Of all the saints of Advent, none is more attuned to the season than St. John of the Cross, whose feast we celebrate on December 14.
During Advent, Christians reflect upon the birth of their Savior and their personal standing with Him—now, and at the end of time. Advent is the perfect season for drawing lessons from this great saint, whose work centers upon achieving unity with Jesus Christ.
Though he is now celebrated as a major reformer, mystical poet, and Doctor of the Church, what John had to endure to reach those heights is almost unimaginable. Born Juan de Yepes y Alvarez to a Spanish father of noble heritage, John grew up in poverty. His father, Gonzalo, had married for love a woman of lesser means—and had been disinherited because of it.
Gonzalo worked hard as a silk merchant to keep the family afloat. He died when John was just three. Two years later, John’s older brother, Luis, died—likely from malnourishment. At that point, John’s mother Catalina, desperate to save her two remaining children, moved the family to Medina del Campo, where she was able to find work and some food for her sons. But they remained underfed, leaving John with a small, underdeveloped stature for the rest of his life.
Unable to learn a trade, John became a servant of the poor at the local hospital in Medina, and studied with the recently formed Jesuits. His life began to stabilize in 1563, when he entered the Carmelite Order and spent the next year studying theology, philosophy, and the Bible at the prestigious University of Salamanca. Ordained a priest in 1567, John prepared to enter the Carthusian Order, impressed by its austere life and commitment to silent contemplation. But a chance encounter with one of the Church’s other great saints, Teresa of Avila, changed all that. Teresa convinced him to remain a Carmelite and help reform the Order, in line with its original rules, from which it had fallen away.
Inspired by these new ideals, John, accompanied by Friar Antonio de Jesus de Heredia, helped found a Carmelite monastery for friars in 1568—the first for men following Teresa’s principles of reform. Among the new monastery’s activities were frequent celebration of the Mass, fasting, long periods of solitude and devotional study, and the evangelization of the local populace. There was also the decision not to wear shoes (a requirement of the Order’s original rules). The reformed Order thus became known as the “discalced,” or barefoot, Carmelites, stripped of all worldly items they deemed non-essential.
John changed his name to John of the Cross, and under his leadership the Discalced Carmelites grew exponentially, all throughout Spain. John also became the spiritual director and confessor to St. Teresa and her 130 nuns, at their monastery of the Incarnation in Avila. It was there, while praying in a loft, that John had a vision of Our Lord on the Cross, leading him to create his famous drawing of “Christ from Above.”
And it was then, at the height of his influence, that a group of less scrupulous friars, furious about the strict new reforms, arrested John at Avila and accused him of disobedience—though his reform work with Teresa had been approved by the Spanish nuncio. John was taken captive and dragged before a court of angry friars in Toledo. What happened next is harrowing:
Despite John’s argument that he had not disobeyed the ordinances, he received a punishment of imprisonment. He was jailed in the monastery, where he was kept under a brutal regimen that included public lashing before the community at least weekly, and severe isolation in a tiny stifling cell measuring ten feet by six feet. … Except when rarely permitted an oil lamp, he had to stand on a bench to read his breviary by the light through the hole into the adjoining room. He had no change of clothing and a penitential diet of water, bread and scraps of salt fish.
Nine months later, he finally escaped, only to be persecuted by his supposed brethren twice more before his death, in 1591. But his tribulations deepened his interior peace and longing for heaven. Born out of his persecutions were his epic spiritual works, Ascent of Mount Carmel, Dark Night of the Soul, The Living Flame of Love, and the Spiritual Canticle.
Among his most memorable teachings are those which highlight holiness, discipline, spiritual independence, courage and, above all, Christian love:
The soul that is attached to anything, however much good there may be in it, will not arrive at the liberty of divine union. For whether it be a strong wire rope or a slender and delicate thread that holds the bird, it matters not, if it really holds it fast; for, until the cord be broken, the bird cannot fly.
Again: “He who interrupts the course of his spiritual exercises and prayer is like a man who allows a bird to escape his hand; he can hardly catch it again.”
And finally: “In the twilight of life, God will not judge us on our earthly possessions and human successes, but on how well we have loved.”
At this time of the year, when it is easy to be swept away by secular festivities, we must concentrate all the more on what is becoming of a Christian. There can be few better guides than St. John of the Cross.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.