JOHN OF THE CROSS, PRIEST AND DOCTOR OF THE CHURCH (1542 - 1591)
John is a saint, because his life was a heroic effort to live up to his name: "Of the Cross." The foolishness of the cross came to full realization in time. "if anyone wishes to follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily" is the story of John's life. The Paschal Mystery - through death to life - strngly marks John as a reformer, mystic-poet and tehologian-priest.
Ordained a Carmelite priest at 25 (1567), 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 his 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 Mt. Carmel. 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 analyzed it in his prose writings. His prose works are outstanding in underscoring the cost of discipleship, the path to union with God: rigorous discipline, abandonement, purification. Uniquely and strongly John underlines the Gospel paradox: the cross leads to resurrection, agony to ecstacy, darkness to light, abandonment to possession, denial of self to union with God. If you want to save your life, you must lose it. John is truly "of the Cross." He dies at 49 - a life short, but full.
COMMENT: John in his life and writings has a crucial word for us today. We tend to be rich, soft, comfortable. We shrink from words like self-denial, mortification, purification, ascetism, discipline. We run from teh cross .... John's message - like the Gospel - is loud and clear. DON'T - if you really want to live!
QUOTE: Thomas Merton said of John: "Just as we can never separate ascetism from mysticism, so in St. John of the Cross, we find darkness and light, suffering and joy, sacrifice and love united together so closely that they seem at times to be identified."
In John's words:
Never was fount so clear,
undimmed and bright:
From it alone, I know, proceeds all light,
although 'tis night.