ON BECOMING ST. JOHN OF THE CROSS
by Father David Centner, OCD
I. SAINT AT RISK
The holiness of the saints seems so completely right, so obvious a fulfillment of who they are, that we find it difficult to imagine them as being anyone but saints. A Therese without her great love for "Papa, the Good God" would not have been Therese. A Teresa without her consuming friendship with Jesus would not have been Teresa. The saints found their personal fulfillment in what made them holy, and their sanctity fits them so well that we tend to view their entire lives in the light of their final achievement. We may even forget that they became saints. The way that led to their fulfillment in Christ was not as obvious during their lives as it seems to us. St. Therese, for example, needed her trial of faith. She and the other saints walked in faith, and they had to be redeemed.
Saint John of the Cross is no exception. Juan de Yepes became Saint John of the Cross. What is more, he became a saint under circumstances that were, at least to outward appearances, not favorable to human wholeness. As we shall see, he became a saint through those circumstances, not in spite of them. He is living proof that, "God orders everything to the good."
Circumstances do not by themselves make saints. For every St. Therese there is a neurotic people pleaser, unable to choose rightly and grow to maturity. For every St. Teresa, there is the narcissist who surrounds himself or herself with friends that are used to gratify an insecure ego. Many people are hurt by life, as were our saints, and in reacting to those hurts shrivel into mediocrity. What sets the saints apart is that they respond to God's love in all of life's circumstances. In doing so they discover that everything is a grace.
Who might Juan de Yepes have been, had he not become John of the Cross? That is a difficult question for us to answer. Although John was a man of many talents - theologian, poet, amateur artist, administrator, builder, confessor and spiritual director - the impression that he leaves with us is that his identity is not to be found in any of the things he did. John was first of all the "Man of God." "My only occupation is love: it is all I do."(1) Who he might have been without that love remains a mystery to us. We know a great deal about the external circumstances of his later life, but so little about his interior response to them. Few of his letters have survived and, in striking contrast to the writings of St. Teresa, his major works give us no direct information about his own spiritual experiences. Nevertheless, the information we have about the circumstances of his life suggest that without love burning in his heart to guide him, he would have had difficulty becoming anyone whole at all. For John, to borrow a phrase from modern clinical psychology, was a "Saint at risk."
Perhaps we ought to pause for a moment and explain what we mean by being "at risk." The phrase simply suggests that there is a probability that a person or class of persons will be unable to cope appropriately with life's stresses and, as a result, will suffer a deterioration in physical or mental health or a breakdown in relationships with others. All of us are at risk to some extent, for life today is full of stresses. A bad day in the office may lead to anxiety or to a quarrel with someone we love when we get home. Or it may lead to indigestion or insomnia. Even good events can cause stress: promotions, vacations, the birth of a child.
Whether or not we are able to cope with stresses depends on three factors: our strength (both mental and physical), our coping skills, and our bonds with other people (what we might call our support network). A very strong person can endure a lot of stress - it is water off a duck's back to him or her. An ordinary person can endure that same stress if he or she has learned to cope well - learned to swim, to continue our analogy. And when we are stressed beyond our limits - up to our necks in a flood of troubles - we usually turn to others for help. They are our lifesavers, our safety net, and our support system.
Being "at risk," then, is an experience of everyday life, but there are times when we are especially vulnerable. These are those critical junctures in life at which we must achieve growth upon which our continuing well-being and ultimate wholeness will depend. They are the times when we find ourselves like a chick that has grown too large for its sheltering eggshell. We must break through and reach out to the world in new ways. Some of these junctures are created by critical events in our life: a job change, or births or deaths in the family, for example. We all know what it means to go through those kinds of crises. Others correspond to stages in our growth as persons, to our passing through infancy, early childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and reaching mature adulthood. We must learn to walk, to talk, to feed ourselves, to become independent, to relate to others, to discover our identity and grow into it, and to enter into intimacy with others. Failures to achieve these and similar goals leave us cripples in various great and small ways. All of us have been hobbled by unfinished business out of our past when we failed, in some way, to get through unscathed.
This notion of being at risk refers primarily to the mental and physical well-being of a person. But we can also apply it to spiritual well-being, insofar as grace builds on nature, as long as we remember that God can and does heal us in ways that go beyond nature.
John, we have said, was a saint "at risk." He was one of us. If we study his life carefully, we will see he faced more than ordinary stress at each of these stages of life's journey. His ultimate success is a lesson to us about God's love for us and about how we bring that healing love to one another.
II. JOHN'S EARLY YEARS
During Juan de Yepes' early infancy, his father died, leaving his mother to care for him and his brothers in circumstances of extreme poverty. John's slight stature and the mental dullness sometimes attributed to John's brother Francisco may have been the result of inadequate nutrition in early years of life. A third brother, Luis, died at this time, possibly of malnutrition. The future saint was quite literally at risk for his physical survival and for basic emotional security. The void in his life left by the death of his father would color his relationships with others as long as he lived. He seems to have found it difficult to share deeply with other men. That he survived this period at all is due to the outstanding courage and toughness of his mother. John inherited some of that toughness from her and gained enormous security from her love. He would gain strength from other women during the great crises of his life.
At the age of six, the family moved to Arevalo. There he became a nino de la doctrina - a student in a kind of catechetical-and-trade school for poor boys and orphans. John was one of the four boys obliged to work in the church of the Augustinian nuns from six until ten in the morning: cleaning, serving Mass, running errands. While it was a position of trust, it took him away from his peers. Given the intensity of his schedule, it is perhaps not surprising that he failed to learn sufficiently well any of the trades to which he was apprenticed. We may also ask ourselves whether the deprivations of his earliest years did not leave him at a disadvantage in learning skills that were largely to be gained in a "hands-on" manner. During this period, too, he was saved from drowning under extraordinary circumstances. He himself attributed it to an intervention of Our Lady. We have no way of knowing how profoundly the episode affected him interiorly. His biographers suggest that this event attracted attention to him and marked him as being, in some way, special If that is true, it would have set him further apart from the other boys. These were not ideal conditions for learning peer relationships.
Nevertheless, John coped well enough with those in authority. The story of this good boy's escape from drowning reached the ears of Don Alonso Alvarez, administrator of the plague hospital in Medina del Campo. He took nine-year-old Juan under his patronage. In Medina John nursed the sick, begged alms for them, and studied. These activities were to occupy his adolescence. At the age of seventeen he began studying the humanities with the Jesuits in Medina. A good student, he worked hard, often late into the night, all the while continuing his hospital duties. John worked his way through college.
How did the future saint respond interiorly to all this? We simply do not know, but when John eventually chose his vocation, at the age of 21, he broke with this background. In later life he never wrote anything that has come down to us about these early experiences. Did he prefer to forget about them? We find only one reference to the Jesuits in his writings, an unflattering one that concerns a property dispute. If John felt any gratitude toward his patrons in early life, he left no trace of it. Testimony during his process for beatification suggests that he suffered permanent scars in a dislike for the socially privileged, unless they were in some way subject to him. Essentially he was a loner and, in many ways, a self-made man. We have hardly any record of him seeking the counsel of others.
During these years John had to face the growth challenges of what we have come to call adolescence. Adolescence was not, usually, the protracted period of dependence it has come to be today. Even childhood, the time for play and learning as we know it, hardly existed. Still, like any young person, the future saint would have needed to develop a sense of personal identity through interaction with a peer group. We may surmise that his peer relationships were somewhat restricted, but his studies and work for the sick shaped him powerfully. He remained a friend of learning and a compassionate helper of others all his life.
We should perhaps note that an average person in John's time had a more secure sense of identity than most people today, even though he or she would have been less individuated than we are. "Individual" originally meant, "member of a class of persons or things." Who you considered yourself to be was largely a reflection of your place in life. You were noble and did what nobles did, or you learned a trade. You married and had a family, often at an early age, or joined religious life. St. John of the Cross is a pioneer of individuation in the modern Western sense of the term. Perhaps these hard years of his childhood and early youth forced him to try to make sense of things. His liberal education would have provided him with the tools needed to achieve a kind of reflective awareness of himself.
Individuation, however, only brings a person to the threshold of a productive life. The young adult leaves adolescence in some sense isolated from others or set apart from them and he or she must learn to reach beyond the solitude of individual existence and enter into constructive relationships with others. He must learn to share deeply with significant others in his life. The adult's capacity for intimate sharing and caring has its roots in the trust built up between mother and child in infancy, but the development of his or her social awareness is fostered especially by choosing to belong to a group and identifying with the values of the group. (The graffiti left by adolescents and young adults reflect this. The adolescent typically affirms himself; the young adult is more likely to affirm a group, an ideology, a political party or a sport team.)
It is important that the group structures, authorities and norms actually embody the values for which the group stands. The young adult's outlook is, to some extent, stereotyped, but if there is some coherence between the ideals and those loved as a group member, he will come to see their limitations and, ideally, move beyond them to enter into relationship with those of different outlooks and beliefs. During this period, the presence of a mentor, an older companion along life's journey, can be invaluable in preparing the young adult for the fully mature relationships that will follow.
It is during this early adult period that we see John come closest to failing. He joined the Carmelites at Medina and later studied at their college in Salamanca. We know little of his life then, but it is perhaps telling that several of the few anecdotes that have been somewhat rigid in his attitudes and, once more, had a better relationship with his superiors than with his peers. In fact, he had been named prefect of studies. He was a better than average student, although graphologist Fr. Girolamo Moretti noted that he would have been prone to polemics and to fault-finding. While a student, John discovered mystical theology and studied St. Gregory's writings and those of the Pseudo-Aeropagite. We may surmise that he turned to them in an effort to make sense of his own longings and interior experience. (John would have been comfortable in the "self-help" sections of modern bookstores.) He also led a particularly austere life and spent long period in prayer.
Nevertheless, John was not satisfied with the choice he had made. His dissatisfaction is often attributed to the "unreformed" character of the Spanish Carmelites, but we know that the observance in his own province was a good one and that discipline was high in the houses of formation. Perhaps a more adequate explanation was an urge to find a group with a particularly high ideal and with structures that fully embodied that idea.
John would have felt such an urge more keenly than most young men. His rigidity, his intellectual orientation, and his probable lack of deep personal bonds with his peers would have oriented him toward seeking a solution to deeply felt needs in a theoretically perfect community.
What might John's needs have been? We have only hints, but we can surmise that one need would have been for intimacy and that he sought to fulfill this need in his hours of prayer. Other needs might have involved a repressed hunger for sensory gratification. Graphologist Moretti noted a latent sensuality in the Saint's writings. (Unfortunately, the sample he used is not identified or dated.) John, he felt, had a personality that needed to do battle with interior weaknesses on all fronts and was a person who might have ended up covering his failures with astute sophistry. The Carthusians, with their high ideals and very structured observance, might have held out the promise of supporting his own aspirations. He had practically decided to join them when God intervened with other graces.
Would the Charterhouse have been a good choice for John? Probably not. Unless the Carthusians had been able to provide him with exceptionally sensitive formation, he might have repressed his "unfinished business" and stopped growing.
John needed especially sensitive treatment at this stage of life (don't we all?), but he had a personality that would not have invited the care he needed. In his self-sufficiency and reserve and in his external conformity to superiors' expectations, he would have been let go his own way. But his way was not always God's way, any more than ours are.
III. CLUES TO PERSONALITY
What sort of person was the young Friar John? That is not an easy question to answer; we know so little of him. Personalities are hard to describe, in any case. Perhaps we can simplify our task by turning to a psychological tool that has proven useful for spiritual direction, the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator, based on C.J. Jung's theory of psychological types and popularized by Keirsey and Bates in their book Please Understand Me. Naturally, we cannot test John, but the personality theory behind this test provides us with some useful concepts for trying to understand him.
According to this theory, all of us have preferred ways of responding to life. These preferences are basic to our personalities and can be conveniently grouped under four headings. The first of these headings refers to whether we are primarily extroverts or introverts, that is, whether we generally feel strongly the need for social contacts and gain energy from being with people, or whether we have a strong need to be alone. The other three categories or "functions" are: intuition/sensation, thinking/feeling, and judging/perceiving. These paired functions represent, so to speak, the right and left hand version of key aspects of our relating with other people. All of us have preferred ways of responding to situations, just as we tend to be either right-handed or left-handed; but an integrated personality is able to use both. (Jesus in the Gospels is at ease with all these different modes of relating.) In most people, one of these functions is less well developed than the others. It is sometimes called the "interior function." Carl Jung was of the opinion that our religious experience comes through the inferior function. As we shall see, in John's case that may be true.
St. John of the Cross was probably an extreme introvert by both nature and upbringing. In times of stress he was likely to seek solitude.
He was probably a highly intuitive person. Such people are less concerned with concrete fact than with possibilities, and they are able to see complex realities in creative ways. They constantly look toward improving the actual and may skip from one task to another without finishing any of them.
John was probably a judger rather than a perceiver. The terms are misleading, but they would indicate that he would have preferred to settle issues rather than leave options open. Certainly he was an energetic doer all his life, and a self starter, and even in his milder mature years, he had no trouble confronting people when things did not seem right to him.
This particular combination of traits is extremely rare and makes for a personality which frequently puts people off. Persons of this sort strive to achieve a kind of control by being extremely competent. John might well have exercised some control over others by finding fault and caviling(2) over small details. They are usually highly creative in a scientific way. Though they may delight in word games, their concern is with communication of objective fact, not emotional experiences. (That is, they are not naturally poets.) They are often very self-critical and may be haunted by fears of failure in spite of obvious success. They may seem arrogant and cold to others even if, like John, they care passionately for others. In fact, they may not be entirely sensitive to interpersonal relationships because they are more involved with what is going on in their minds than with the direct experience of reality. A person of this type, if he considers himself special, may set an impossibly high standard of perfection in an abstract ideal, and settle for living in a mediocre manner in the practical order. On the other hand, if he presses toward his ideal, he is sensitive to all the torments and trials - life's dark nights - through which he must pass.
If I have highlighted the negative aspects of this personality type, it is only to point up the risks that John faced. Some of these less pleasant aspects surface from time to time in his life and writings. For example, other types might not have even noticed the positive and privative damages wrought in the soul by disordered appetites, and few would have taken the time to catalogue and explain them all. Nor would many have expressed the interior life in such black-and-white terms as this abstract idealist. I am inclined to think that even his doctrinal rigor is due to an awareness of how easy it might have been for him not to carry through in practical life. It may also have been a means for coping with irrational impulses in his life. John, like everyone else carried wounds, suffered from disorders in his affective life. These would have made him prone to act compulsively whenever they came into play. One such disorder, if we may believe Moretti's analysis, involved his repressed sensuality.
St. Teresa expressed a keen understanding of his limitations when, in her Vejamen she poked fun at St. John in response to the treatise he wrote on the words "Seek yourself in me" that she had interiorly heard. It is worth reading in full. One suspects that John, the extreme introvert, missed the point of her locution and wonders what he, with his thinker's bent, made of her ironic reply. Like Dr. Spock of Star Trek, he might have reminded her she was not being logical.
St. John of the Cross, at the evening of his life, had grown well beyond most of the limitations imposed by his personality type. He became the person he was predestined to be by Love and not the one he might have been destined to be by type. God worked a transformation in him. Let us go back to our story and see how Juan de Yepes became St. John of the Cross.
We left John as he contemplated passing to the Carthusians. At this point a woman intervened in his life, Teresa of Jesus, herself well on the way to becoming a saint. John's meeting with Teresa at Medina del Campo was timely for several reasons. For one thing, at the very time he was looking for higher ideals, he encountered them embodied in a person, not in structures. That person was a practical woman old enough to have been his mother and who assumed a spiritually maternal role in his life. St. Teresa's rootedness must have made her kind of spiritual "earth mother" for starry-eyed John. The encounter coincided with a visit to his own mother and the celebration of his first Mass. John must have been especially open to the maternal influence of that spiritual mother of priests. Their meeting was decisive for both of them. He decided to remain a Carmelite and seek the ideal he desired within his own Order - within "Our Lady's" Order.
We are all familiar with the story of the first foundation at Duruelo in 1568. Teresa helped John prepare for it by introducing him to the Discalced Carmelite Nuns' observance, especially their way of taking recreation, at Valladolid.
Characteristically, John found some reason strongly to disagree with her, and she could not persuade him to change his mind. Practical Teresa and idealist John did not always see eye to eye.
John soon became the first novice master of the Reform and first college Rector. His gifts in formation were obvious. But the Reform soon found itself in difficulties because of the absurd austerities imposed at the second novitiate, Pastrana, and John was sent there briefly in October 1570 to put things right.
This episode deserves some attention, as it is the first indication we have that there is more to John than an abstracted idealist. The excuses of Pastrana were unreasonable, and any director with common sense would have condemned them. Nevertheless, they must have made a powerful impression on the young friar as they clearly posed the conflict felt in religious life in Spain at the time between the austere perfectionism of the "spiritual persons" and the humanism of the "learned." What was the meaning and use of penance? Like Teresa, he learned empirically the value of austerity at the service of love and the need to lead each person individually. His intellectual formation, including his own private reading of St. Gregory the Great's pastoral writings, would have helped. But Pastrana must have jarred him in another way. John had known hunger and the humiliation of begging and servile work. Here it was being imposed as an ideal. He must have recoiled from it and brought to bear on the situation all the compassion, the "street smarts" and concern for individual needs that had enabled him to survive and grow as a nino de la doctrina and infirmarian.
Things were, in fact, going badly for the friars. As St. Teresa later said, "They contained the seeds of their own destruction." Yet just as John was beginning to prove his usefulness, she succeeded in having him moved to Avila where, living outside a formed community, he worked for five years as vicar and confessor to the nuns of the Incarnation. Had St. Teresa gone mad?
If she had, there was a method in her madness. Her Senequito's greatest gifts were in spiritual direction, and by moving him to the Incarnation, she gave him ample scope to develop. He became her director and her collaborator as he helped form the nuns she governed. We can be sure that Teresa, who always managed to influence her directors, helped form him. In a sense, it was John's period of "Clinical Pastoral Education." He was ready for it.
The constant, intense, and intimate contract that he, as director, had with so many gifted souls would have demanded of him that he learn to adapt himself to a great many different kinds of people. They would have confirmed him in his role as a director and his sense of personal identity. We can surmise that he felt himself loved. His surviving letters to nuns have an affectionate tone that suggest he treasured his relationship with these women.
Nevertheless, after almost five years in Avila, John's propensity to cavil over abstract ideals, especially as regard detachment, reflect limitations he had not yet overcome. Teresa's Vejamen, about which we spoke above, dates from this period.
I believe that these limitations were more significant than are generally recognized. They reflect the mentality of the young adult who has not yet learned to enter comfortably into constructive relationships with people who have different attitudes toward life and to see and respect other points of view. They also reflect the wounds inflicted by the emotional and physical deprivations of his childhood. He might be expected, under stress, to dig in his heels and insist on his viewpoint. He was still attached to his own way of seeing things, probably had not yet learned to trust feelings, and was not yet ready for his work as a reconciliating presence among friars divided by ideological conflicts after St. Teresa's death.
IV. A MID-LIFE TRANSITION
"Have you had your mid-life crisis?" Today's psychobabble would have meant nothing to John. Still, every butterfly must get out of its cocoon. In the ordinary course of things John would have found his outlook on life too confining to accommodate his accumulated experience or the insistent demands of unintegrated aspects of his personality. He would have had to change his outlook or ignore the truth of his experience, or compartmentalize them one from another. A person as intensely self-aware as John would have experienced this transition as a real crisis. Such a transition would have been particularly risky for John as there was so little in his world that would have supported such growth. In fact, the destructive infighting between the Calced and Discalced and later among the Discalced themselves suggests that those who should have provided him with a support system would have actively opposed such growth. In point of fact, it was precisely his maturity - evangelical maturity - if facing the crisis of the Reform that made him a target for the persecution he suffered at the end of his life.
John's mid-life transition required more than nature could bring to him. It had to be a share in Christ's Passover.
Not long after Teresa wrote her Vejamen, John was kidnapped and imprisoned. His suffering and privations are known to all of us, but several details deserve our special attention.
First of all, he went into prison after an intense experience of affirmation in his work as confessor. John knew that he was loved, especially by Holy Mother Teresa. His great fear during the long months of solitude and deprivation in Toledo was that she should think he had abandoned her. Teresa was for John, as for Blessed Anne of St. Bartholomew, a tangible presence of Christ's love in the life of St. John of the Cross. He drew from her strength to persevere in his ordeals. The feeling function in him, the personal basis of seeing reality and choosing, was the source of his greatest anguish.
Secondly, John's physical sufferings reached the limits of endurance, even for so tough a person as himself. Survival became a conscious concern, on all levels: physical, mental, and spiritual. John had to pay attention to his needs. For an intuitive thinker like himself, it was tantamount to owning his body and emotions in a way he had never done before. In terms of our personality types, John had to function as a sensate person. His "Inferior function" held the key to his survival.
Thirdly, John composed poetry in prison and the poetry helped him to survive. This poetry anchored all his attention on the only one who could matter to him, his Beloved. But it is not the poetry of the Muse, according to Spanish critics; it is the poetry of duende, the force that rises from the earth and takes over the flamenco singer, the very antithesis of John's habitual rational approach to life. It is extraordinarily sensuous poetry - filled with touches, sight, scents and music. John was entering God through his sensuality, through his interior function. What brought about this extraordinary change in him?
Studies of concentration camp survivors from World War II contain accounts of the withdrawal of prisoners into dreams of fields and flowers and islands and delightful places. These dreams were harbingers of death. St. John of the Cross must have come very close to dying in his Toledo cell. He would have had very little energy left to keep his unconscious tucked safely away. He must have had moments when reality was hard to separate from fantasy, and his most primitive needs, including sense gratification, must have been very present to him.
When he escaped, he escaped with his poems in his heart and his scars on his back. He was received and spirited away to safety by Carmelite Nuns. Before he went he sang his songs to them - his poems - and told his story. The love of his sisters in Christ accompanied him. And for the rest of his life in one way or another he would share those songs with other lovers of Christ. John came away from Toledo more extrovert and infinitively more alive to sensible reality than when he was carried away from Avila.
John's poems are extraordinarily light-filled, even when they sing of the night. We must realize, however, that he had to face the night and all the dark things in it. One does not stir up feelings on a pick-and-choose basis. In Toledo, St. John of the Cross would have remembered the hurts and failings of all his life. All his wounds would have been opened. The freedom of his poems tells us that he had to have let go of these dark things, and he did so by going out to seek his Beloved. If John, a mature adult, could learn to be at ease with so many others, it was because he had fully accepted his own woundedness and allowed other people their limitations as well.
Following John's escape from prison in August of 1578, he was sent to Andalusia. He would spend most of the next 10 years of his life there, returning to Castile only in 1588. Also, following his escape, his activity took a new turn: he held major offices in the Reform from October of 1578 until six months prior to his death in 1591. They were years of intense activity. He traveled frequently on business - it is estimated that he traveled 26,000 kilometers during his life, mostly on foot and mostly during the years following his imprisonment. He directed souls. He built - architecture is a favorite field for his kind of personality - and to do so he had to beg. Interestingly, he not only planned buildings, he worked on them himself. He also sketched and carved. He had integrated his sense and intuition. Finally, he wrote. He finished his major poems and wrote commentaries on them in response to the requests of his followers. Imprisonment had changed John.
So had Andalusia. He hated being there, at least during the first years while Holy Mother Teresa was still alive. John even wrote to Teresa and asked her to use her influence with Gracian to get him moved. Father Gracian turned a deaf ear. But Andalusia brought out the very best in John.
The duende of his poem lives in Andalusia. The beauty of the land kept John's newly-awakened sensate awareness alive. Between 1582 and 1584, at Granada, he finished the poem of the Canticle and wrote the poems Living Flame of Love and the Little Shepherd. Later he penned several of his glosses. Andalusia may have been painful for him but it kept John in touch with the deepest resources of his nature. The Mediterranean affectivity of the extrovert Andalusians tried him , but they kept him alive to personal, to inner feelings. He had to have a personal and practical focus, as his work involved him in frequent delicate negotiations. He was sensitive to the needs of all and won their esteem and love. This is all the more remarkable when we consider the stormy history of the Order in Andalusia, a history which brought so many superiors to grief.
Andalusia was important, also, for the presence of women in his life: the nuns of Beas and then of Granada and its prioress, Anne of Jesus, his closest friend, for whom he wrote the book Spiritual Canticle and also his ties with Ana de Penalosa for whom he wrote his book Living Flame of Love. Their love brought out the best in him.
We have less information about friendship with men. We know he was especially close to his brother Francisco; and one of the friars, Juan Evangelist, was his companion for nine years. He had asked to be transferred wherever the saint went.
John's growth did not end in the years immediately following Toledo. A storm was brewing among the Discalced which, had it not been for the heritage he left them, would have destroyed the Order.
During her lifetime, Teresa had relied heavily on two men: her dearly-beloved but somewhat soft and vain Jerome Gracian, and Nicholas, Doria, the worldly-wise, Italian banker turned friar. Doria brought with him the expectations of Italy which had grown weary of the excesses of the pre-Tridentine renaissance Church and had retreated to a platonizing spirituality that emphasized denial of the world, rigor, and submissiveness to authority. Doria's own outlook tended to view discipline as the value to be saved above all others, and as superior he issued rules and circular letters warning against revisionists in a way that would do national security states credit. This platonizing view, carried to its extreme, led to the errors of the synod of Pistoia and to what we generally refer to as "Jansenism." Gracian represented the university-trained humanist tradition of the church of Spain's golden Age. These men had worked together during Teresa's lifetime, but they fell out after she was not longer there to guide them. Gracian, as first provincial superior, supported missionary expansion and favored ministry to the extent that his observance was called into question. Doria represented the aspirations of a large group of men who had no use for learning and involvement in ministry. In fact, the Discalced Carmelite friars were a pretty mixed bag: former redneck hermits, former Andalusian friars who joined the Discalced Carmelites to escape ecclesiastical censure, university students, and even older professionals like Doria. They had held together under persecution, but now that they were an independent province and then congregation, their inner disagreements began to emerge.
As the in-fighting began, St. John of the Cross continued to do his work in formation and as local and regional superior. He was the one friar who had been with the reform from the beginning and who had credibility in all quarters. His personal austerity and the observance of the houses he governed could not be faulted. As far as learning was concerned, he was one of the best minds of the Order. He engaged in ministry without letting ministry become an escape from community life. Furthermore, he was non-partisan and was able to work with all. When the storm finally broke, John bore the full brunt of it, and bore it redemptively.
The conflict came to a head in the chapter held at Madrid in June, 1591. The values of two cultures - Spain and Italy - and of different eras collided. In this, it was not unlike some of the difficulties faced by communities in the church in our own day. Externally it was occasioned by some irregularities in Gracian's conduct and by the devious steps which Anne of Jesus, John's dear friend, had taken to obtain a papal brief in defense of the nuns. Father Doria's government had promulgated hundreds of needless rules and, more seriously, sought to take from the nuns the freedom given to them by St. Teresa regarding the nomination of confessors for the monasteries. Anne wished to defend the constitutions, guarantee the nuns' liberties regarding the confessors, and secure for the nuns a vicar to whom they would be subject, instead of the Consulta, as the central council was called. Gracian suggested John be named vicar for the nuns. Doria sought to have Gracian expelled from the Order, and succeeded, and sought to bring the nuns into line by harsh measures. John, of course, was seen as guilty by association.
V. THE SAINTS LAST DAYS
Before the Madrid Chapter, John strenuously opposed Doria's plans in writing. The letter has not survived. Juan Evangelista was alarmed by it and asked John to tone it down. Given John's nature, it was probably a thorough rebuttal of all that Doria planned. John even stayed away from council meetings in protest. At the chapter, he was not re-elected to office. That did not stop him from fearlessly speaking against the injustices he saw being done. Doria felt is necessary to remove John from any position of influence. First he was assigned to Mexico and then, before that was put into effect, sent to Andalusia. He would soon die there. John seems to have had a premonition of that fact.
John left Madrid in the company of the prior of Toledo. Fr. Elias of St. Martin, who would succeed Doria as General of the Discalced. They spent days on the road, traveling by way of Segovia, and arrived at six in the morning. They immediately retired to the prior's cell and spent the day and all night in discussion. For all his external serenity in the midst of persecution, John was clearly deeply shaken. It is the only episode in his life that we know of in which John shared his feelings and pains with a brother.
The harsh treatment meted out to him might have been endurable - the storm would have passed in time - had it not been for the fact that a former subject whom John had corrected, Diego Evangelista, was elected to the Consulta in John's place and was determined to revenge himself on the saint. He instituted an investigation whose obvious aim was to prove that the saint had been guilty of improper behavior meriting expulsion from the Order. Most of John's letters were destroyed by the nuns at this time to prevent them from falling into Diego Evangelista's hands. Doria seems not to have been a part of this pogrom, but his own attitude toward Gracian and his totalitarian approach to government made it possible. John's final passion had begun. Six months later John died in Ubeda in Andalusia. The circumstances of his death including the hostility of the prior of the house, are too well known to repeat here.
When we read the documentation regarding these last months of the saint's life, we feel a deep sadness. The affection he felt for those he left behind in Castile is obvious. The letters he wrote to the nuns who tried to defend and encourage him could only have been written by someone who was being transformed in Christ on the Cross: "Think only that God orders everything to the good, and where there is no love, put love, and you will draw out love." But one senses also that John had to come to terms now with the solitude and rejection that had shadowed him all his life and which he had borne for love of Christ. In doing this he came to his full maturity as a person and saint.
John was no stranger to rejection. Even his relationship with St. Teresa had involved rejection. During John's years in Avila the Holy Mother had formed her deep and lasting friendship with Gracian. If John felt any jealousy, he kept it to himself. Gracian seems to have resented John; in spite of Holy Mother's pleas he did nothing to obtain John's freedom after the saint was kidnapped, and he left him in far-away Andalusia. John's final meeting with the Holy Mother was a sad one. In November of 1581 he had gone to Avila to bring St. Teresa to found a monastery in Granada. Old and ill and struggling with economic problems at St. Joseph's, she refused to go. Several of her letters survive from November, but the only reference she makes to John's visit was to complain to Don Pedro Castro y Nero that she was tired, "I was the father of the Order this evening." It could have been anybody.
Nearly 10 years after he last saw Teresa, John began his final journey, not to Granada but to La Penuela. When one of the nuns of Madrid lamented, "What a dreary place they are sending you to, Father!" his reply was, "Daughter, I am better off among the rocks than among men." John, in fact, had suffered often among men. His Avisos had compared the religious to a piece of stone to be worked by others. They make rather harsh reading. We would expect words about fraternal charity and mutual support. Did one have to repress feeling in order to survive the turbulent atmosphere of the monasteries of his final years?
How did John respond to this rejection? He chose it. When it became necessary to leave La Penuela for medical treatment, he opted for Ubeda instead of Baeza, the college he had founded and where he was known and esteemed.
John may have felt that his presence in Baeza would only have endangered the house and prolonged the persecution that was in full swing. Already protests were being made. He may have felt it wise to keep a low profile. But that cannot have been the whole reason.
A year earlier, we are told, John had been so struck by a painting of the crucifixion in Segovia that he had it moved to the Church for the veneration of everyone. Christ asked John what he desired for his reward, and he replied, "To suffer and be despised and counted as of little worth for you." It would be difficult to imagine in those circumstances an answer that did not involve the passion, but this particular request must have been a reflection of the clouds gathering in his soul and perhaps of the conflict he felt about the offices he held. He told his brother Francisco, "The Lord has accepted my request and so I suffer because of the many honors they have given me that I do not deserve." It was also a preparation for what was to come. John was rejected and cast aside. To have gone to Baeza would have been to evade the only way left to John to ratify the meaning of his entire life. "The road to God consists in...the one thing necessary: to know how to deny oneself...and to undertake to suffer for Christ and be annihilated in everything"(3)
Baeza would have put John at risk. The time had passed in which John could accomplish anything by doing. All that was left was for him: to be. He chose Ubeda and the bare Cross, and he died a saint: Saint John "of the Cross."
He had always lived as the santico, as Teresa called him, the "little saint" who gave himself wholly to what God asked of him. When did he become a Saint with a capital S? When did he reach "union?" We really do not know, and perhaps it doesn't matter. For as John himself tells us, if we have any love for God at all, we are already, to that degree, in union. And the soul transformed in the Living Flame of Love discovers that what she receives from God is what God has been giving to her from the very beginning. What does matter is that John started out with the wounds of life, possibly with more than most of us have and became a saint anyway. The very circumstances that ought to have crippled him became moments of grace because he sought Christ in all things and because others, in their love for him, made Christ's love tangible. The Holy Spirit did the rest.
He still does.
1. Please refer to the Rule of Life,
Foreword, para 11; Article 2, as pertinent to the
2. Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, ICS Publications.
3. Carmelite Studies VI: John of the Cross, ICS Publications.
4. St. John of the Cross, A Challenge for Us All, The proceedings of the 1990 San Diego Congress. Wenzel Press.
5. Video of St. John of the Cross, by Fr. Michael Buckley, OCD. Wenzel Press.
1. Canticle 19
2, cav-il (kav' l) v.-iled., -il-ing., -ils. also -illed, -il-ling, -ils intr. To find fault unnecessarily; raise trivial objections. tr. To quibble about; detect petty flaws in. ùn. A captious or trivial objection. [OFr. caviller < Lat. cavillari, to criticize < cavilla, a jeering.] cav'il-er n.
3. Ascent II, 6,8
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