Saint of the Day – 14 December – St John of the Cross OCD (1542-1591) Confessor, Doctor of the Church, Priest, Reformer of the Carmelite Order, Mystic, Poet, Theologian, Writer. Born as Juan de Yepes y Álvarez on 24 June 1542 at Fontiveros, Ávila, Crown of Castile, Spanish Monarchy and died on 14 December 1591 (age 49) at Úbeda, Crown of Castile, Spanish Monarchy. John was mentored by and corresponded with, the older Carmelite, St Teresa of Ávila. Both his poetry and his studies on the development of the soul, are considered the summit of mystical Spanish literature and among the greatest works of all Spanish literature. He was Canonised by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726. In 1926, he was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI and is commonly known as the “Mystical Doctor.” Patronages – Contemplative life, contemplatives, Mystical Theology, Mystics, Spanish poets.
John’s life was a heroic effort to live up to his name: “of the Cross.” The folly of the Cross came to full realisation in time. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34b) is the story of John’s life. The Paschal Mystery—through death to life—strongly marks John as rRformer, Mystic-poet and Theologian-priest.
Ordained a Carmelite Priest in 1567 at age 25, John met Teresa of Avila and like her, vowed himself to the primitive Rule of the Carmelites. As partner with Teresa and in his own right, John engaged in the work of reform and came to experience the price of reform – increasing opposition, misunderstanding, persecution, imprisonment. He came to know the cross acutely—to experience the dying of Jesus—as he sat month after month in his dark, damp, narrow cell with only his God.
Yet, the paradox! In this dying of imprisonment John came to life, uttering poetry. In the darkness of the dungeon, John’s spirit came into the Light. There are many mystics, many poets – John is unique as mystic-poet, expressing in his prison-cross the ecstasy of mystical union with God in the Spiritual Canticle.
But as agony leads to ecstasy, so John had his Ascent to Mount Carmel, as he named it in his prose masterpiece. As man-Christian-Carmelite, he experienced in himself this purifying ascent; as spiritual director, he sensed it in others; as psychologist-theologian, he described and analysed it in his prose writings. His prose works are outstanding in underscoring the cost of discipleship, the path of union with God – rigorous discipline, abandonment, purification. Uniquely and strongly John underlines the gospel paradox: the cross leads to resurrection, agony to ecstasy, darkness to light, abandonment to possession, denial to self to union with God. If you want to save your life, you must lose it. John is truly “of the Cross.” He died at 49—a life short, but full.