Thursday, December 14, 2006

Counting All Else as Lost:
The Poetic Life of St. John of the Cross

May I never boast except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world."

–(Gal. 6:14)

If anyone deserved to be dubbed the poet-saint, it is John of the Cross. Certainly the only Doctor of the Church chosen on the strength of his poems, this slight Carmelite (John was barely 5 ft. tall) ascended to great spiritual heights by first living through hardships and then writing about them. And through his Dark Night, Christianity received another a great light.

Let it be also said that John chose the perfect nickname, for his life was one "cross" after another. Although John's grandfather was a rich silk merchant, his dad was disowned from the family fortune for marrying a poor girl, and thus John was born into poverty. When his father Gonzalo died, John was only one, and poverty soon turned into destitution. When one of his brothers died of starvation, John was sent to an orphanage. It was there John learned how to read and write, but when the orphanage tried to teach him a trade, John (who like many true poets had an aptitude for writing but very little else), failed miserably. After flunking out of wood shop and printing class, John found himself working as a nurse at Hospital de las Bubas (translated, it means "sores," it was mainly a hospital treating those with VD) and there he actually flourished!

But the hospital administrator, noting not only his love for the sick but his astounding intellectual capacity, sent him to the Jesuit College. Despite his brilliance, John longed for the simple life of the Discalced (or "barefoot") Carmelite, and he was ordained by that order in 1567. Almost immediately, John became the spiritual adviser and confessor of that spiritual live-wire, St. Teresa of Avila, who called John her "friar and a half" both for his youthful enthusiasm and small stature. But as would be the case throughout his life, John's Carmelite existence also turned into intense suffering. The lax friars, resenting John's spiritual zeal, locked him up like a madman, imprisoning him in a Carmelite priory.

John's tiny cell had almost no light (there was only a tiny slit of approximately two inches in the wall), and thus he was able to read his divine office only in the short periods when a ray of sunlight penetrated—and he had to stand on a stone just to catch it! Combining this with the fact that John was flogged and nearly starved to death, one can easily see how the Saint conceived his classic work The Dark Night of the Soul, for although the poem talks of spiritual darkness (i.e. lack of consolations), John endured a literal one as well.

But after nearly a year as prisoner, God inspired John with an escape plan. Tearing a few thin strands off a rug and fashioning them into a rope, John lowered his emaciated body through the bars and out the window—only to find he was now in the middle of a convent! Knowing this was off-limits to men, he cried to the Virgin for help, and found a way to get over the wall—and into the river! Reaching shore, the townspeople thought the wet, ragged, staggering friar to be drunk, but providence led John to the mother house of the Discalced nuns, who hid him from the evil friars and nursed him back to health.

There John began dictating his great works to the nuns, and after his words were published, he was afforded the acclaim of a best-selling author. John, however, would have none of it, accurately predicting in the end he would be "taken and thrown in a corner like an old kitchen cloth." During this time, John certainly shined as a teacher, both when he was named head of the Catholic College of Baeza in 1579, then as Prior of the Los Martires Friary in 1581, but he not surprisingly failed miserably at any organized attempt at administration.

True to his prediction, the worldly members of his order gradually got fed up with John's utter otherworldliness, and not only stripped John of all his titles but sent him to a remote friary where he was again physically abused, and, when he became ill, medically neglected. Despite being in tremendous pain, eyewitnesses remarked how his trademark cheerfulness remained with John 'til the end, and he died December 14, 1591, "face to face with Love's own grace" as his poem prophetically noted.

John's works, while of great benefit to Catholics, should also be recommended to Protestants, for unlike the confused half-truths of Luther and Calvin, they offer a humble path to Christian reform. John not only knew most of the Bible by heart, it could be said that it truly was "written on his heart" (see Jer. 31:33), and thus his works are a great scripture-based source of Reformation-reconciliation.


Anonymous said...

Thank you again for a fantastic post! After Augustine, John is easily my favorite to read, and I reference him in my own spiritual writings as often as possible. John actually had a great impact on the course of my vocation, because after reading his works I found myself developing a real longing for monastic life, and I wasn't sure how to reconcile that with the fact that I also had a real longing for missionary type work. I had this impression that the contemplative life was only for those who live in the physical solitude of a cloister, until I eventually realized that John himself did not live that life, at least not all the time.

Tom O'Toole said...

Michael - Thank you for your comment. John of the Cross (in my opinion) is the greatest poet the Catholic Church has produced, as well as an amazing Carmelite and Confessor. Maybe I'll write a poetry commentary on him someday. Thanks again!