Life of St. John of the Cross

Saint John of the Cross, Confessor, Doctor of the Church

December 14 is the feast day of Saint John of the Cross.  Ora pro nobis.

In 1542, was born at Fontiveros, a hamlet of old Castile, Saint John of the Cross, renowned through the entire Christian world,as the restorer of the Carmelite Order. His mother, after his father’s early death, went to Medina del Campo, where John commenced his studies, and continued them until he entered the order of the Blessed Virgin of Mount Carmel. From his early youth he had entertained a child-like devotion to the Blessed Virgin, who more than once saved him most miraculously from death. One day, when playing with some other lads around a deep pond, he fell into it. In this danger, the Divine Mother appeared to him in a most beautiful form, and offered him her hand, to draw him out of the water. But as his hands were much soiled, he hesitated to take those of so brilliant a lady; whereupon his Guardian Angel, or some other inhabitant of heaven, held out to him from the edge of the pond, a long pole, by the aid of which he was happily saved. At another time he fell into a well, and when all feared that he was drowned, they saw him sitting quietly upon the water. When they drew him out, he said that the Queen of Heaven had caught him in her cloak, and thus prevented his sinking.

Before he was nine years old, he showed a wonderful zeal in mortifying his body, chastising himself by taking only a short rest on a hard bed, and by voluntary fasts. While yet a student, he nursed, with great solicitude and charity, the sick in the hospitals. After he had taken the Carmelite habit, he was not satisfied with the penances then practiced in the convent, but endeavored to regulate his life in accordance with the first rules and ancient austerity of the Order. When he prepared himself to say his first holy Mass, he searched his conscience very carefully, but found no grievous fault. He then gave humble thanks to the Almighty, and during his Mass, begged for the grace to be kept in future free from all mortal sin. His prayer was accepted, and he heard the words: “I grant thee thy wish.” From that time St. John never offended the Lord by a mortal sin, nor voluntarily by a venial one.

St. Teresa, who lived at that period, said of him that he was a Saint, and had been one all his life. This renowned and holy virgin met St. John at Medina, and conferred with him about her desire to found houses for religious, who would live according to the original strict regulations of the Carmelites. John, who, in his eagerness to live in greater austerity, had thought of joining the Carthusian monks, asked St. Teresa’s advice. She told him that it would be more agreeable to God, if he remained in his Order, and restored among the men the same primitive rigor which she was endeavoring to restore among the women. She added, that God had called him to this work. John took counsel with God and his confessor, and then resolved to follow St. Teresa’s advice. He erected his first monastery on a farm which had been presented to him for this purpose; and God so visibly blest his undertaking, that he not only filled his house, in a short time, with zealous men, but was enabled also to found several other convents.

In these religious houses, all the inmates lived so holy and so austere a life, that many thought it was more to be admired than imitated. The Saint was an example to all, and one could hardly imagine a penance which he did not practice. He gave no ear to those who told him to moderate his severities, but said: “The narrow path leading to heaven cannot be travelled by me in a manner less austere.” The hardships he endured in founding his monasteries, and in restoring the severe regulations of the Order; the persecutions and wrongs he suffered, cannot be described in the short space allotted to us; yet in all these trials he was never despondent. The love of God possessed his heart so entirely, that he desired nothing but to labor and to suffer for His honor.

The Lord asked him one day what recompense he desired for all his trouble and labor. “Nothing else, O Lord, but to suffer and to be despised for Thy sake,” was his answer. Three things he used to ask of the Almighty:–first, much work and much suffering; secondly, not to depart this life as a superior; thirdly, that he might live and die despised. So unusual a desire to suffer and to be despised, was the result of his meditation on the Passion of Jesus Christ, and of his great love to God. This love was so intense, that his countenance was frequently seen radiant with a heavenly light, especially when he spoke of divine things. At the time of prayer, as well as during holy Mass, he often fell into ecstasy and was dissolved in tears. Our Lord once appeared to him in the same form as when He died for us on the Cross. This picture remained so indelibly imprinted on the Saint’s memory, that it almost daily drew tears from his eyes.

Into all those over whom he had the slightest influence he endeavored to instill a tender devotion to our crucified Lord, as well as to the Most Holy Trinity and to the Blessed Eucharist. His language to sinners was so forcible, that he converted even the most hardened. He was much aided in this by the gift which the Almighty had bestowed upon him, of reading the thoughts of the heart. Many who came to him were reproached with their secret sins, and admonished to reform their lives. He possessed also the gifts of prophecy, of driving out devils, and curing all kinds of diseases. Besides this, he had many visions of the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph, St. John, and Christ the Lord. Especially remarkable were the heavenly favors with which this great servant of the Almighty was comforted during an imprisonment of nine months, to which he was unjustly condemned. Christ appeared to him and said: “Behold! John, I am here! Fear not. I will rescue thee! “The Blessed Virgin, accompanied by a great many Saints, appeared to him, and said: “My son, be patient and endure; for your trials will soon give way to joy.” In another vision, she admonished him to escape from the prison, promising him her assistance; a promise which she also kept. St. Teresa, who, during her life, had been closely united with him, appeared also to him after her death, speaking to him most kindly. In his adversity she comforted him, and encouraged him to new labors for the honor of God.

The reward of all the work which the holy man had accomplished, as also of the trials and tribulations he had suffered, was at length bestowed upon him, in the year 1591, when he was in the forty-ninth year of his age. He was seized with fever, in the hermitage of Pegnuela, and was brought from there to Ubeda, according to his wish. He had an ulcer on that part of his right foot where the holy feet of our Lord were pierced with nails. To open it, the surgeon was obliged to make a deep incision. The pain thus caused was very great; but greater still was the patience of the Saint, who even rejoiced at bearing, in some manner, the image of the sufferings of Christ, and at having five wounds on one foot.

God had already, some time previously, revealed to him the hour of his death; and the Blessed Virgin, whom the Saint had always especially honored, appeared to him on the eve of the Immaculate Conception, saying that she would come for him on the Sunday after the festival. When the physicians told him that his end was not far distant, he said, in the words of the Psalmist: “I was glad when they said unto me, We shall go up into the house of the Lord.” Half an hour before his death, he called all his religious to him, exhorted them to persevere in their zeal, and said: “My parting hour draws near.” After the usual prayers of the Church, he heard the bells ring for the midnight Matins. “I shall sing the Matins in Heaven,” said he; after which, taking the Crucifix, he kissed it most devoutly, and calmly ended his holy life, saying: “Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my soul.” A large ball, as of fire, was seen above the dying Saint. After his death, his countenance beamed with a heavenly brightness, and was so beautiful that none grew weary of looking at him; while at the same time such delicious odor emanated from him, that the whole monastery was filled with it. The Almighty has carefully preserved his body incorrupt until this hour. (1)

Saint John wrote spiritual books of sublime elevation. A book printed in 1923 which has now become famous, authored by a Dominican theologian*, justly attributed to Saint John and to Saint Thomas Aquinas, whom the Carmelite Saint followed, the indisputable foundations for exact ascetic and mystical theology. He was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1926 by Pope Pius XI.

  He left the following works, which for the first time appeared at Barcelona in 1619.

  1. “The Ascent of Mount Carmel”, an explanation of some verses beginning: “In a dark night with anxious love inflamed”. This work was to have comprised four books, but breaks off in the middle of the third.
  2. “The Dark Night of the Soul”, another explanation of the same verses, breaking off in the second book. Both these works were written soon after his escape from prison, and, though incomplete, supplement each other, forming a full treatise on mystic theology.
  3. An explanation of the “Spiritual Canticle”, (a paraphrase of the Canticle of Canticles) beginning “Where hast Thou hidden Thyself?” composed part during his imprisonment, and completed and commented upon some years later at the request of Venerable Anne of Jesus.
  4. An explanation of a poem beginning: “O Living Flame of Love”, written about 1584 at the bidding of Dona Ana de Penalosa.
  5. Some instructions and precautions on matters spiritual.
  6. Some twenty letters, chiefly to his penitents. Unfortunately the bulk of his correspondence, including numerous letters to and from St. Teresa, was destroyed, partly by himself, partly during the persecutions to which he fell a victim.
  7. “Poems”, of which twenty-six have been hitherto published, viz., twenty in the older editions, and recently six more, discovered partly at the National Library at Madrid, and partly at the convent of Carmelite nuns at Pamplona.
  8. “A Collection of Spiritual Maxims” (in some editions to the number of one hundred, and in others three hundred and sixty-five) can scarcely count as an independent work, as they are culled from his writings.

Novena to St. John of the Cross
O glorious Saint John of the Cross, great Doctor of the Church, who, from very longing to be configured to Christ crucified, didst desire nothing more ardently, even to the last moment of thy holy life, than to suffer and to be despised and rejected of all men; and so great was thy thirst for suffering, that thy generous heart was filled with joy in the midst of most painful torments and afflictions; I beseech thee, dear Saint, by the glory thou didst merit by thy manifold sufferings, intercede for me with Almighty God and obtain for me love of suffering, together with grace and strength to endure all tribulations and adversities with dauntless courage; for these are the sure means of coming into the possession of that crown of glory which is prepared for me in heaven. Ah yes, dear Saint, from that high and glorious throne where thou sittest triumphant, hear, I beseech thee, my earnest entreaties, that, following thee, I may become a lover of the Cross and of suffering, and thus may merit to be thy companion in glory. Amen(Indulgence 300 days)

Image: French: La Vision de saint Jean de la Croix (7)

Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff