St John of the Cross
December 14, 2012
John of the Cross was a Carmelite priest in 16th century Spain, whose name has ever been linked with the highest forms of mystical prayer. His writings are supreme examples of both lucid exposition, as well as eloquent poetry. In fact many consider him the greatest teacher in the Church on mystical prayer.
Born Juan de Yepes in Toledo, Spain, he had a difficult childhood. He was poor, and an orphan; and after doing his schooling with the Jesuits, John entered the Carmelite order as a young man.
The Europe of John’s day was one of religious turbulence. Many religious orders were in a state of decline, and the Protestant Reformation had outlawed all monasteries and convents. In Spain, Teresa of Avila had begun her great ‘reform of Carmel’, and John of the Cross joined her in doing the same for male Carmelites, an initiative which brought him much opposition and heartburn, much of it from his own Carmelite friars – at one time, he was even imprisoned in one of their monasteries.
But John persisted. With two other friars, he established the first reformed Carmelite monastery at Duruelo, a place so wretched, that Teresa of Avila called it “the stable at Bethlehem”. Other foundations followed in rapid succession, and for a time Juan was even confessor to Teresa and her nuns at Avila. His friendship with Teresa, his senior by about twenty years, is one of the great friendships of the spiritual life.
“The soul that desires divine wisdom chooses first to enter the thicket of the cross,” wrote John of the Cross. And indeed, John had his share of misunderstandings, hostility and opposition. In fact towards the end of his life, suffered from a cruel inflammation of his leg. And yet, the intensity of his mystical experiences only grew – as we find it in his classic works: The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night of the Soul, The Spiritual Canticle, and The Living Flame of Love, all writingsof great depth and beauty that have guided hundreds of seekers after God .
“Spiritually desire to possess nothing,” said Juan. “Like that, you will possess everything!”
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