comprehend them, nor experience describe them. (The Ascent of Mount Carmel. Prologue.)
“The journey of the soul to the divine union is called night, for three reasons. The first is derived from the point from which the soul sets out, the privation of the desire of all pleasure in all the things of this world, by an entire detachment therefrom. This is as night for every desire and sense of man. The second, from the road by which it travels; that is, faith, for faith is obscure like night to the intellect. The third, from the goal to which it tends, God, incomprehensible and infinite, who in this life is as night to the soul. We must pass through these three nights if we are to attain to the divine union with God.
“They are foreshadowed in holy Scripture by the three nights which were to elapse, according to the command of the angel, between the betrothal and the marriage of the younger Tobias. (Tob. 6:18) On the first night he was to burn the liver of the fish in the fire, which is the heart whose affections are set on the things of this world, and which, if it will enter on the road that leadeth unto God, must be burned up, and purified of all created things in the fire of this love. This purgation drives away the evil spirit who has dominion over our soul, because of our attachment to those pleasures which flow from temporal and corporeal things.
“The second night, said the angel, thou shalt be admitted into the society of the holy Patriarchs, the fathers of the faith. The soul having passed the first night, which is the privation of all sensible things, enters immediately into the second night, alone in pure faith, and by it alone directed: for faith is not subject to sense.
“The third night, said the Angel, thou shalt obtain a blessing—that is, God, who in the second night of faith communicates himself so secretly and so intimately to the soul. This is another night, inasmuch as this communication is more obscure than the others. When this night is over, which is the accomplishment of the communication of God in spirit, ordinarily effected when the soul is in great darkness, the union with the bride, which is the Wisdom of God, immediately ensues. (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book i. chap. ii.)
0 spiritual soul, when thou seest thy desire obscured, thy will arid and constrained, and the faculties incapable of any interior act, be not grieved at this, but look upon it rather as a great good, for God is delivering thee from thyself, taking the matter out of thy hands; for however strenuously thou mayest exert thyself, thou wilt never do anything so faultlessly, so perfectly, and securely as now—because of the impurity and torpor of thy faculties—when God takes thee by the hand, guides thee safely in thy blindness, along a road and to an end thou knowest not, and whither thou couldst never travel guided by thine own eyes, and supported by thy own feet.” (The Dark Night of the Soul. Book. ii. chap. xvi.)
We love to hear the Saints describe the paths which they themselves have trodden, and of which, in reward for their fidelity, they are the recognized guides in the Church. Let us add that “in sufferings of this kind, we must take care not to excite our Lord’s compassion before his work is completed. There can be no mistake about it, certain graces which God gives to the soul are not necessary for salvation, but they must be obtained at a price. If we were to make too many difficulties, it might happen that, to spare our weakness, our Lord would let us fall back into a lower way. This, to the eye of faith, would be a terrible and irreparable misfortune.” (The Spiritual Life and Prayer, according to holy Scripture and monastic Tradition, Solesmes 1899. Translated by the Benedictines of Stanbrook. Chap. xiv.)
“For the interests of holy Church and the glory of God, it is more important than we are able to say, that truly contemplative souls should be multiplied upon the earth. They are the hidden spring, the moving principle of everything that is for the glory of God, for the kingdom of his Son, and for the perfect fulfilment of his divine Will. Vain would it be to multiply active works and contrivances, yea, and even deeds of sacrifice; all will be fruitless if the Church militant have not her saints to uphold her, saints still wayfarers (in via), which is the state in which the Master chose to redeem the world. Certain powers and a certain fruitfulness are inherent to the present life; it has in itself so few charms that it will not have been useless to show, as we have done, that it has also some advantages.” (Hid. Chap. xix.)
The life of St. John of the Cross is thus related by holy Church.
John of the Cross was born of pious parents at Hontiveros in Spain. From his infancy it was evident how dear he would be to the Virgin Mother of God, for at five years of age having fallen down a well, he was held up by our Lady in her arms, so that he sustained no injury. He had so great a desire of suffering, that when he was but nine years old he discarded his soft bed and slept on faggots. As a young man, he devoted himself to the service of the sick in the hospital of Medina del Campo. Here he showed the ardour of his charity by undertaking the vilest offices; and his example incited others to devote themselves to the same charitable deeds. But as God called him still higher, he entered the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, where he was made priest in obedience to his superiors; and in his ardour for more severe discipline and a more austere manner of life, he obtained their leave to observe the primitive rule of the Order. Being ever mindful of our Lord’s Passion, he declared war against himself as against his worst enemy; and by watching, fasting, iron disciplines, and every kind of penance, he soon crucified his flesh with the vices and concupiscences; so that St. Teresa considered him worthy to be numbered among the holiest and purest souls then adorning God’s Church.
Besides his singular austerity of life, John was equipped for the spiritual combat with the armour of all the virtues. He devoted himself assiduously to the contemplation of divine things, in which he frequently experienced long and wonderful ecstasies; and his heart burned with such love of God that this divine fire could not be contained within, but would break forth and light up his countenance. He was exceedingly zealous for his neighbour’s salvation, and devoted himself to preaching the word of God and administering the Sacraments. Enriched with all these merits and kindled with the desire of promoting stricter discipline, he was given by God as a companion to St. Teresa, that as she had restored primitive observance among the Sisters of the Order of Carmel, she might with John’s help do the same among the Brethren. In carrying out this divine work, he together with that handmaid of God underwent innumerable labours; and fearing neither sufferings nor dangers, he visited all the monasteries founded by the holy virgin in Spain, and himself erected others, propagating in all the restored observance and strengthening it by his words and example. He has thus every right to be called, after St. Teresa, the first professed and the father of the Discalced Carmelites.
He preserved his virginity intact, and not only repulsed impudent women who tried to ensnare him, but even gained them to Christ. The Holy See has declared that, like St. Teresa, he was divinely inspired in explaining the hidden mysteries of God; and he wrote books on mystical theology, full of divine wisdom. When asked one day by Christ what reward he desired for so many labours, he replied: Lord, sufferings and contempt for thy sake! He was renowned for his power over the devils, whom he often cast out of the possessed; and also for the gifts of discernment of spirits and prophecy; while such was his humility that he often begged our Lord to let him die in a place where no one knew him. His prayer was granted; and after a cruel malady, and the patient endurance of five ulcers in his leg, sent him to satisfy his love of suffering, he fell asleep in our Lord at Ubeda, having received the Sacraments of the Church in the holiest dispositions, and embracing the image of Christ crucified whom he had ever had in his heart and on his lips. His last words were: Into thy hands I commend my spirit. His death took place on the day and at the hour he had foretold, in the year of salvation 1591, the forty-ninth of his age. A brilliant globe of fire received his departing soul; while his body gave forth a most sweet perfume, and is still reverently preserved incorrupt at Segovia. As he was renowned for many miracles both before and after death, Pope Benedict XIII enrolled him among the Saints.
On Carmel’s height and on the mountains, in the plain and in the valleys, may there be an ever increasing number of such souls as are able to reconcile earth to heaven, to draw down the blessings of God, and to avert his anger! We are all called to be saints: may we then, after thy example and through thy prayers, O John of the Cross, suffer the grace of God to work in us with all the plenitude of its purifying and deifying power. Then shall we be able one day to say with thee:
“O divine Life, who never killest but to give life, as thou never woundest but to heal; thou hast wounded me, O divine hand! that thou mayest heal me. Thou hast slain in me that which made me dead, and destitute of the life of God, which I now live. 0 gentle, subtile touch, the Word, the Son of God, who, because of the pureness of thy nature, dost penetrate subtilely the very substance of my soul, and touching it gently absorbest it wholly in divine ways of sweetness, not heard of in the land of Chanaan, nor seen in Theman. (Baruch 3:22) 0 touch of the Word, so gentle, so wonderfully gentle to me; and yet thou wert overthrowing the mountains and breaking the rocks in pieces, in Horeb, by the shadow of thy power going before thee, when thou didst announce thy presence to the Prophet in the whistling of a gentle air. (III Kings, 19:11-12) 0 gentle air, how is it that thou touchest so gently when thou art so terrible and so strong?
O my God and my life, they shall know thee and behold thee when thou touchest them, who, making themselves strangers upon earth, shall purify themselves, because purity corresponds with purity. As in thee there is nothing material, so the more profoundly dost thou touch me, changing what in me is human into divine, according as thy divine essence wherewith thou touchest me, is wholly unaffected by modes and manner, free from the husks of form and figure. Thou the more gently touchest, the more thou art hidden in the purified soul of those who have made themselves strangers here, hidden from the face of all creatures, and whom thou shalt hide in the secret of thy face from the disturbance of men. Thou removest the soul far away from every other touch whatever, and makest it thine own; thou leavest behind these effects and impressions so pure, that the touch of everything else seems vile and low, the very sight offensive, and all relations therewith a deep affliction.” (The living Flame of Love. Stanza ii. Line iii. passim.)