On the genius and love of St. John of the Cross

The great mystic gave us a portrait of his own manner when he sketched out his counsels on how all of us are to behave under duress.

Editor’s note: The following is from Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel—On Prayer, by Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M. Fr. Dubay was a well-known retreat master and expert in the spiritual life who died in 2010. A Marist priest, Fr. Dubay was a popular retreat master who wrote over twenty books, many of them published by Ignatius Press.

When we compare the amount of information available about the person of St. John of the Cross with what we have for many other saints, such as Teresa and John Vianney, we may say that we know both more and less. Concerning biographical data, concrete facts, historical happenings, we know less about the former than we do about the latter. From the extensive eyewitness accounts given for the canonization processes for the Curé of Ars and for Teresa of Jesus, we know a great deal about their daily activities and about how they appeared in the eyes of others. The latter also tells us much about herself in her autobiography, her Book of Foundations and the many letters that have survived. St. John of the Cross said nothing about his activities in his major works, and a mere handful of his letters have come down to us. However, we do know from other parties enough of his manner and deeds to form an accurate picture of his personality.

Yet in some ways we know much more about John than about other saints and other famous men and women. What we know so extremely well about him is what is most important about anyone: his deepest self. And because his inner life was so immensely rich, there is far more to know than what we find in the ordinary heroes and heroines of history. Though this saint seldom used the personal pronoun I in his writing, he is of course constantly revealing his inner depths. In this John is incomparable. There are few men or women in history who have combined in their persons the loftiest sublimity of love experiences with an extraordinary talent for describing them.

While we have already noted that a man’s life activities and written words are mutual commentaries, we must add that this truth is especially pertinent to St. John of the Cross. His teaching is the unvarnished Gospel, neither more nor less, and to understand it rightly with neither exaggeration nor diminution we need to see in his manner and deeds how he himself applied it to the concrete circumstances of the daily round. His mode of life is likewise a silent but eloquent testimony of what is indispensable for deep prayer to be given and received.

What kind of man was this saint who is so seldom well understood? We may say that he was serene, plain, simple … fearless of enemies but gentle toward everyone… intelligent and logical.. . outspoken but soft spoken. . . powerfully resolute and completely honest. moderate but by no means mediocre.. . uncompromising with principles but compassionate with human failings … poetically brilliant but no weaver of euphemisms… hard on himself but tender with others.

John so loved nature that Peers called it his dominant interest on the natural plane. He enjoyed going outdoors and praying immediately from the book of creation lying before his eyes. It is said of him that he would be found in his cell with elbows on the windowsill, gazing, in absorbed prayer, upon the flowers during the day or the stars at night. That nature sparked a burning love for God in this man is shown likewise by the inspired imagery we find in his works. [87] That the saint also enjoyed a keen appreciation for music appears, for example, in the verse, “silent music, sounding solitude”, of Spiritual Canticle.

People who know St. John of the Cross only superficially may consider his spirituality to be predominantly negative. That there is a prominent sacrificial element is true, just as there is in the Gospel. But what is not sufficiently understood is that in both John and the Gospel the negative is never sought for itself, and that the positive overwhelmingly predominates. That this is so we will consider in its proper place, but it may be well to note here that this man had an exceptionally affirmative, optimistic vision of both the human person and the divine plan. Even his nada doctrine was entirely aimed at reaching an enthralling immersion in God. The sanjuanist optimism can be seen, for example, in his portrayal of all creation as a resplendent bride given by the Father to the Son: “I will hold her in My arms and she will burn with Your love, and with eternal delight she will exalt Your goodness …. By these words the world was created, a palace for the bride.” [88] It would be difficult to find in all of literature a more jubilant, a more positively ecstatic outlook on creation and the human person within it. The critics of John seem not to read this far or else not to absorb what he says. Optimism is found everywhere in the saint’s writings, even in the most stark sections on detachment and self-denial. Always he invites the reader to an entire enthrallment, an abiding joy beyond imagining.

St. John of the Cross did not seem to excel in speaking to large groups of people with the effectiveness of a John Chrysostom or a Francis of Assisi, but he did have a powerful gift for relating to individuals and small groups in informal chats. Peers tells us that while he could easily be missed and passed over in a crowd, “once seen and spoken to alone, [he] could never be forgotten”. [89] This charism, together with his uncommon grasp of the interior life, readily explains his popularity as a spiritual director. He was much sought after in this capacity by all sorts of people: laymen and laywomen, nuns, university students and their professors. His insights into Scripture were so well known and appreciated that professors at the university in Baeza consulted him to learn of these “new” explanations of the biblical word.

On the natural level it appears that John’s greatest talent was his poetic genius. The Spanish scholars I have met and read are agreed that he is probably the greatest poet in the Spanish language. Kavanaugh and Rodriguez write that the saint is known as “the loftiest poet of Spain”, not because of volumes upon volumes of verse but because of a mere handful often to twelve compositions. They add that “these compositions, however, display such variety that it can almost be affirmed that each of them represents a completely distinct poetic vision and technique, a singular accomplishment in Spanish literature”. [90] E. Allison Peers considers John “a supremely skillful artist endowed in the highest measure with natural ability”. Commenting upon the poetic perfection of Spiritual Canticle, this critic observes that

either his stanzas were kneaded, pulled to pieces and refashioned again and again in the cell of his mind–“polished and repolished ceaselessly” as the French preceptionist has it–or he was possessed of the most marvelously intuitive poetic faculty imaginable and developed what the Catalan Maragall was later to call the art of the “living word” (paraula viva) to an extent heretofore unknown. [91]

Peers notes the saint’s extraordinary achievement of attaining to “the very highest rank of European poets” by a tiny output of a little over fifty stanzas. That this friar knew what love is all about can be witnessed even from the secular world, for he is considered “a poet’s poet, whom in these days of a Spanish lyrical renaissance, contemporary singers revere as perhaps no other”. [92] Citations, some even more superlative, could be multiplied, but we shall add only that the saint’s literary genius was not confined to his poetry:

St. John of the Cross is also a poet in his prose, and the very abundance of his talent in this respect throws into sharper relief the austerity of his doctrine. The sum total of his merits as a writer of prose, of which its poetical quality is of course only one, constitutes a very remarkable achievement …. [Up to John’s time] there had, in fact, been very little mystical prose at all, and that little had mainly been concerned with one aspect of mystical experience–the Prayer of Quiet. St. John of the Cross had therefore to invent phrases in order to express ideas which previously had had no outlet in Spanish. [93]

It surely had to be a singular work of divine providence that God would prepare as the prince of mystics a man who not only experienced abundantly the very highest gifts of prayer but also was endowed in the natural order with matchless literary talent and poetic power to express worthily, that is, beyond the inadequacy of prose, the raison d’être of being human, an intimate immersion in the indwelling Trinity.

However, as is the case with any man or woman, the most important thing about St. John of the Cross was not what he did but what he was. Sheer sanctity was his paramount trait. This man was on fire, utterly absorbed in God. He experienced ecstatic prayer even though he said almost nothing about the subject (because “Madre Teresa” had already so well said all that needed to be said about it), and he reached the transforming union while still a young man. The saint was capable of an absorption during meals such that he could not recall what he had eaten-much like St. Thomas Aquinas, who provided his own anesthetic for bleeding by the simple procedure of going into contemplative prayer.

As we would expect, John’s transformation into the divine (understood, of course, in a nonpantheistic sense) showed itself in his active caring for others. The dire poverty of the nuns at the Incarnation convent while he was their confessor so touched his heart that he went out to beg alms for them, and he made a point of seeking delicacies for the ill. When his own friars were sick, the saint gave them exquisite care. If one of them had no appetite, John would suggest kinds of food he might like and then procure them immediately. He would rise at night to check on the welfare of an ill confrere even when another friar had volunteered or been appointed to watch at the bedside. We know that he had a special love for the nuns at Beas, and he showed it at least once by walking several miles out of the way to visit them. This affection appears likewise in letters addressed to them. In one he remarks how they will know from his coming visit that he has by no means forgotten them, and he refers to “the beautiful steps you are making in Christ, whose brides are His delight and crown”. [94] Further on he speaks to them as “my beloved daughters in Christ”, [95] and in another he assures them that their letter to him was a great comfort. [96] In still another he strives to lighten the burden of pain in one of these Beas nuns: “Do not think, daughter in Christ, that I have ceased to grieve for you in your trials and for the others who share in them.” [97]

The depth of John’s love for his fellowmen can perhaps be best seen in two incidents the outside world would not have noticed at all. We understand those incidents adequately only when we recall the saint’s uncompromising teaching on and practice of detachment from every single selfish desire. He had an extraordinary love for Francisco, his blood brother who was himself a mystic and remarkably holy. The saint called Francisco his most loved treasure in the world. When this brother once visited John and had decided to leave after two or three days, John told him not to be in so much of a hurry and to remain on for a few more days. [98] The other incident illustrates both the saint’s fondness for St. Teresa and his insistence that no self-centered egoism is to be permitted in any event, even if another- saint is the object of it. I refer to John’s finally deciding to destroy the letters from her that he had saved. It is easy to imagine the terrible pull in his sensitive heart. On the one hand he knew the goodness resulting for both parties from a friendship entirely immersed in God. He knew, too, that he and Teresa loved each other dearly and purely. But he also knew that there could be danger, not in their case of any obvious sin, but of slight, impercep- tible clingings that could result from retaining a packet of letters. Peers’ comment is interesting:

I have always thought, for example, when rereading the letters in which St. Teresa refers to St. John of the Cross and trying to realize what the two must have been to each other, that few things he did in his life can have been harder than the burning of a bundle of her letters to him–probably all he had ever had from her. [99]

In tracing out the traits of this saint, we may not omit a few words about a characteristic that we would hardly expect in a man so widely known both in name and in teaching for devotion to the Cross. I refer to John’s gentleness. Serene, calm, at peace in his own personal life even under harsh, cruel persecution, John did not retaliate, did not deal brusquely, rudely or severely with others. He was clement, indulgent, benign and forgiving. Unwittingly he gave us a portrait of his own manner when he sketched out his counsels on how all of us are to behave under duress. “A soul enkindled with love is a gentle, meek, humble, and patient soul”, he observed. “A soul that is hard because of its self-love grows harder.” [100] People deeply in love with God invariably grow in a habit of amiable and compassionate responses to those whom God Himself loves. “Keep spiritually tranquil in a loving attentiveness to God,” advised John, “and when it is necessary to speak, let it be with the same calm and peace.” [101] Virile and brave though he was, the saint showed this same humane compassion for others in the very imagery he chose in his writings:

It should be known, then, that God nurtures and caresses the soul, after it has been resolutely converted to His service, like a loving mother who warms her child with the heat of her bosom, nurses it with good milk and tender food, and carries and caresses it in her arms. [102]

Chrisogono tells us that a young woman wishing to go to confession but knowing John’s reputation for an austere life approached him with a fear bordering on panic. She drew from the saint the observation that a confessor who is holy ought not to frighten people. Disclaiming holiness in himself, he nonetheless went on to remark that “the holier the confessor, the gentler he is, and the less he is scandalized at other people’s faults, because he understands man’s weak condition better”. [103]

Perhaps the surest mark of sanctity is the hearing of piercing suffering with much love, first for God and secondly for those inflicting the pain. It is easy for most of its to appear humble, patient, modest and loving when the sun shines, when others commend us, when we succeed, when we are healthy, when the way is clear of obstacles. What man or woman really is shines forth under contradiction, failure, illness. Any biography will make plain that John lived throughout his life the title he bore and the doctrine he taught. One example must suffice. While he was imprisoned for the second time by the calced friars, he was verbally abused and whipped on two occasions. He lived in a cell that was six feet by ten, with boards on the floor as his bed. There was no window, only a two-inch opening at the top of the wall facing the corridor. It was so cold during the winter that the skin on his toes came off from frostbite. His food was bread, water and sardines. He was administered the periodic “circular discipline”, so called because each of the eighty members of the community took turns in lashing his bare back. He bore through life the scars of this brutal punishment. During and after these nine months of dark solitude and torture, John uttered not a single complaint and bore no resentment toward his captors. [104] One could see the image of the Crucified in him.

But the saint’s affliction and agonies suffered at the hands of others did not satisfy his thirst to imitate the Master in his Passion. It is worthy of notice that while John says almost nothing in his writings about external penances, he practiced a great deal of them in his personal life. While he was prior at El Calvario monastery, he was first among the friars to set to menial tasks such as washing dishes. As prior of Los Martires he chose the narrowest and poorest cell in the monastery as his dwelling. He slept on “handfulls of rosemary twigs interwoven with vine shoots” and later used bare boards as his bed. [105] John wore a penitential chain so tightly around his waist that when it was later pulled away during an illness, the links were found to be embedded in his flesh. [106] Because the saint loved music so much and because during his final illness he was suffering intensely, a layman, Pedro de San José, thought he might soothe John’s discomfort by bringing in some musicians. The response of gentle John was typical both of his kindliness and of his love for the Cross:

Brother, I am most grateful for the kindness you wished to do me; I appreciate it very highly; but, if God has given me the great sufferings I am enduring, why wish to soothe and lessen them by music? For the love of Our Lord, thank those gentlemen for the kindness they had wished to do me: I look upon it as having been done. Pay them, and send them away, for I wish to endure without any relief the gracious gifts which God sends me in order that, thanks to them, I may the better merit. [107]

The reader who wishes to develop a deeper appreciation for this remarkable man may consult the three books on John referred to in the footnotes to this chapter. We may for now be content with the judgment of our other saint. Teresa puts the whole matter in a nutshell in brief excerpts from two of her letters. Of Friar Juan de la Cruz she writes that “he is a divine, heavenly man …. You would never believe how lonely I feel without him …. He is indeed the father of my soul” [108] “People look upon him as a saint, which, in my opinion he is and has been all his life.” [109]