The life of Saint John of the Cross, whose feast is celebrated on that splendid date, November 24, every year, is impossible to summarize except to say that he was the every embodiment of priestly detached from everything save the love of God and His Holy Will, especially in his pursuit of the highest degree of perfection possible to a mortal, his consummate spirit of mortification, constant self-abnegation, ability to suffer unjust persecution without complaint as just because of his sins and lowliness, and in the very direction he gave to the Discalced Carmelites as he work with his mentor and directee, Saint Teresa of Avila.
Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B., provided us with a very moving account of the life of a doctor of Holy Mother Church, a mystic and a saint who was entirely conformed to the Cross of Our Divine Redeemer, Our Blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ:
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 the 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 common-sense and natural perceptions of the soul; 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. 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 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. (Tobit 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.
“O spiritual soul, when thou seest thy desire obscured, thy will arid and constrained, and thy 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.”
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 necessarily 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.”
“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.” (Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B., The Liturgical Year.)
Dom Prosper Gueranger’s brilliant summation of the work of Saint John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz) only scratches the surface of the saint’s docility, humility, self-effacement, and willingness to undergo all trials in a spirit of serenity and joy for love of God and to make reparation for his own sins and faults, although most of those who knew him did not believe that he possessed any faults as he lived from his childhood in a near-perfect union with Our Crucified Saviour.
The Fathers of the Discalced Carmelites look upon Saint Teresa of Avila as their mother and upon Saint John of the Cross as their father. One of Saint John’s spiritual sons, Father Paschasius Heriz, O. C. D., wrote a very simple and easy-to-understand biography of our saint that was published in 1915.
Father Heriz’s Saint John of the Cross is truly inspirational as it instructs us not only about the life of the great victim-soul who spent eight months imprisoned in the closet of the monastery of Carmelites of the Mitgation (the Order of Carmel), which had relaxed the order’s primitive rule of life) but about how far most of us from even having a microscopic trace of the perfection that exemplified Saint John of the Cross’s life.
Father Heriz used his preface to explain that Our Lady herself, the Mother of God, was the “origin and principal” of the Order of Carmel’s birth before explaining that how the Order of Discalced Carmelites came into being by the indomitable Saint Teresa of Jesus and the subject of his biography, Saint John of the Cross:
As in every normal and perfect birth, the holy order of Carmel was born of a father and mother. The mother, origin and principal in this spiritual generation, was the Most Blessed Virgin Mary. Centuries before her own birth, foreseen in a mysterious cloud, the holy prophet Elias worshiped her, and in her honor, by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, he established the ancient and venerable Order of Carmel.
Thus the Most Holy Virgin is the principal cause and original patroness of the order, its special protection, its faithful and most affectionate mother, manifesting God's design by her activity throughout the ages.
The father of Carmel was the wonderful and holy Prophet Elias, ardent zealot of the glory of God, voice of his oracles and righthand of his power, born in flames and fed, according to St. Epiphanius, by angels with flames instead of milk, taken to heaven in a chariot of fire, and there blissfully held in mystery to return as defender of the Church and forerunner of Christ when he comes to judge the living and the dead.
Such are the parents of the illustrious and most ancient family of Carmel.
Similarly, in its renovation, when, through the reform of the Discalced Carmelites in Spain, the order was born anew, God provided for it a mother in St. Teresa of Jesus, who performed, the office and mirrored the virtues of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As Mary, without offense to her virginal purity, became mother of God and of his children, so Teresa, preserving for her divine spouse the treasure of her virginity, became the spiritual mother of innumerable children of Carmel.
The father of the reformed Carmel was a second Elias, like to the first in name, in spirit, armed with burning zeal, attired in penitential apparel, glowing with the flames of seraphic ardor and winning his way to the highest top of the mystical Mount Carmel. This was our blessed and most devoted father, St. John of the Cross, brightness and glory of the reformed family of Carmel, their master, captain, guide.
Though he is the first-born spiritual son of St. Teresa, he is at the same time our cherished and revered father, for from the very beginning he fostered us. In Holy Writ, He is called the father of his brother Cis, and Igal the son of his brother Nathan. So, in our holy order, the first-born son of St. Teresa and beloved brother of all the Discalced Carmelites, is nevertheless truly our father as well.
Now in order that the second generation of Carmel should be like its first generation, God gave us St. Teresa in the likeness of the Most of his brother Nathan. So, in our holy order, the first-born son of St. Teresa and beloved brother of all the Discalced Carmelites, is nevertheless truly our father as well.
Holy Virgin Mary, and St. John of the Cross, a perfect figure of St. Elias. Moreover there is a wonderful likeness between St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross in their supernatural gifts, their wisdom and their mastery in the doctrines of mystical theology and the ways of the Spirit. We leave the glories of St. Teresa to her own incomparable history of herself. In this brief narration of the life of St. John of the Cross we shall find him likewise a real apostle and prophet, powerful in words and works, and gifted with the double spirit of St. Elias. (Father Paschasius Heriz, O. C. D., Saint John of the Cross, College of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Washington, D.C., 1919, pp. 5-7.)
Even in his youth he was favored by the Mother of God herself, who saved him from drowning:
In the year 1542, when Paul III was Pope and Charles V King of Spain, our holy father, Saint John of the Cross, was born in Hontiveros.
Was he born on the twenty-fourth of June, or the twenty-seventh of December? We do not know, but it must have been one or the other of these days, because he received the name John in baptism. It seems providential that we do not know which was his birthday or which his patron saint; for being, like the Baptist, the most perfect model of monks, and, like the Evangelist, the most sublime mystical writer, he resembles both in spirit as well as in name.
As stated in the first volume of the extant baptismal record of the parish church of Hontiveros, a fire which reduced the church to ashes in July, 1546, consumed the book in which the baptism of our holy father was recorded.
Catalina Alvarez reared her children in utmost poverty, but with the greatest care and motherly affection. She taught them to invoke the most sweet name of Jesus, to keep always on their lips the holy name of Mary, to join their voices to the universal prayer of the Church, to fear God, to venerate holy things, to shun evil and love virtue. To safeguard her children from all ideas less holy and pure than these, she worked by their side and made herself the companion of their play.
Blessed by Almighty God with such a mother, little John made wonderful progress. He seemed to have a natural inclination to piety. He was so meek, quiet and humble that his gentleness belied his age; while the flowers of his tender years gave promise of the seasoned fruits of his maturity. God formed in his youthful soul a most wonderful image of high perfection.
We have the following story to remind us of the signal favors bestowed on him from earliest childhood by his heavenly mother, the Blessed Virgin. One day little John with another child of his own age was playing beside a deep, muddy pool, throwing reeds into the water and recovering them when they rose again to the surface. Bending too far over the brink to catch his reed, little John fell into the pool and at once sank out of sight. But he immediately returned to the surface, like one of the reeds, and remained there without being injured or in the least disturbed. He was quite clear in his conviction that he had been saved from death by the queen of heaven. And now she appeared to him, stretching out her most pure hand and asking him to place his own in it that she might draw him from the pool. But John, seeing her so pure and heavenly, declined, for fear of sullying her. The queen repeated her request, and he made his excuses, in a serene and beautiful contest of courtesy, until a man in peasant garb came bearing a rod in his hand, stretched it to the child and drew him safely to the bank; then went his way. Those who tell the tale favor the belief that this was none other than Saint Joseph.
The apparition filled the child with joy. The fervent devotion of that day never deserted him, and whenever he passed that place in after years he made a devout pilgrimage to the spot to renew with grateful tears his consecration of himself to the Mother of God. Pharaoh's daughter and Moses floating on the waters of the Nile are to us a feeble foreshadowing of this queen of heaven whose most pure hand was outstretched to save the future leader of God's chosen people, the great family of Carmel, from out the Egypt of this world, through the penitential life of the monastery, to the holy mountain of interior peace. (Father Paschasius Heriz, O. C. D., Saint John of the Cross, College of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Washington, D.C., 1919, pp. 13-15.)
Saint John of the Cross kept ever close to Our Lady throughout his forty-nine years of life, and he rose to such heights of sanctity that he was led by her to Saint Teresa of Jesus. The meeting between the two saints in Medina del Campo, Spain, made it possible for there to be a sacerdotal complement to Saint Teresa’s determination to restore the Order of Carmel’s primitive rule:
Great graces from God bring with them anxiety to safeguard them. Recalling the promise made him while saying mass for the first time, St. John studied carefully the means in his power to persevere in the state of divine grace.
He saw how necessary it was for him to withdraw farther and farther from the commerce of men, and, if possible, retire into the wilderness where God communicates himself to the soul. He had made the offering of his whole self, and had nothing more to offer now; but it was his duty still to watch with Abraham, and drive away the birds of the air, lest they should devour and defile the sacrifice. There seemed no other way before him except to leave the order of Carmel and become a Carthusian; for that was the only order a mendicant monk could enter.
During this time, our mother St. Teresa had reformed the order among the nuns and was looking for some priest who had embraced the rule to help her in the most arduous work of reforming the fathers of Carmel also. The first thought and desire for discalced Carmelite fathers came from the generous and brave heart of St. Teresa. She had recourse to prayer, and with unceasing tears like another Rachel, entreated God for children (Gen. 30-1).
With this thought and desire, being in Medina del Campo, where she had just finished the second foundation of nuns, St. Teresa communicated confidentially her thoughts and desires to Father Antonio de Heredia, prior of the calced Carmelites of that city. He promised to be the first to take off his shoes and become a barefooted friar of the primitive observance. St. Teresa was pleased with this resolution, but was not fully satisfied, fearing that he would not be strong enough to bear the austerities.
After his first mass in Medina, Father John of St. Mathias went back to Salamanca to finish his course in the university. Later in the year he came back with Fra Pedro de Orozco to Medina, with the intention of going to the Carthusians of Segovia, to hide himself from contact with men, that he might serve God without any distraction. He remained, however, in the monastery of St. Anne for some time, where his resolution of going to the Carthusians was known at least to Fra Pedro, who told St. Teresa what he knew of the fervent spirit hidden in the frail body of Fra John of St. Mathias, and his earnest desire to become a Carthusian for the sake of a more perfect life than it was possible to lead among the Carmelites of the mitigation.
Fra John of St. Mathias was twenty-five years old when he went at the urgent request of Fra Pedro de Orozco to see St. Teresa in her monastery of Medina. He had been about four years in the order, to the reform of which he was now called by the voice of St. Teresa, who was herself in her fifty-third year, and had been in the order more than thirty-three years. The two saints met for the first time in the Carmelite house of St. Joseph in Medina del Campo. The nun told the friar what she intended to do, and the friar told her how he had for some time wished to become a Carthusian because he believed himself called to a life of more retirement and prayer. As the conversation continued, and the older saint represented to the younger one that he would do greater service to God if he remained where he was and helped her to restore the primitive rule of his order than if he left it to embrace another, Fra John, humble and self-denying, yielded to the persuasion of St. Teresa, and consented to do her bidding, provided the reform should be commenced without delay.
He was the gift of God to St. Teresa, who was now content. She had found the one man on whom she could depend ; for though she had already accepted on certain conditions the prior of Medina, Fra Antonio de Heredia, she was not wholly satisfied with him, and, therefore, she waited a while, partly because of her want of perfect confidence in Fra Antonio and partly because she had no house to give them, nor the means wherewith to buy one. But her poverty did not trouble her; on the contrary, she was gladdened by it.
She used to say that she began the work when she had found a friar and a half, referring to the fact that Fra Antonio was a portly personage of dignified presence and Fra John was small of stature and worn already by penances. There was nothing in him outwardly to command the respect of ordinary men. But St. Teresa knew his worth. About the interpretation of the words, friar and a half, there are two opinions. Some say St. Teresa referred to the outward appearance of the two friars calling Fra Antonio, on account of his dignified presence, one friar, and St. John of the Cross, because of his small stature and the wornout condition of his health, half a friar. Others say the Mystic Doctor referred to their moral and spiritual worth. Of this opinion are, besides the nuns of Medina who lived together with the saint, Fra Manuel of St. Teresa, Fra Jose of St. Teresa, and many other writers of the order.
The two friars were willing to renounce the mitigated observances of the order, and to undertake the austerities of the primitive rule, but there was no house to lodge them, nor a single penny to buy one for them. They were, like St. Teresa, mendicants, and had no possessions; so they remained in the house of St. Anne of Medina, where they suffered many crosses.
St. Teresa went from Medina, about the end of October, 1567, to Madrid, thence to the monastery of the venerable Maria of Jesus in Alcala de Henares. In April, 1568, she made her foundation in Malagon, and was preparing to make another in Valladolid. In Malagon St. Teresa again met St. John of the Cross; and one day, while conversing together, both fell into a trance, and were seen by Mother Isabel of the Incarnation. Fra John was in the parlor of the monastery, and St. Teresa on the other side of the grating.
In June, St. Teresa returned to Avila to make final arrangements for the foundation of Valladolid; and while so occupied, Don Rafael Mejia Valasquez, to whom she had never spoken before, called upon her and offered a small cottage he had in Duruelo for the monastery of the discalced fathers. She accepted the offer with great gratitude, and went to see the place. On the road she and her companions missed the way, and so reached the place late at night. The house was so filthy that the saint and her companions did not venture to pass the night in it. It had a porch, a small kitchen, and a room with a low garret. St. Teresa considered that place the Bethlehem of the reformed Carmel. Its utter wretchedness had won her.
The night was spent in the neighboring church. The next day St. Teresa reached Medina del Campo, and told the prior of the Carmelites that she had found the place. Fra Antonio was not alarmed by the account they gave him about the house. He said he would stay gladly even in a pigpen, provided he could keep the primitive rule there. Fra John of St. Mathias had no objection. The poverty of the house was a spell that attracted him.
But all the difficulties were not so easily overcome. The general of the order had given permission to found new monasteries on condition that the actual provincial and former provincial gave their consent. One of them, Fra Angel of Salazar, had already been involved in trouble with St. Teresa, and probably had not forgotten it.
St. John of the Cross, before leaving with St. Teresa for the foundation of Valladolid, took the habit of the reformation in the speak-room of Medina del Campo in the presence of the foundress. This is stated by several witnesses and specially by Dr. Alvaro de Marmol, Isabel de Santiago, Oonstanza Eodriguez, Juan Lopez Osorio and Catalina de Jesus. But until he went to Duruelo, he did not continue wearing the habit of the reformation for, as we shall see later, after having said the first mass in Duruelo, he put the new habit on the altar, blessed it, and then clothed himself with it.
St, Teresa went to Valladolid to make the foundation there, and took with her Fra Juan that hemight see the way in which the rule was kept. In Valladolid the nuns had to live for some time in a monastery unenclosed, on account of the workmen in the house. This enabled him to see better their ways.
While he was thus, in a manner, novice a second time, St. Teresa was engaged in getting the necessary permission of the provincial, Fra Alonso Gonzalez, who came at this time to Valladolid. He was not willing to accept the new foundation under his jurisdiction; but the bishop of Avila and his sister, Dona Maria de Mendoza, friends of St. Teresa, came also to Valladolid, and helped her to the utmost of their power. The two provincials gave their consent at last, moved not a little by some difficulties of their own, for the removal of which they wanted the help of the bishop's sister.
This opportunity of learning the holy customs and manner of life in the reformation of St. Teresa, and the privilege of the most intimate communication with her, were acknowledged and repaid by Fra Juan, not only with the rare example of his holy life and heavenly conversation, but also by giving both to St. Teresa and her daughters the spiritual nourishment of conferences, hearing confessions and directing them to the highest perfection. With this he began his intimate and life-long connection with St. Teresa as her spiritual son and master of herself and her daughters. He was the first confessor and spiritual director of the discalced Carmelites, fathers and sisters.
Every hindrance was now removed. The foundation of the first monastery of the bare-footed Carmelites was not only possible but legal according to the constitution of the order, and it was made with the full sanction of the general, to the great joy of those who were about to begin the reform of Carmel.
St. Teresa and her nuns, with their own hands, made the habit of the first friar of the reform, Fra Juan of St. Mathias. With that habit, but not wearing it, and with the means of saying mass, he left Valladolid for Duruelo. One of the workmen employed in repairing the monastery of the nuns was sent with him, because his service would be greatly needed in the ruined house which was to be the cradle of the reform of the friars.
When he was saying farewell to the nuns he said, before all the sisters, “Mother, as you are the cause of my undertaking this work for the service of God, ask him to give me his grace, that I may commence it for his glory, and on it and on myself bestow your holy blessing.''
St. Teresa with her nuns wept tears of joy at the humility of the father and promised him their prayers. Then, falling on their knees, they begged him who had been their spiritual father and confessor, as the priest of the Lord, to bless them.
Fra Juan took leave of the saint and went to Duruelo to lay the foundations of the reform of the friars of Carmel. He had never seen the house of Duruelo, which was to be the first monastery of the order, until he went thither to take possession of it in the autumn of 1568. Its poverty-stricken condition had an irresistible charm for him, and he entered it with joy in his heart, because he had found his true rest on earth. He began at once to put the house in order. First of all he made the church in a little porch of the house, which represented the stable of Bethlehem where our Lord was born. The only ornaments of the church were a number of crosses made of branches of trees, and as many skulls as crosses, which caused both horror and edification. The choir was in the garret over the inner chamber. It had a little roof sloping on both sides, so low at the ends that one had to kneel to go into the apartment. The window was a little hole in the roof which was opened and closed by a tile, so badly fitted that wind, rain and snow had free passage in. At both ends of the choir he built two little cells, so narrow and low that the dweller had to stretch out or kneel down in them, because they were at the ends of the garret. He spread a little straw in them to make them more like the stable of Bethlehem. He supplied stones for pillows. A cross and a skull were the precious furniture of these cells. Each one had its little window looking to the tabernacle, the most pleasing vista possible for the dwellers therein.
The domestic part of the monastery had less grandeur than the church and choir. The small room under the choir was divided into two or three little cells, adorned with the same furniture as those already described. The little kitchen of the old house was divided into two, one being used for kitchen and the other for refectory. The furniture and kitchen-utensils of these departments were gay indeed. In the refectory he placed a piece of a rough board for a table. A broken pitcher and pumpkin-shells served as dishes. The kitchen boasted a couple of old pots which were used not very often.
Such was the whole monastery as our holy father prepared it for the cradle of our holy order. When the work was done, it was late in the evening. Fra Juan sent the workman who was with him to the village to beg for food, for there was none in the monastery. The people gave him some broken bread and with this they broke the fast of that day.
The greater part of the night, notwithstanding the labor of the day before, was spent by Fra Juan in prayer. In the morning, having prepared the altar, he said holy mass. The habit he had received from St. Teresa he laid on the altar and blessed it, and at the end of mass he put it on. He had no shoes nor stockings, nothing to protect his feet from the ground. He was as poor as man could well be; and in as poor a monastery as any in the world.
Outwardly and inwardly detached, lie fell on his knees, and, with fervent thanksgiving commended himself and his work to our Lord through the intercession of his most holy mother, who had been his singular protectress from his childhood up to that day. (Father Paschasius Heriz, O. C. D., Saint John of the Cross, College of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Washington, D.C., 1919, pp. 40-51.)
As was the case with his mentor and co-worker, Saint Teresa of Avila, and had been documented so well in the life of Saint Joseph Cupertino two hundred years before him, Saint John of the Cross levitated and went into deep trances at various times while praying, meditating and offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. His soul was so pure and so entirely united with Our Lord that not even the laws of gravity could keep his feet on the group when he was in a state of spiritual ecstasy:
While St. John of the Cross was in Alcala de Henares, St. Teresa was sent by the apostolic visitor, Era Pedro Hernandez of the order of St. Dominic, to Avila as prioress of the monastery of the Incarnation. Notwithstanding the opposition of the nuns, constrained by her vow of obedience the saint entered and took possession of the office of prioress in October, 1571, and, winning by degrees the affection of the discontented nuns, brought the monastery to a state of regularity and fervor. Meanwhile St. John of the Cross had returned from Alcala to Pastrana, and had reformed that monastery, restoring it to the true pathways of the new, Carmel. St. Teresa, in order to do her work more surely and leave durable traces of her presence in the convent of the Incarnation, where she had received the habit of Carmel and made her profession, and where she had enjoyed most wonderful visions and revelations, asked the visitor for St. John of the Cross as confessor of the monastery. The visitor assented gladly, and the saint came without delay, bringing with him another friar, German of St. Mathias, as Ms. companion. The visitor lodged them in a small house close to the monastery of the Incarnation where they could live in peace. This was in the spring of 1572.
The great sanctity of St. John of the Cross, hitherto known to few, began to be spoken of outside the order. The nuns of the Incarnation gave him their confidence without reserve and in obedience to him changed the order of their lives.
St. Teresa had put an end to the great distractions which were the result of too many visits to the monastery by seculars, and St. John of the Cross made the work perfect by stopping, directly and indirectly, confessions of the nuns to priests who were without the courage and will to correct the laxity resulting from frequent resort to the parlors. St. John dealt with the nuns gently and tenderly, but with constant firmness, and the community under the government of St. Teresa, though not keeping the rule which the prioress and the two confessors observed, became most observant and recollected, as we can see by a letter of St. Teresa to her sister Dona Juana, written 27 September, 1572, in which the saint says, “The barefooted friar who is confessor here is doing great things. He is Fra John of the Cross."
God promoted the work by giving to the saint many supernatural gifts; among others, the gift of miracles. Soon after he came to the Incarnation, one of the nnns, Dona Maria de Yera, fell into a sudden and dangerous illness, and before her danger was suspected by the nuns, became insensible. They sent for St. John of the Cross to administer the last sacraments. But before he entered the monastery the nun was dead, to the extreme grief of her sisters, one of whom, in the bitterness of her sorrow, reproached the saint as if he were to be blamed, saying, "Is this the way you take care of your children? This one has died without confession.”
The holy man made no answer, but turned back and went straight to the church, where before the most holy sacrament he poured out his soul, begging humbly for help. After a considerable time the nuns sent him word saying that the sister was restored to life. Whereupon he left the church and on the way met the nun who had spoken to him before.
"My child," he asked, "are you satisfied?"
He then went to the infirmary, heard the confession of the nun who had been restored to life, and gave her the last sacraments. When the saint had done for her all that could be done, God took her to himself.
St. John was kind to these poor nuns in every way, and they were much to be pitied, for the monastery was very large and very poor. The nuns were more than a hundred in number and often in distress, wanting both food and raiment. One day, seeing a nun in a habit utterly unsuited to her, St. John went out and begged enough to supply her with another, for the monastery was too poor to do so. In many ways he thus manifested his compassion for their material distress.
St. Teresa tells us how, in 1573, St. John of the Cross mortified her in the very act of giving her holy communion. St. Teresa liked to receive large hosts, and had said so to St. John of the Cross. But he, intent on teaching perfect detachment, on that day divided one host between the foundress and one of the nuns, not because there was a scarcity of hosts, but, says the saint, “because he wished to mortify me.''
One of the sisters, Beatriz of Jesus, who later became a barefooted nun, went to the parlor of the Incarnation on Trinity Sunday with a message to the prioress. To her great amazement, she saw St. Teresa raised in the air, where she remained unconscious of the messenger's presence. Sister Beatriz withdrew and called other nuns who became witnesses of the same marvel. On the other side of the grating they discovered St. John of the Cross, also raised above the ground in the same way. The mystery was explained to them afterwards. The two saints had begun speaking of the Most Blessed Trinity, and had fallen into a trance together.
St. Teresa often said it was impossible for any one to speak of God to St. John of the Cross, because either he or the other fell into a trance.
On another occasion, when the two saints were conversing together, he rose from his seat, trying to hide from her what was coming on; and when she asked him if it was the beginning of a trance, he said simply, “I think it is.'”
Calmly and quietly he did his work among the nuns, who had hitherto been indifferently governed. Although they were very many and the house was very poor, by degrees they were brought back to more regular observance. The world outside became conscious of the change within, and felt that the saints were responsible for it. In a letter to Philip II, St. Teresa gives the credit to St. John of the Cross. “The city is amazed," she says, “at the exceedingly great good he has done here, and people take him for a saint; and in my opinion he is one, and has been one all his life" (Lett. 170, to Philip II, 4 Dec, 1577). (Father Paschasius Heriz, O. C. D., Saint John of the Cross, College of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Washington, D.C., 1919, pp. 67-71.)
Saint John of the Cross’s flights of ecstasy inflamed his priestly soul ever more to suffer for His Divine Master. His desire for suffering was crowned with the eight months he spent as a prisoner of a Carmelite monastery in Toledo, Ohio, as he was roughly treated physically and denounced almost every evening in full view of the other friars for his “disobedience” in forming a priestly chapter of the Order of Discalced Carmelites.
The account given by Father Paschasius Heriz below should given us pause to reflect upon how very little realize we suffer justly because of our sins even when what are injustices in the objective order of things are visited upon us. Such suffering is a sign of Divine favor, which Saint John of the Cross rejoiced abundantly:
In the course of his fifth year in Avila, in 1576, a most troublesome incident befel St. John of the Cross which it would be a relief not to mention if it were not precisely the most precious gem in the halo of sanctity, venerated by Holy Church as the story of his life. This is the reason given by St. Teresa for speaking of it in many parts of her writings. Keeping in mind the good intentions which actuated the prelates of the observance and the conclusion arrived at by the general and commissary that the discalced fathers were obstinate and rebellious, the reader will see how the facts in the case display the holiness of St. John of the Cross and redound to the glory of the entire order of Carmel.
Before St. Teresa's term of office as prioress of the monastery of the Incarnation in Avila came to an end, and while St. John of the Cross was still stationed there, the friars of the mitigation struck their first blow at the reform of Carmel. In the year 1575 the general chapter of the order was assembled in Piacenza, in the duchy of Parma. That memorable chapter decreed the suppression throughout Spain of all monasteries of friars which had not been founded with the sanction of the general. Every one who was not willing to accept this decree was to be regarded as a rebel and punished as such. This affected six or seven houses of the reform which had been founded with sanction of the nuncio. Only two, the house at Duruelo later removed to Manzera, and the house at Pastrana, had been founded with the permission of the general.
Fra Jerome Tostado, a shrewd and courageous Portuguese friar, was appointed visitor of Spain and charged with the execution of this decree. After his instructions were given to him he set out for Spain, making no haste, but advancing slowly and deliberately to do his work. Towards the end of 1575 the prior of the Carmelites in Avila, acting under instructions from Fra Jerome Tostado, removed St. John of the Cross and Fra German of St. Mathias from the chaplaincy of the monastery of the Incarnation, “to the exceeding great scandal of the city,'' writes St. Teresa. The nuncio was appealed to, and he ordered them to be brought back, at the same time forbidding the friars of the mitigation to hear confessions of the nuns or even to say mass in that monastery.
The nuncio, Monsignor Ormaneto, died in 1577. This was an occasion of great grief to the friars of the reform, for he had been faithful and constant in their defense. His successor, Monsignor Siega, was unfriendly to them, considering them rebellions innovators bent on the ruin of the order. His opinion was due to men interested or deceived, who gained his confidence and led him to distrust St. Teresa herself, representing her to be a restless and dissatisfied nun. The nuncio believed there was some truth at least in these miserable accusations, and his anger was not lessened when the “restless woman,” as he once called St. Teresa, was elected prioress of the Incarnation by fifty-five nuns against forty-four who were in favor of Dona Ana of Toledo, one of the household. The fifty-five who elected St. Teresa were excommunicated by the provincial. They submitted to the prioress who had been elected by the minority and she was confirmed by the vicar of the general, Fra Jerome Tostado. He sent Fra Fernando Maldonado, prior of Toledo, to absolve them and make peace in the house.
The prior had other instructions also. He was to detach St. John of the Cross from the reform, and failing that, to put him in prison as a disobedient friar.
Father Fernando Maldonado began by trying to persuade the saint to return to the old observance which he had abandoned nine years before. He said the reform was a scandal in itself, a slur on the good name of the order and a life full of spiritual dangers because it was new. St. John could not be moved. Then Fra Fernando made up his mind to use force and take him with him to prison in 'Toledo where he was prior.
Somehow or other this resolution to use violence became known and several of the chief men in Avila, with certain relatives of the nuns, kept watch round the poor cottage of the two friars. Father Maldonado remained quiet and waited till by degrees the watch was discontinued. Thereupon, on the night of 3 December, he went with a band of armed men to the cottage and, although the two friars neither resisted nor wished to offer any resistance, they were bound and gagged. Father Maldonado took them for the night to the friars' monastery, but before shutting them in their cells he had them severely scourged as rebel children of their mother. We have this on the authority of St. Teresa's letter to the prioress of Seville, written 10 December, 1577. Next morning the prior sent for St. John of the Cross, desiring to obtain some information from him. The saint, guarded by his jailers, was led into the place where the prior was making his thanksgiving after mass and was left there. He, seeing the door open, went out of the house to secure certain papers he had left behind in his little cottage. When his absence was observed some of the friars followed him in all haste. They found him in the house, but before they reached there the saint had destroyed the papers.
Fra German of St. Mathias was transferred to Moralejas. In the letter of St. Teresa to the prioress of Seville, referred to above, she says, “The prior of Avila has taken Fra German to St. Paul's, Moralejas. . . . They say that on the road blood flowed from his mouth.''
St. John of the Cross was destined for Toledo. In order to avoid notice by the people of Avila, Father Maldonado made the saint change his habit and cover his feet, as if he were a friar of the old observance. The friar to whose keeping the saint was committed hated the reform and showed it by treating his prisoner harshly while on the road. A secular in the party was more compassionate and determined to help St. John to escape. He found opportunity of making his resolution known to the prisoner, but the only answer he got from the saint was that the friar in charge did not treat him half so harshly as he deserved. St. John begged him therefore not to trouble himself further about him. The layman was not easily dissuaded. When they came to the inn where they were to lodge for the night, he went to the host and having told him what he had observed, said he believed the prisoner to be a great saint and lie wished to set him free. The inn-keeper entered into the plan, and told St. John of the Cross means of escape would be found during the night. It was all in vain. The holy man told him, as he had told the other, that he had no wish to escape. He was a willing prisoner. Thus he arrived in Toledo, calm and joyous of heart, for he was reaping the fruits of many years of self-discipline.
The seizure of the two friars filled Avila with dismay, but nobody could give any help. St. Teresa was at this time in her own monastery of St. Joseph in that city; herself in disgrace, but not disheartened. Unable to learn where the prisoners were hidden by their persecutors, she wrote at once to the king, Philip II, begging for help. “I would rather,” she said, “he were in the hands of the Moors, for they perhaps would be more merciful. And this friar, who is so great a servant of God, is so enfeebled by his great sufferings that I fear for his life." His judges were waiting for him in the monastery of the Incarnation of the old observance. They were angry, not just, judges and their passion and prejudice prevailed. They were satisfied that the prisoner was guilty before they heard his defence.
According to the orders of the visitor general and the acts of the general chapter, St. John of the Cross was received in Toledo as a fugitive and contumacious friar. The next day he appeared before his judges, friars of the old observance, empowered by the vicar of the general in Spain to try him. The acts of the general chapter held in Piacenza were produced. He was asked to return to the observance quitted by him nine years before. His judges promised not only to forgive and forget the past, but also to treat him with great honor and raise him to high offices in the order. If he refused to submit he would be regarded as a rebellious friar, they said, and subjected to the penalties with which all religious orders punish contumacious children.
Saint John heard them patiently and then with great humility replied that it was impossible for him to do what they required of him. The reform to which he belonged was lawfully established, with the consent of the general, by the visitors apostolic and the nuncio of His Holiness; he was bound to persevere, therefore, under obedience to higher authority, for the authority of the Pope is greater than that of the general chapter. He said he was in their power and was ready and willing to accept any punishment they wished to give him, although, since his ' superior was Fra Jerome of the Mother of God, he was not legally subject to their jurisdiction.
The friars of the mitigation thought they were within their own right. 'They believed they were justified in restraining St. John of the Cross under authority of the general. The new nuncio also favored them, for he wished, as much as they did, to crush the reform. They had him in their power now, and they believed they had the right to chastise him as a rebellious friar.
The servant of God was helpless and submitted humbly to the sentence pronounced on him by men who had no jurisdiction over him. He had prayed for suffering, and his prayer was being heard.
They gave him for a prison a small closet, not quite six feet wide and less than ten feet in length, at the end of a room in which guests of distinction were usually lodged. It was close and dark, without any window. Its scanty light came through a loophole not three inches wide, in the wall near the roof. To read his breviary the prisoner had to stand on a bench and hold a book up under the light, which could be had only for a short time during the day when the sun shone in the corridor of the house.
The door of this closet was padlocked. He could never leave it without the jailer's permission. Afterwards when the friars heard of the escape of his fellow-sufferer, Fra German of St. Mathias, from the monastery of Morale] as, the door of the room to which the closet belonged was also locked. They were determined to keep him safely, because they considered him, as in truth he was, the chief pillar of the hated reform.
No one, except the friar who acted as jailer, was allowed to speak to him or even see him. In the evenings he was led to the refectory at the time of collation and there, on the floor, he had to take his food, which was generally bread and water. When the meal was over, the prior was accustomed to rebuke him severely, upbraiding him as a reformer of others when he needed reformation himself, and calling attention of the community to him as to one who had set himself up to teach them before he had himself been taught.
When the prior ceased to speak the saint bared his shoulders to receive the public discipline inflicted on friars guilty of great offences. It is the heaviest penance which religious inflict as the penalty of disgraceful deeds. St. John of the Cross, walking in the footsteps of his Master, bowed his head and submitted to the terrible scourging, which was so unsparingly administered that his shoulders bore the mark of it for the rest of his days. He received it from the hands of God, who had the right to scourge him, and neither then nor afterwards did he ever complain of the friars, not even among his own brethren of the reform, who knew the whole story. He would never allow any one at any time to blame the friars of Toledo.
At first they led him to the refectory every night. He longed for the evening, that he might submit once more to the torture. But his judges grew weary in time, and they sent for him only thrice in the week. This continued for some weeks; then only on Fridays. Later, they spared him even on Fridays, and left him for weeks unmolested in his cell. This was to him a fresh grief. He complained to his jailer, asking why he had been forgotten and deprived of his only consolation.
He was kept in prison more than eight months, during which time he was never allowed to change his clothes. He had to wear the habit of the mitigation which had been given him in Avila when he was made prisoner. This was a perpetual penance to him. His woolen tunic underneath must have been saturated with blood, and frightfully soiled. But the friars were blind to their own cruelty. When he went out of the prison at last, he had become a burden even to himself.
To add to his sorrows, the friars of the observance would meet together in the room to which his cell belonged, and there they discussed the affairs of the reform. They spoke of the resolution of the nuncio, Monsignor Siega, to crush the reform, and narrated the strange charges brought against St. Teresa herself, of whom more evil was said than of Luther. They said the Visitor Jerome Gratian and other heads of the reform were already imprisoned, and that not only the reform was to be abolished, but that its founders and all those who had anything to do with it were to be disgraced forever. All this was gall and wormwood to St. John, for he knew nothing of the state of his brethren. He therefore bewailed his own sins and imperfections which, in his humility, he considered the cause of the great ruin which had been wrought in Carmel.
It was impossible for him to communicate with anybody. He was cut off from the rest of the world; no one knew where he was. As far as possible they also deprived him of the consolation of religion. It was with difficulty he could say his office. He was not allowed to say mass.
If he had gone to the Carthusians, as he purposed at the beginning of his priesthood, he could have served God in peace and quietness. But here God had thrown him into the crucible to burn away the dross, to purify the spirit, and bring it to himself. In all these trials, in the depths of his sufferings, his patience never failed him. It was in this prison he composed several wonderful hymns, which afterwards he most admirably explained.
His bodily pains may be, perhaps, comprehended, but the spiritual sufferings by which his soul was raised on high, are unutterable. He was drawn in beneath the deep waters and hidden from the eyes of men bodily and spiritually, so that none could comfort him.
But God did not forsake his servant. One night the friar, who kept him, went as usual to see that his prisoner was safe, and witnessed a heavenly light with which the cell was flooded. He did not stop to consider it, but hurried to the prior, thinking some one in the house had keys to open the doors of the prison. The prior at once went with two religious to the prison, but on entering the room through which the prison was approached, the light vanished. The prior entered the cell but, finding no light, went away, thinking it was some illusion of the jailer.
St. John at a later time told one of his brethren that the heavenly light which God so mercifully sent him, lasted the whole night and filled his soul with joy. It made the night pass away as if it were but a moment.
When his imprisonment was drawing to its close, he heard our Lord say to him, “John, I am here; be not afraid. I will set thee free.”
On the eve of the Assumption of our Lady, 1587, when he had been eight months in prison, the prior came suddenly with two of the friars. He found the saint on his knees in prayer. St. John thought it was only the jailer and continued in prayer, but the prior touched him rudely and asked him why he had not stood up to receive him. The prior honestly believed his not rising up was an act of disrespect and was greatly displeased. The servant of God begged to be forgiven so simply and so humbly that the prior was softened for a moment and asked him what he was thinking of.
St. John of the Cross answered, “I was thinking that tomorrow is the feast of the Assumption of our Lady, and that it would be a great joy to me if I could say mass."
The prior turned his back saying, “Not in my time,” and went his way.
'The saint was left alone in his sorrow, because next day he was neither to say nor hear mass. But during the night that followed the day of the Assumption, our Blessed Lady came to his cell, making it radiant in the soft light of her presence, and said to him, “My son, have patience, thy trials are nearly over; thou shalt leave the prison, say mass, and be glad.”
His heart dilated at these words and he began to consider how he was to make his escape. He knew that his jailers would not release him, and he could not deliver himself. In this perplexity, but confident that an escape was possible, he continued for a day or two, and then our Lord himself appeared to him and bade him to be of good cheer, for he who enabled the Prophet Eliseus to divide the waters of the Jordan with the mantle of Elias and cross the river, would, without any difficulty, deliver him out of the hands of his tormentors.
Believing that his deliverance was nigh, he took heart and waited, but he was still unable to understand how it was to be effected. Again our Lady appeared to him and in a vision showed to him a window of the monastery from which the Tagus could be seen. He was to descend from that window, she said, and she would save him from all danger. As he had never been in the monastery except as a prisoner, he knew nothing of the arrangements of the house. He would not have been able to find his way to that window even by day-light, still less in the darkness of the night. But our Lord prepared things quietly. The ordinary jailer who had been so harsh was called for some other work, and a friar from Valladolid, of a more tender heart, was made his guardian. This friar, Fra John of St. Mary, touched by the patience and silence of the prisoner, became persuaded that he was a great saint. He therefore was as kind to him as he could be, and tried in every way to soften the rigors of his prison. "When the fathers were at recreation or resting in the heat of the day, he would take St. John out of his cell and allow him to walk up and down the room to which it belonged.
And then he gave him greater freedom and allowed him to enter the corridor and even to look out of the windows. Thus it was that he discovered the window seen in the vision.
He had been treated by his jailer with all the kindness in his power, and now, knowing that he was to leave him, he thanked him for his kindness and asked him to forgive all the trouble he had caused. He then gave him a crucifix which the friars had not taken from him. The cross was made of some rare wood on which the instruments of the passion were admirably figured, and the image of our Lord was of bronze. The saint had worn it under his scapular near his heart, and told his jailer that he prized it highly himself, not for the workmanship, but because it had been given to him by a most saintly person in whose possession it had been for some time. He did not say that it was the gift, as it is believed, of St. Teresa herself, when he was the confessor of the nuns of the Incarnation, because at that time the name of St. Teresa was hateful in the ears of the fathers of the mitigation and this good friar from Valladolid was probably under the same misconception.
When the servant of God saw the window which had been shown him in vision he knew the time had come for his escape. That night when his jailer, after giving him supper, went out of the cell for some water, St. John loosened the staple of the padlock on his door. He was further favored by the jailer's forgetting that night to take away the lamp. Late in the evening the provincial, with some other religious, came unexpectedly to the monastery and two of them were lodged in the room which gave access to the prison of St. John. They continued for a long time conversing together.
Meanwhile St. John was making preparations. He tore the two cloaks which constituted his bedding into strips, and tied them together that they might serve him for a rope. After this he spent the rest of the time in fervent prayer.
When he observed that the friars were sleeping soundly, about two o'clock in the morning, he took the iron lamp and the rope he had made and, imploring our Lady's help, shook the door until the loosened staple gave way.
The noise disturbed the sleeping friars, who cried out, "Who is there!''
He made no answer and they, knowing nothing of his presence, fell asleep again. He waited awhile, but a voice within him urged, "Be quick!" and when the two friars were again sound asleep, he left the cell and, crossing the room, went to the corridor and from there straight to the window which he had seen in the vision.
The window had a wooden parapet, the lower part of which was not joined to the brickwork. He inserted the iron rod of the lamp into the opening and fastened the rope to it. Then, commending himself to God and his most holy mother, he let himself down in the darkness to a place he had never seen in his life.
The rope was much too short; it did not reach half-way to the ground, but he, praying for help, let the rope go, and fell.
He was neither stunned nor hurt, although he fell from a considerable height, and onto loose stones, heaped there for the building of the church of the monastery.
He was still within the precincts of the monastery, and the night was dark. He had left one prison to find himself in another, of which he knew nothing. As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, he saw a dog gnawing some bones. He went up to the dog and frightened him away, meaning to follow him and find a way out. The dog leaped over the wall which separated the monastery of the friars from a courtyard of the Franciscan nuns. This courtyard was behind the church and its walls were high.
The saint was extremely weak from his long imprisonment and it was impossible for him to climb over the wall. In his distress he prayed again to our Blessed Lady for help, and somehow or other, he knew not how, he reached the top of the wall and let himself down on the other side.
He was now freed from his prison, but when he had circled the courtyard of the nuns, he found there was no way out. Discovery in such a place would be worse than in any other. He was plunged into the depths of misery by his plight. He went again round the court, but could find no outlet. Having exhausted human means, he prayed that he who had begun to deliver him would be pleased to finish his work.
While still praying for help he saw a wonderful light out of which came a voice, saying, “Follow me.''
He obeyed. The light moved before him towards the highest part of the wall, and then, he knew not how, he found himself on the summit of it, without effort or fatigue. He descended into the street and the light vanished.
It had been so brilliant that for two or three days afterwards his eyes were weak, as if he had been looking at the midday sun.
He had never before been in Toledo and did not know where to go; but, giving hearty thanks to our Lord for his miraculous escape, he took shelter in the porch of a large house, which had been left open. When the day began to break he saw a woman making ready her wares for the market and asked her the way to the monastery of the barefooted Carmelites, a monastery founded by St. Teresa in 1568.
The people who were abroad at that hour looked at him with amazement as he walked through the streets. He had on an old and worn habit and no mantle. His biographer says his appearance was rather that of a madman than a religious of Carmel.
He knocked at the door of the monastery at about five o'clock in the morning. Mother Leonor of Jesus, who was the turner at that time, answered, and the saint said, “Daughter, I am Fra John of the Cross. Last night I escaped from prison. Tell the mother prioress that I am here.''
The astonished sister did not lose time in delivering her message. The news of his escape ran through the monastery in an instant, and made all the religious glad. He had been eight months close to them, and yet none of them had known where he was.
At the moment of St. John's arrival at the door of the monastery, one of the sisters, Anne of the Mother of God, who had been ill for some time, thought herself to be in serious danger and asked for the confessor of the house. St. John had come in time to attend to her wants and the confessor was not disturbed. Weak and ill as he was, he ascended to the infirmary where the sister was supposed to be dying. The nuns saw that he could scarcely walk and that he was worn and weary; so they insisted on his taking food before going in. Having gained a little strength, he entered the infirmary and began hearing the sister's confession.
Just then the friars of the mitigation came to the monastery with the officers of justice. They searched the parlor, the confessional, the sacristy, and the church, for they were persuaded he would go to that monastery, if not for refuge, certainly for the means of leaving Toledo, and they hoped to be in time to seize him. They did not find him, and went away, having failed to think of entering the infirmary.
The nuns kept the saint in the house, and, as long as they could, in the infirmary, which was a place of safety. They asked him to tell them the story of his sufferings. They said it would comfort the sick to hear it, and he yielded to their wish. But in all he said there was not one word against the friars of Toledo, nor any trace of ill-feeing. He made excuses for them and took on himself all the blame.
Meanwhile the sisters were providing a habit for him, for he was clad in the habit of the mitigation.
It was impossible to lodge him in the monastery, and to send him out was dangerous. The prioress, in her anxiety, sent for a great friend of the order, Don Pedro Gonzalez de Mendoza, canon and treasurer of the cathedral church, to whom she told what had taken place. Don Pedro took the saint to his own lodgings where he remained some days, and then, when he had recovered his strength, he went with two of Don Pedro 's servants to the monastery of Almodo-var del Campo, a house of friars of his own order and profession.
Soon afterward St. Teresa came to Toledo from Avila and heard the story of the imprisonment. She wished the nuncio to be told of the way in which the friars of the mitigation, whom he befriended, had dealt with one who was wholly innocent.
The news of our saint's miraculous escape filled all the reformed family with joy, and especially our holy mother St. Teresa, who had prayed for it so ardently. The superiors of the order assembled in the convent of Almodovar and congratulated the saint on his marvelous escape and gave most fervent thanks to God.
All the superiors were present and forthwith gathered in chapter to make various appointments for the benefit of the order. Era Pedro, prior of Calvario in Andalusia, was elected procurator of the reformed Carmel at the Vatican. St. John of the Cross was made vicar of the convent of Calvario. Two reasons influenced them in sending St. John to Andalusia, to the convent of Calvario; first, to deliver him from the persecution of the fathers of the observance, and second, to afford him in that very lonely place full satisfaction of his ardent desire for solitude with his Beloved.
Era Pedro of the Angels, the newly elected procurator of the order to Rome, went to take leave of St. John, who, divinely enlightened, said to him, “You are going, my father, shoeless to Rome; but you will return to Spain with your shoes on.'”
The prophecy was accomplished. Fra Pedro became lax and through weakness betrayed his trust. On his return to Spain, having done no service whatever to the order, he went back to his brethren of the mitigation in the convent of Granada, where he ended his days under a cloud of shame and sorrow.
As soon as the chapter of Almodovar was over, St. John of the Cross left the place and on his way to Mount Calvary stopped at Veas to see the nuns there, and especially the prioress, the venerable Anne of Jesus.
The nuns rejoiced to see the confessor who had suffered so much for the order and who was the great pillar of the reform among the friars. While he was with the sisters in the parlor, the prioress desired one of the nuns to sing. The sister sang, and her song was of the blessedness of suffering.
Quien no sabe de penas
En este triste valle de dolores.
No sabe de buenas
Ni ha gustado de amores
Pues penas es el traje de amadores.
As soon as she began, St. Jolin felt that he was about to fall into a trance, so he made a sign to the religious to cease, but it was too late and he clung to the bars of the grating lest his body should be lifted up from the ground. He remained for an hour lost in prayer, insensible to all around him. The nuns of Veas became witnesses of a marvel which the nuns of the Incarnation at Avila had seen when he was confessor there.
The chair in which the servant of God sat on this occasion was religiously kept by the community, and even escaped the fire in 1810. It is now in the possession of the Carmelites of Jaen; a considerable fragment of it is in the Carmel at Brussels (Vie de la Mere Anne de Jesus, Vol. I, P. 246).
From Veas he went to the monastery of Mount Calvary, far away from the tumults of men, in the solitudes of Andalusia. The friars of Penuela had removed thither in December, 1576, in obedience to the decree of the first chapter of Almodovar, held 18 September of that year. This was done under Fra Pedro of the Angels who removed the community, thirty in number, and established it in a solitude called Corenzuela. The monastery was henceforth known as the monastery of Mount Calvary.
Fra Pedro was a man of great zeal, mortified and laborious. He was favored with the gift of prayer and was often seen lost in rapture. The order thought so well of him, as we have seen, that he was elected as the delegate of the friars to go to Rome.
But he had not been prudent in the government of the monastery of Mount Calvary. He had sanctioned many practices which were not wise. As before in Pastrana, so now in Corenzuela, St. John of the Cross, whose whole life had been one continued mortification, had to restrain and temper the mortification of others, by checking practices and observances which had crept in or had been openly brought in without warrant of the rule and constitutions.
There were men in this monastery who defended these novelties, saying the rule allows things to be done which are not enjoined by it. He answered that the permission was for single persons, not for whole communities. They urged upon him a further consideration that this house was far away from the concourse of men, and as none outside the monastery claimed their services, they were therefore free to lead a more rigorous and penitential life. St. John of the Cross would not give way before any plausibilities of this kind. He insisted on the careful observance of the rule and constitutions by which their lives were to be ordered. They were to attain to perfection in a definite way, he said, and not by inventions of their own. The friars of Carmel were called to one special kind of life, and they would miss their road if they departed from it.
He was always pitiless when he encountered extravagances of men who were too wise to keep the law under which they were obliged to live. He lopped off the excesses of Corenzuela as he had done like excesses in Pastrana. He who was so austere himself, was never austere with others; he would not impose rules of his own, nor allow others to impose them. As in the government of communities, so in the direction of single persons, he never made himself their master. He was content to administer the law and watch over its observance.
“Spiritual directors,” he said, “are not the chief workers, but rather the Holy Ghost. They are instruments only, to guide souls by the rule of faith and the law of God according to the spirit which God gives to each. Their object, therefore, should not be to guide souls by a way of their own, suitable to themselves, but to ascertain, if they can, the way by which God him- self is guiding them.'' (Living Flame, Stanza III.)
While he was checking extravagances and moderating penances in others, his own life was the most penitential in the house. But his penances never were in the way, and his austerities never interfered with the regular observance of the community. His cell was the poorest and the most scantily furnished. He had in it but two books, his breviary and the Holy Bible. If he wanted other books he went to the library for them and took them back as soon as he had done with them. He slept about two hours during the night. The remainder was spent in prayer, either in the church before the most holy sacrament, or in his cell. He resumed the terrible penances of Duruelo, and gave his body no rest. It was the only creature of God for whom he had no mercy.
The former prior of Mount Calvary, among other mortifications visible to the outer world, had allowed the friars to go out to beg for the monastery. St. John of the Cross always resisted this. It was not directed by the rule and it was in his eyes the high-road to dissipation and loss of the recollected spirit which is one of the graces and charms of Carmel. He would not allow any begging under any conditions. The friars were the servants of God, he said, and he, as the good master of the house, would provide for their wants. The faith of the saint was strong and clear, and it pained him to see one of his religious give way to uneasy thoughts about the sustenance of his brethren.
One day he was told that there was no food in the house, but he was not troubled by the news. The community came to the refectory at the appointed time, for he had given orders that no change should be made. A fragment of bread was found and by his direction brought into the refectory and grace was said. The fathers sat down before an empty table and St. John spoke to them of the hidden graces of poverty, of the merit of suffering and conformity to the will of God, with so much unction that the fathers left the refectory with their hearts on fire. 'They gave thanks to God for leaving them that day without food to eat.
They retired to their cells and no sooner had they begun to prepare themselves for prayer than the whole house was disturbed by a loud knocking at the outer door. The porter went to the door and saw there a man with a letter for the prior. The porter took it and finding St. John in the church praying before the holy sacrament, gave it to him. The saint opened it and as soon as he read it, began to cry like a man in pain. The porter was greatly distressed and begged him to tell why he was weeping so bitterly.
“I cry, my brother, “the saint replied, “because God thinks us too weak to bear hunger any longer. He could not trust us for one day and is sending us food.''
In the afternoon a servant of Dona Filipa de Caravajal came from Ubeda with two mules laden with provisions for the house.
On another occasion the community had no food for the sick fathers in the infirmary. The religious went down to pray before the most blessed sacrament and while they were in prayer abundant supplies of provisions, with medicine and two hundred reals in money, were sent them by Don Andres Ortega Cabrio, who knew nothing of the distress of the monastery.
In the town of Iznatorafe, about six miles away from the monastery, was a man possessed of the devil. His friends and relatives, having heard of the sanctity of the vicar of Mount Calvary, implored him to come to their relief.
The saint yielded to their importunities and visited the place. The man possessed was brought to him and the evil spirit, betraying before all present the terror which had seized him, in a whining voice began to complain that another St. Basil had come.
The servant of God commanded him in the name of Christ to cease from his possession and on the instant the evil spirit departed and the man was restored to perfect health of mind and body.
But the devil, thus defeated, was bent on revenge and, entering into a woman who lived in a village through which the servant of God had to pass on his way home, waited his arrival. As the saint was passing, the woman came forth to meet him and begged him to come into her house, but he turned away saying he would rather go into hell than into her house.
From Corenzuela he went once a week to Veas to hear the confessions of the nuns there. The road was hilly and rough but he, as worn out as he was, went always on foot, never heeding either weather or distance. The nuns were earnestly recommended by St. Teresa through the prioress, Anne of Jesus, to have recourse to his services, for he was a man, she said, “of great spirituality, learning, and experience.'' On another occasion she writes to the same prioress saying, “I have not one like him in all Castille."
In the monastery of Mount Calvary, the saint began to write on mystical theology. Two of his greatest books, the Ascent of Mount Carmel and the Dark Night of the Soul, were written there. Father Paschasius Heriz, O. C. D., Saint John of the Cross, College of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Washington, D.C., 1919, (pp. 82-112.)
It was in the Ascent of Mount Carmel that Saint John of the Cross that Saint John of the Cross revealed the depth to which we must be detached but which gives joy to God and to flee from all that displeases Him:
We have done nothing by the purification of the understanding towards grounding it in faith, and that of the memory in hope according to the sense explained in the sixth chapter of the second book if we have not also purified the will in the order of charity, which is the third virtue, and by which works done in faith are living and meritorious, and without which they are nothing worth. For as St. James saith, 'Faith without works is dead.' That is, without the works of charity faith is dead.
2. And now that I have to treat of the night and active detachment of the will, with a view to its perfect establishment in this virtue of the love of God, I cannot find a better authority than that contained in Deuteronomy : ' Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole strength/ f This is all that the spiritual man ought to do and all that I am teaching him that he may truly draw near unto God in the union of the will with God in love. Man is here bidden to employ for God all his faculties and desires, all the functions and affections of the soul, so that all the skill and all the strength of the soul may minister to no other end than this, as the Psalmist says: “I will keep my strength to Thee.” The strength of the soul consists in its powers, passions, and desires, all of which are governed by the will. But when the will directs these powers, passions, and desires to God, and turns them away from all that is not God, it then keeps the strength of the soul for God, and loves Him with its whole strength. And that the soul may be able to do this, I purpose here to show how the will is to be purified from all unruly affections; which are the cause why our strength is not wholly kept for God.
These affections or passions are four in number: Joy, hope, grief, and fear. If these passions are excited only according to reason, in the way of God, so that we feel no joy except in that which is simply for the honour and glory of our Lord God, nor hope except in Him, nor grief except in what concerns Him, nor fear but of Him only, it is clear, then, that the strength and skill of the soul are directed to, and kept for, God. For the more the soul rejoices in aught beside Him, the less effectively will it rejoice in God, and the more it hopes in aught else, the less will it hope in God. The same applies to the other passions also.
4. In order to a more complete explanation of this I shall, as usual, speak of each of these passions and desires the will separately, for the whole matter of union with God consists in purging the will of its affections and desires, so that the vile and human will may become the divine will, being made one with the will of God.
5. These four passions domineer over the soul, and assail it with the more vigour, the less the will is attached to God, and the more dependent it is on created things; for it then rejoices easily in those things which do not deserve to be rejoiced in, hopes in that which is value less, grieves over that lor which perhaps it ought to rejoice, and fears where there is nothing to be afraid of.
5. It is from these affections, when disorderly, that all the vices and imperfections of the soul arise; and all its virtues also, when they are well governed and restrained. Let us remember that if but one of them be under the control of reason, so will the others be also; for they are so intimately bound together, that the actual course of one is the virtual course of the rest, and if one of them be actually restrained, the others will be proportionately restrained also. For if the will rejoices in anything, it will consequently hope in the same measure, and there grief and fear are virtually present; and as that joy ceases, in the same proportion cease also grief and fear and hope.
6. The will with its four passions may be said, in some sense, to be represented by the four living creatures with one body which Ezechiel saw: “They had faces and wings on the four sides. And the wings of one were joined to the wings of another. They turned not when they went, but every one went straight forward.” The wings of each one of these four affections are joined to the wings of the others, and whithersoever one of them goes there also of necessity go virtually the others. When one of them goeth on the earth so do the others, and when one is lifted up, so the others also. Where hope is, there also will be joy and fear and grief; and when one has retired, the others retire also.
8. Remember, therefore, O thou who art spiritual, that the whole soul, with the will and its other powers, will follow in the wake of every one of these passions; that they will be all captives to it, and that the three other passions also will live in it, afflicting the soul and preventing its flight to the liberty and repose of sweet contemplation and union. And so Boethius says: Wilt thou contemplate truth in clear light? Drive away joy and hope and fear and grief. For while these passions have dominion, they will not suffer the soul to enjoy that tranquillity and peace which are necessary for the attainment of wisdom, either natural or supernatural. (Saint John of the Cross, The Ascent to Mount Carmel, printed in Great Britain by Hazell, Watson & Viney, Ld. London and Aylesbury,pp. 282-284.)
Saint John of the Cross possessed this desire to please God in all things and was detached entirely from his own will and desires. He emptied himself completely to be at the service of God to such an extent that he was not even aware of any suffering as he approached death, something that (Father Paschasius Heriz, O. C. D, described in great detail:
The saint was nearly worn out. God had heard his prayer and had plunged him into the furnace of tribulation. There he laid from the end of September till Saturday, the eve of the Immaculate Conception, 1591. The surgeon in attendance told him that he had but few days of life left to him. The saint answered with joyful face, in the words of the Psalmist, Laetatus sum in his quae dicta sunt mihi, in domum Domini ibimus. “I have been made glad by what they said to me, we shall go into the house of the Lord."
He then, after a momentary pause, added, “Since I have heard these good tidings I feel no pain whatever.”
The surgeon thought the end so near that he advised the friars to give him the last sacraments without delay; but the saint, when they repeated this to him, asked them to wait a few days. He would warn them in time, he said.
A messenger was sent at once to the provincial, Fra Antonio, who, with the saint, had begun the reform in Duruelo. The old man came without delay.
In the beginning of the following week the dying saint asked the friars what day it was. A little later he asked how long it was to Saturday. He saw that they had guessed his meaning and, to turn their attention away, he added that he was thinking how on that day our Lady helped her religious in a special way. But his explanation had no effect in the minds of his brethren for they believed that our Lady had made known to him that he would die on Saturday within the octave of her great feast.
On Thursday morning he asked Fra Bartholomew of St. Basil, who was continually with him during the latter part of his illness, to take a small bag that was under his pillow and burn the papers which were in it. There were letters he had received from his friends. He would not leave them behind for fear of annoyance to them. "When the papers had been all destroyed, he asked for the viaticum. Later that evening, at the same hour in which our Lord instituted the holy mass, the friars brought the master to his servant who, before receiving him, begged his brethren to forgive the bad example he had given to them and then, not seeing the prior among them, sent him a message, requesting him, for the love of God, to come to him. The prior came and the saint whom he had wronged asked his forgiveness and begged him to overlook his faults. He was sorry, he said, for the trouble he had given and for the expense to the house, but he would do all he could to make compensation, praying our Lord to repay them after his death.
His prayer was the prayer of the just and the house prospered. Soon it became one of the best in the province. The saint had before this told the sub-prior the house would prosper and it was then believed in the monastery that the servant of God had received from our Lord an assurance that his prayer would be heard.
The prior's heart was melted and his tears flowed at the remembrance of his harsh treatment of the servant of God and of the patient endurance with which the treatment was endured. The saint begged one further grace of him, namely, a habit to be buried in. That was all he asked. He possessed nothing himself. When the friars asked him to distribute among them those things which might be said to belong to him, such as his breviary, his rosary and his habit, because they wished to have them as relics, he answered them simply, “I am poor and have nothing of my own. Everything about me belongs to the superior. Ask him.”
Thus he remembered his vow to the moment of his death.
On the feast of St. Lucy, Friday, 13 December, he asked those who were with him what day of the week it was. They told him Friday. He did not ask again the name of the day but only from time to time what hour it was. At one in the afternoon, when they told him what hour it was, he said, “I asked because, glory, be to God, I have to chant matins in heaven tonight. “
He became now deeply recollected and was from time to time in a trance. His eyes were generally closed, that he might be more intent upon heavenly things. But sometimes he opened them, only to look most lovingly on the crucifix before him.
That Friday was spent on the cross with our Lord, for the servant of God entered into the night of spiritual desolation and his soul was filled with darkness, in addition to great corporal pains. He lay on his poor bed, the poorest of men, utterly detached from all things, cleaving only to God who visited him with his love and, wounding him anew, left him alone in the most terrible abandonment, beyond the reach of all possible consolation.
On that day the provincial, Fra Antonio of Jesus, arrived and went at once to visit him. St. John of the Cross was very glad to see him, but he could not speak because of the pain he was suffering both in soul and body. At last, lest the provincial should be distressed, he turned to him and begged him to forgive his silence, which was caused by his severe sufferings.
Fra Antonio tried to console him and spoke of his labors in the order and of the great reward he was about to receive. Thereupon the saint stopped his ears with his feeble hands and cried, “Oh my father, do not speak of that ! Speak rather of my many and grievous sins! I think only of them and of the merits of my Redeemer.”
A little later Fra Augustine of St. Joseph came to console him and said he would soon be rewarded for what he had done. The saint cried out as before in great distress, “O my father, do not speak of that! There is nothing I ever did that is not a source of shame to me at this moment.''
About five o'clock in the evening he asked for the last anointing. During the administration of the sacrament he made all the responses himself. Some time afterwards he asked them what hour it was. He was told that it was nine o'clock.
He said, “Ah, I have three hours to wait.”
And then, in a voice of most touching humility, he repeated the words of the Psalmist, Incolatus mens prolongatus est. “My stay is prolonged.”
He remained silent till a bell rang at ten o'clock; he asked what it was. They told him it was the bell of a monastery of the nuns ringing for matins.
He said, “I too, by the goodness of God, shall sing them with our Lady in heaven.”
Then addressing himself to her, he said, “I thank thee, my Lady and my Queen, because it pleases thee to let me quit this world on Saturday, thine own day.''
At eleven o'clock he sat up on his bed and said, “Blessed be God, how well I am!"
He seemed to be in perfect health of body and asked them to sing the praises of God with him.
He was very joyous. Those who were present, among them seculars, formed themselves into a choir. The saint began the Miserere and they answered. After this they recited other Psalms in the same way, the saint from time to time kissing the crucifix which he held in his hands.
At half past eleven he said it was time to call the community. The bell rung and the friars came with the provincial, his old friend and companion. The old man of fourscore years and more fell on his knees and, for himself and for the whole community, begged him to bless them before he went and to remember them when he should see the face of God. The saint said he would never forget them, but as for blessing them, he could not do it. That belonged to the father of them all, the provincial there present. Bnt the friars asked him again and the provincial commanded the dying saint to satisfy his own and their desire.
Then, obedient to the end, St. John of the Cross lifted up his hand and made the sign of the cross while the whole assembly wept tears of sorrow and joy.
Fra Alonzo of the Mother of God began to make the recommendation of the passing soul. When he stopped for a while the saint said, “Go on, pray for me to God!”
Then he pressed to his lips the crucifix in his hands, and closed his eyes in prayer. It was now close upon midnight. Among the friars round him he saw Fra Francis, whose duty it was to ring the bell for matins. He said to him, “Go and ring for matins.”
A great radiant orb was seen by those present encircling the dying saint, the light of which was so brilliant as to dim the other lights in the room. In a minute or two afterwards, awaking up as if from a deep sleep, the saint asked what the bell was ringing for.
They said for matins.
He looked at them and smiled, as if taking leave of them, and said, “I am going to sing them in Paradise.''
He kissed the crucifix, closed his eyes and said, “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum.” He passed away as a child falling asleep in his mother's arms. There was no agony nor struggle. God took him gently to himself, Saturday morning, 14 December, 1591, in the fiftieth year of his age.
He had been twenty-eight years in religion, five of which he spent in the old observance, and twentv-three in the reform of St. Teresa. (Father Paschasius Heriz, O. C. D., Saint John of the Cross, College of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Washington, D.C., 1919, pp. 193-200.)
What a remarkable life of sanctity perfumed in the odor of suffering and injustice to have lived in only forty-nine years! We need to pray to Our Lady to be more like Saint John of the Cross than our own sinful selves, something that applies especially to me as I was born on Our Lady’s day, Saturday, November 24, 1951, the Feast of Saint John of the Cross and the Commemoration of Saint Chyrsogonus.
Dom Prosper Gueranger captured the spirit of Saint John of the Cross very well in the prayer that he composed in his honor:
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. O gentle, subtle touch, the Word, the Son of God, who, because of the pureness of thy nature, dost penetrate subtly 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) O 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. (1 Kings 19:11) O 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 thee 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. (Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B., The Liturgical Year.)
May this spirit of attachment to Heaven and detachment from the things of this passing, mortal vale of tears grow more and more in our daily lives through the intercession of Saint John of the Cross as we pray for this intention in Our Lady’s Most Holy Rosary to which San Juan de la Cruz was so devoted.
Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us.
Saint John of the Cross, pray for us.
Saint Chrysogonus, pray for us.