John of The Cross
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St. John of The Cross

John of the Cross was a Carmelite reformer, mystic, and poet.  Together with Teresa of Avila, who was forty years his senior, they reformed the Carmelite order in the 16th century.  Born Juan de Yepes y Alvarez in 1542 in the town of Forntiveras near Avila in Old Castile, Spain into a Jewish converso family, he lived a childhood life of poverty after his father passed away when he was only two years old.  His mother was a weaver and had difficulty putting food on the table after her husband’s death.  One brother, Lius, passed away of malnutrition, but Juan and his older brother, Francisco, lived.  Juan went to a school for the poor, and later enrolled in a new school run by the Jesuits.  St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) was also a Spaniard and had just formed this group.  Juan tried various apprenticeships, served as an acolyte, and worked in a hospital in Medina with medial tasks.  He heard God calling him, however, and since he always had a great devotion to Our Lady, he entered the Carmelite order in 1563 and pursued more philosophical and theological studies.  He was ordained a priest in 1567 and in that same year, met Teresa of Avila who had been charged with reforming the Carmelite order on the heels of the Council of Trent.  After that, John accompanied her on various missions reforming the older Carmelite order into a more austere order, called the Discalced Carmelites, Discalced meant “barefoot,” since they wore sandals or no shoes at all and embraced more simplicity and austerity, dedicating themselves to prayer and discipline.  They were not always welcomed or favored, since they were trying to change the former way of doing things, and the Reformation and counter-Reformation with Trent were difficult times.  When Teresa opened a Discalced Monastery for Friars (the only women in the Church to open a monastery for men), John was its first member.  The older members did not always like what John was trying to do, so at one point, they captured him and held him under house arrest at a prison monastery for nine months.  In August of 1578, he escaped and continued to reform other Carmelite houses.  Teresa passed away in 1582, but John continued the work after her.  In September of 1591, he began to suffer with fevers and gangrenous sores on his feet.  On December 14th, he went home to God.  
The first editions of his works without The Spiritual Canticle came out in 1618. This was a work of betrothal poetry between the soul and God.  Art, including poetry, often tries to express the inexpressible and that is the case with this beautiful work.  The French version of The Spiritual Canticle came out in 1622; the Spanish version in 1627.  In 1675, he was beatified; by 1726, he was canonized. In 1926, he was named a Doctor of the Church and in 1952, the Spanish Ministry of National Education named John of the Cross the patron of Spanish poets.   Since his death, John of the Cross has touched many people throughout the centuries with his insightful and mystical poetry.  Today he is valued as one of the great “Mystical Doctors” of Christianity and his teachings have become the standard for all subsequent mystics and mystical theology.
John wrote beautiful poetry describing the relationship of the person with God.  He felt that one of life’s goals was to reach prefect union with God in which one actually becomes God in a way by participating in God and God’s unfolding creation.  He takes his readers through the classical mystical journeys of the purgative, illuminative and unitive dimensions to reach this state of participation. Thomas Merton once wrote: “Just as we can never separate asceticism from mysticism, so in John of the Cross, we find darkness and light, suffering and joy, sacrifice and love united together so closely that they seem to be at times identified.”  John liked psychology and knew the Scriptures almost by heart.  He also relied on Thomas Aquinas and the lives of other saints as well to guide him. His writings include: The Dark Night of the Soul and The Ascent to Mt. Carmel, which many think form the full treatise on mystic theology.  He also wrote The Spiritual Canticle, The Living Flame of Love, 33 letters and a collection of maxims or spiritual counsels.
A proponent of apophatic prayer, John felt that the soul needed to empty itself in order to be filled with  God.   He taught that one needed to begin in the twilight of the senses, where one worked at transcending the world of appearances.  From there one could then move into a total night of the spirit in which the self dies.  In that Paschal mystery sense, one then journeys back to life in the noonday sun, which often involved a spiritual betrothal or marriage.  The Ascent to Mt. Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul are mere preparations for The Living Flame of Love, or those unitive dimensions of prayer.  A sample of the opening stanzas from The Living Flame of Love amply demonstrates the type of language the soul might recite in intimate union with God:
1. O living flame of love that tenderly wounds my soul in its deepest center! Since now you are not oppressive, now consummate! If it be your will: tear through the veil of this sweet encounter!
2. O sweet cautery, O delightful wound!  O gentle hand!   O delicate touch that tastes of eternal life and pays every debt!  In killing you changed death to life.
3. O lamps of fire!  In whose splendors the deep caverns of feeling, once obscure and blind, now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely, both warmth and light to their Beloved.
4. How gently and lovingly you wake in my heart, where in secret you dwell alone; and in your sweet breathing, filled with good and glory, how tenderly you swell my heart with love.
A Prayer to St. John of the Cross:
     Loving God, you endowed John of the Cross with a spirit of self-denial and a love of the cross.  By following his example, may we come to the eternal vision of your glory.  We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

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Mysticism, according to its historical and psychological definitions, it that direct intuition or experience of God; a mystic is a person who has, to a greater or less degree, such a direct experience – one whose religion and life are centered not merely on accepted belief or practice, but on that which the person regards as first hand personal knowledge.                    

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