ST JOHN OF THE CROSS, CONFESSOR1542-1591
Feast: November 24
[From his life prefixed to his works: Villefore's life of St. Teresa, t. i. pp. 292, 318; t. ii. p. 132. See his life compiled by F. Honoratus of St. Mary, the judicious critic of the same Order, in 12 mo, and more at large by F. Dositheus of St. Alexis, in two vols. 4to, Paris, 1727.]
St John, by his family name called Yepes, was youngest child of Gonzales of Yepes, and born at Fontibere near Avila, in Old Castile, in 1542. With his mother's milk he sucked in the most tender devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and was preserved from many dangers by the visible protection of her intercession The death of his father left his mother destitute of all succours with three little children, with whom she settled at Medina. John learned the first elements of letters at a college. The administrator of the hospital, delighted with his extraordinary piety, employed him in serving the sick; an office which was very agreeable to the devotion of the youth, who acquitted himself with the feeling of charity much above his years, especially when he exhorted the sick to acts of virtue. He practiced, at the same time, excessive austerities, and continued his studies in the college of the Jesuits. At twenty-one years of age, to satisfy his devotion to the mother of God, he took the religious habit among the Carmelite friars at Medina in 1563. Never did any novice give greater proofs of obedience, humility, fervour, and love of the cross. His zeal, far from abating after his novitiate, was continually upon the increase. When he arrived at Salamanca, in order to commence his higher studies, the austerities which he practiced were excessive. He chose for his cell a little dark hole at the bottom of the dormitory. A hollow board, something like a grave, was his bed. He platted himself so rough a hair shirt that, at the least motion, it pricked his body to blood. His fasts and other mortifications were incredible. By these means he studied to die to the world and to himself; but by assiduous prayer and contemplation, in silence and retirement, he gave wings to his soul. It was his desire to be a lay-brother, but this was refused him. He had distinguished himself in his course of theological studies, when in 1567, being twenty-five years old, be was promoted to the priesthood. He prepared himself to offer his first sacrifice by humiliations, fasts, penitential tears, fervent prayers, and long meditations on the sufferings of our Divine Redeemer; deeply imprinting his precious wounds in his heart and sacrificing himself, his will, and all his actions with his Saviour, in raptures of love and devotion. The graces which he received from the holy mysteries, inflamed him with a desire of greater retirement; for which purpose he deliberated with himself to enter the Order of the Carthusians.
St. Teresa was then busy in establishing her reformation of the Carmelites, and coming to Medina del Campo heard speak of the extraordinary virtue of brother John. Whereupon she desired to see him, admired his spirit, and told him that God had called him to sanctify himself in the Order of our Lady of Mount Carmel: that she had received authority from the general to found two reformed houses of men, and that he himself should be the first instrument of so great a work. Soon after, she founded her first monastery of men in a poor house in the village of Durvelle. John, who had acquiesced in her proposal, entered this new Bethlehem, in a perfect spirit of sacrifice, and about two months after was Joined by some others, who all renewed their profession on Advent Sunday, 1568 This was the beginning of the Barefooted Carmelite Friars, whose institute was approved by Pope Pius V, and in 1580 confirmed by Gregory XIII. So great were the austerities of these primitive Carmelites, that St. Teresa saw it necessary to prescribe them a mitigation. The odour of their sanctity in their poor obscure house spread all over Spain; and St. Teresa soon after established a second convent at Pastrane, and in 1568 a third at Manreza, whither she translated that from Durvelle, and in 1577 a fourth at Alcala. The example and the exhortations of St. John inspired the religious with a perfect spirit of solitude, humility, and mortification. His wonderful love of the cross appeared in all his actions, and it was by meditating continually on the sufferings of Christ that it increased daily in his soul; for love made him desire to resemble his crucified Redeemer in all manner of humiliations and sufferings.
St. John, after tasting the first sweets of holy contemplation, found himself deprived of all sensible devotion. This spiritual dryness was followed by interior trouble of mind, scruples, and a disrelish of spiritual exercises, which yet he was careful never to forsake. The devils, at the same time, assaulted him with violent temptations, and men persecuted him by calumnies. But the most terrible of all these pains was that of scrupulosity and interior desolation, in which he seemed to see hell open ready to swallow him up. He describes admirably what a soul feels in this trial in his book called "The Obscure Night." This state of interior desolation contemplative souls, in some degree or other, first pass through before their hearts are prepared to receive the communication of God's special graces. By it our saint obtained a perfect poverty and nakedness of spirit, freed from all the refined passions of self-love, and an excellent conformity to the holy will of God, which can only be built on the destruction of self-will, a heroic patience, and a courageous perseverance. After some time, certain rays of light, comfort, and divine sweetness scattered these mists and translated the soul of the servant of God into a paradise of interior delights and heavenly sweetness. This was again succeeded by another more grievous trial of spiritual darkness which spread itself over his soul, accompanied with interior pains and temptations, in which God seemed to have forsaken him, and to have become deaf to his sighs and tears. So violent was his sorrow in this state of privation, that it seemed he must have died of grief if God had not supported him by his grace. In the calm which followed this terrible tempest he was wonderfully repaid in divine comforts. Surrounded with a new light, he saw clearly the incomparable advantages of suffering especially by the severest interior trials. He never received any extraordinary favour which was not preceded by some great tribulation; which is an ordinary conduct of the sweet providence of God in regard to his servants for their great spiritual advantage. God, in the sensible visits of his grace, draws a soul by his charms to run in the sweet paths of his love; but her virtue is chiefly perfected by tribulations. Trials were, by grace, the chief instruments of the admirable perfection to which our saint arrived. St. Teresa made use of him to impart the spirit of her reform to the religious in all the houses which she established. The convent in which she had made her first profession, at Avila, had always opposed her reformation. Yet the Bishop of Avila thought it necessary that she should be made prioress there, to retrench at least the frequent visits of seculars. She sent for St. John and appointed him the spiritual director of this house in 1576. He soon engaged them to shut up their parlours, and to cut off the scandalous abuses which were inconsistent with a religious life of retirement and penance. Many seculars likewise put themselves under his direction, and he preached the word of God with wonderful unction and fruit. But God would be glorified by his sufferings, and to make them the more sensible to him, permitted his own brethren to be the instruments thereof, as Christ himself was betrayed by a disciple. The old Carmelite friars looked on this reformation, though undertaken with the licence and approbation of the general, given to St. Teresa, as a rebellion against their Order; and, in their chapter at Placentia, condemned St. John as a fugitive and an apostate. This resolution being taken, they sent soldiers and sergeants, who broke open his door and tumultuously carried him to the prison of his convent; and, knowing the veneration which the people at Avila had for his person, removed him from thence to Toledo, where he was locked up in a dark noisome cell, into which no light had admittance but through a little hole three fingers broad. Scarce any other nourishment was allowed him during the nine months which he remained there but bread, a little fish, called sardines, and water. He was released after nine months by the credit of St. Teresa, and by the protection of the mother of God. In this destitute condition he had been favoured with many heavenly comforts, which made him afterwards say, "Be not surprised if I show so great a love for sufferings; God gave me a high idea of their merit and value when I was in the prison of Toledo."
He had no sooner recovered his liberty than he was made superior of the little convent of Calvary, situate in a desert, and in 1579 founded that of Baeza. In 1581 he was chosen prior of Granada; in 1585 vicar-provincial of Andalusia; and, in 1588, first definitor of the Order. He founded at the same time the convent of Segovia. In all his employments, the austerities which he practiced seemed to exceed bounds; and he only slept two or three hours in a night, employing the rest in prayer, in presence of the blessed sacrament. He showed always the most sincere and profound humility, and even love of abjection, an inimitable fervour and zeal for all the exercises of religion, and an insatiable desire of suffering. Hearing Christ once say to him, "John, what recompense cost thou ask of thy labours?" He answered, "Lord, I ask no other recompense than to suffer and be condemned for thy love." At the very name of the cross he fell into an ecstasy, in the presence of mother Anne of Jesus. Three things he frequently asked of God: 1st, That he might not pass one day of his life without suffering something; 2ndly, That he might not die superior; 3rdly, That he might end his life in humiliation, disgrace, and contempt. The passion of our Redeemer was the usual subject of his meditations, and he exceedingly recommends the same to others in his writings. He was frequently so absorbed in God that he was obliged often to offer violence to himself to treat of temporal affairs, and sometimes, when called out from prayer, was incapable of doing it. Coming to himself from sudden raptures, he would cry out with words, as it were of fire, "Let us take wing and fly on high. What do we do here, dear brethren? Let us go to eternal life." This love appeared in a certain brightness which darted from his countenance on many occasions, especially when he came from the altar or from prayer. A person of distinction was one day so moved with the sight of it, perceiving the heavenly light of his face to dazzle his eyes and pierce his heart with divine love, that on the spot he took a resolution to renounce the world and embraced the Order of St. Dominic. A lady coming to confession to him was so struck with a heavenly light which shone from his countenance and penetrated her soul, that she immediately laid aside her jewels and gaudy attire, and consecrated herself to God in strict retirement, to the astonishment of the whole city of Segovia. His love of his neighbour was no less wonderful, especially towards the poor, the sick, and sinners; his continual tenderness and affection for his enemies, and the benefactions and kindness with which he always studied to return good for evil, were most admirable. For fear of contracting any attachments to earthly things, he was a rigorous observer and lover of poverty. All the furniture of his little cell or chamber consisted in a paper image and a cross made of rushes, and he would have the meanest beads and breviary, and wear the most threadbare habit he could get. A profound sentiment of religion made him bear an extreme respect to whatever belonged, even remotely, to churches, or to the service of God. The same motive of the honour of God sanctified all his actions. He employed many hours every day and night in prayer, and often before the blessed sacrament, with extraordinary fervour. True devotion he described to be humble, not loving to be lofty; silent, not active; without attachment to anything; without singularity or presumption; full of distrust in itself; following with ardour simple and common rules. In 1591 the chapter of his Order met at Madrid, in which St. John opposed too severe measures used in the punishment of disobedience against Father Gratian, who had been a great assistant to St. Teresa; and likewise strenuously spoke against a motion supported by some of the chiefs, for casting off the direction of the Teresain nuns. This gave offence to some whom envy and jealousy had indisposed against him, and by their means the servant of God was thrust out of all employments in his Order. It was with joy that he saw himself in disgrace and at liberty, and retired into the little solitary convent of Pegnuela, in the mountains of Sierra Morena.
God was pleased to finish his martyrdom by a second grievous persecution from his own brethren before his death. His banishment to Pegnuela he thought his happiness, and always excused and commended father commissary and the other authors of his disgrace, and hindered all others from writing to the vicar-general of the injustices done him. There were in the Order two fathers of great authority, who declared themselves his implacable enemies, harbouring malice and envy in their breasts, which they cloaked under the sanctified name of holy zeal. In the saint's disgrace, one of them, called F. Diego Evangelista, ran over the whole province to beg and trump up accusations against the servant of God, and boasted that he had sufficient proofs to have him expelled the Order. The saint said nothing all this while, only that he was ready to receive with joy any punishment. Everybody at that time forsook him; all were afraid of seeming to have any commerce with him, and burnt the letters which they had received from him, lest they might be involved in his disgrace. St. John had no other comfort or refuge but prayer, in which the abundant consolations of the Holy Ghost rendered his sufferings sweet to him. This storm ceased when the informations of Diego were laid before the superiors; for had they been all true, they amounted to nothing which deserved any chastisement. The sweetness of the divine love and peace which overflowed the soul of the servant of God all this time, filled him with interior joy, which increased in proportion as he was more abandoned by creatures. "The soul of one who serves God," says the saint, "always swims in joy, always keeps holiday, is always in her palace of jubilation, ever singing with fresh ardour and fresh pleasure, a new song of joy and love."
St. John, living in the practice of extreme austerities, and in continual contemplation, fell sick, and when he could no longer conceal his distemper, the provincial ordered him to leave Pegnuela, that place being destitute of all relief, and gave him the choice either to go to Baeza or to Ubeda. The first was a very convenient convent and had for prior an intimate friend of the saint. The other was poor, and F. Francis Chrysostom was prior there, the other person whom he had formerly corrected, and who was no less his enemy than F. Diego. The love of suffering made St. John prefer this house of Ubeda. The fatigue of his journey had caused his leg to swell exceedingly, and it burst in many places from the heel quite to the knee, besides five ulcers or wounds under his foot. He suffered excessive pains from the violence of the inflammation, and from the frequent incisions and operations of the surgeons, from the top to the bottom of his leg. His fever all this time allowed him no rest. These racking pains he suffered three whole months with admirable patience, in continual peace tranquillity, and joy, never making the least complaint, but often embracing the crucifix and pressing it close upon his breast when the pain was very sharp. The unworthy prior treated him with the utmost inhumanity, forbade anyone to be admitted to see him, changed the infirmarian because he served him with tenderness, locked him up in a little cell, made him continual harsh reproaches, and would not allow anything but the hardest bread and food, refusing him even what seculars sent in for him; all which the saint suffered with joy in his countenance. God himself was pleased to complete his sacrifice, and abandoned him for some time to a great spiritual dryness, and a state of interior desolation. But his love and patience were the more heroic. The provincial happening to come to Ubeda a few days before his death was grieved to see this barbarous usage, opened the door of his cell, and said that such an example of invincible patience and virtue ought to be public, not only to his religious brethren, but to the whole world. The prior of Ubeda opened his eyes, begged the saint's pardon, received his instructions for the government of his community, and afterwards accused and condemned himself with many tears. As for the saint himself, we cannot give a better description of the situation of his holy soul in his last moments than in his own words, where he speaks of the death of a saint," Perfect love of God makes death welcome, and most sweet to a soul. They who love thus, die with burning ardours and impetuous flights through the vehemence of their desires of mounting up to their beloved. The rivers of love in the heart, now swell almost beyond all bounds, being just going to enter the ocean of love. She seems already to behold that glory, and all things in her seem already turned into love, seeing there remains no other separation than a thin web, the prison of the body being almost broken." This seems the exact portraiture of the soul of our saint upon the point of leaving this world. Two hours before he died he repeated aloud the <Miserere> psalm with his brethren; then he desired one to read to him part of the book of Canticles, appearing himself in transports of joy. He at length cried out, "Glory be to God "; pressed the crucifix on his breast, and after some time said, "Lord, into thy hands I commend my soul"; with which words he calmly breathed forth his soul on the 14th of December, in 1591, being forty-nine years old, of which he had spent twenty-eight in a religious state. Almighty God exalted him after his death by several miracles; amongst which the cure of a nun of the Annunciation, at Neuf-Chateau, in Lorrain, struck with a palsy, in 1705, effected on the ninth day of a Novena of devotion to this saint, was juridically proved in the court of the Bishop of Toul. St. John was canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726, and his office in the Roman Breviary was appointed on this 24th of November. His body remains at Segovia. A history of his revelations and many miracles, with an exact account of his writings, and mystical theology may be read in his life by F. Dositheus of Alexis.
The spirit of Christianity is the spirit of the Cross. To attain to and to live by pure love, we must live and die upon the Cross, or at least in the spirit of the Cross. Jesus merited all the graces we receive by suffering for us; and it is by suffering with him that we are best prepared to be enriched with them. Hence afflictions are part of the portion which, together with the hundred-fold of his consolations, he has promised to his most beloved servants. His most holy and innocent mother bore a large share in all his sufferings. His apostles and other most faithful servants, in proportion to the high degree in which they stood in his favour, drank of this cup. Those souls which he has raised to the highest degree of familiarity in this life, he always prepared for that grace by severe trials. But in the divine love they found a recompense, which richly paid them for all its cost, this love being its own present reward, as it is a fire which is its own fuel.
1 St. John of the Cross, Flame of Love, p. 523.
2 Flamma viva Amoris, p. 507.
(Taken from Vol. III of "The Lives or the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints" by the Rev. Alban Butler.)