St John of the Cross – Mystic, Doctor of the Church and Co-founder of the Discalced Carmelites

St John of the Cross was born in Spain around 1542 and brought up in great poverty. After the death of his father, the family was constantly on the move in search of a living. Eventually they arrived in Medina del Campo. John was sent to a school for poor children run by the Jesuits, where his duties included begging for alms to help sustain a local hospital. He became a nursing assistant, known for his gentleness and compassion. 

Later John entered the Carmelite order, where his piety and intelligence distinguished him from the others and where he was drawn increasingly to an ascetic life.

After his ordination, John returned to Medina to celebrate his first Mass. It was there that he first met St. Teresa of Avila, in the area to open a new community for her reformed Carmel. Recognising John’s desire for a stricter life as a religious, Teresa convinced him and two others to join her new community of friars. Thus the community of Discalced Carmelite Friars was founded in Duruelo. The stricter regime did not gain universal approval, however, and St John suffered a great deal as a result of opposition to the reform. He was taken prisoner by members of his own order and spent nine months in solitary confinement, before he finally managed to escape. In captivity, St John experienced a deep inner transformation and purification and produced one of his most beautiful writings, the “Spiritual Canticle”. Among his other major works are The Dark Night of the Soul, The Ascent of Mount Carmel and the Living Flame of Love. He also wrote commentaries to these works as well as soliloquies, poetry and prayers. St John died in Ubeda in 1591. Together with St Teresa of Avila, he is considered to be the founder of the Discalced Carmelites. His writings have helped many towards sanctification and deeper union with God.

As we are over half way through the penitential season of Advent, we would do well to take to heart in particular St John’s teaching on ‘detachment’, which Fr Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen (O.C.D.) presents so clearly:

St John of the Cross – Principles for Detachment

These are the golden rules proposed by St John of the Cross for total detachment: The soul must always be inclined ‘not to the easiest thing, but to the hardest; not to the tastiest, but to the most insipid; not to the things that give the greatest pleasure, but to those that give the least; not to the restful things, but to the painful ones; not to consolation, but to desolation; not to more, but to less; not to the highest and dearest, but to the lowest and most despised; not to the desire for something, but to having no desires.’ In this way, we shall gradually become accustomed to subduing this inordinate desire for pleasure, which is at the base of all attachments. It is like going against a current; hence it is a hard tiring task which can be accomplished only by strength of will. We must oppose the inclinations of nature and make ourselves do what is repugnant to nature. This is, however, a sweet task for a soul in love with God; it knows that everything it refuses to self is given to God and that, when it has reached the point of renouncing self in everything – of selling everything – God Himself will give it the precious pearl of divine union.

From Divine Intimacy by Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D.

St John of the Cross, pray for us.

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22 Responses to St John of the Cross – Mystic, Doctor of the Church and Co-founder of the Discalced Carmelites

  1. toadspittle says:

    Very interesting man.
    Toad’s wife has the same picture of him as shown here, with the words, “Callar y obrar,” at the bottom. More or less, “Shut up and do it.” I guess it’s a quote from him.

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  2. Brother Burrito says:

    St John of the Cross: my hero!

    (along with all my other patron Saints called John).

    Toad, ¡Callar y obrar! ie stop talking about philosophy, and just get on with it. Burn the armchair!

    “You know it makes sense”. (D. Trotter, Peckham).

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  3. golden chersonnese says:

    Toad critiques:
    Very interesting man.

    Well Toad, you may have have a friend in Jesus St John of the Cross:

    The soul that in aridity and trial submits to the dictates of reason is more pleasing to God than one that does everything with consolation, yet fails in this submission.
    (Sayings of Light and Love)

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  4. golden chersonnese says:

    Maryla, thanks for another great Carmelite saint. If I’m not wrong, you also gave us the account of the life of St Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein), another Carmelite. And there is joyful papist too with her favourite Carmelite

    I was very surprised to see how very ascetic St John of the Cross really was in your account of him. Quite astonishing. He appears to be actively looking for every kind of hardship in his life in order to find God. And we know that eventually he became a great writer on God’s love for us.

    It seems such a hard road he consciously chose and one can only wonder if God’s love can be really known and experienced only after such a very great (almost inhuman) degree of self-denial.

    Very unsettling! Or is it a Spanish thing? (Toad might know.)

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  5. kathleen says:

    Wow! Anyone who could live faithfully by St. John of the Cross’s “Principles for Detachment” would surely be a Great Saint, worthy of being canonized on the spot !

    Yet even though St John of the Cross puts the Christian ideal so tremendously high, he is a gentle lovable saint whose writings on mysticism are so accessible.
    Tremendously consoling to weak pleasure-seeking me…… although the pleasures I seek are quite innocent (or at least, I like to think they are) are his famous words:
    “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.”

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  6. kathleen says:

    A few years ago, on the way to the Sierra of Cazorla for a hiking holiday, we stopped off at the beautiful city of Ubeda (and the smaller, but equally charming Baeza) and we visited the monastery where St John of the Cross spent his final years. Seeing the desk where the saint wrote some of his deeply spiritual poems, prayers etc, the chapel where he meditated, and the cell where he died, made me feel very close to this gentle humble man who loved God so intensely.

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  7. kathleen says:

    No Golden, I don’t think such an ascetic life as St John of the Cross is necessarily a “Spanish thing”. There are saints of other nationalities, the saintly Cure d’Ars (French), St Lius Gonzaga (Italian), who come to mind, who also pummeled their bodies ascetically in such a way.

    Come to think of it, I can’t think of any English or Irish saints who were quite as strictly ascetic though……. can you? Perhaps it’s a virtue only reached by those of Latin origin 😉

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  8. mmvc says:

    GC, it’s because I struggle to practise any form of detachment, be it as penance for sins or for the love of God, that I marvel at the asceticism of the saints. When you look at the holy men and women through the ages, it seems that self-denial and mortification to a greater or lesser degree are hallmarks of all their lives. I like to think that the Lord is pleased with the least of our offerings, even while we aspire to follow more closely in His footsteps.

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  9. toadspittle says:

    Equally adorable Kathleen and Golden,

    I suspect one has to live in Spain, particularly north of Madrid, on the arid plains of the Meseta, to even get near ‘getting’ Spanish aestheticism. (Not that Toad has done so, in any significant way.)

    But it has taught Toad some priceless lessons on living in what is, by today’s standards, a simple fashion.
    However, some, indeed most of the lessons, came from the Stoics. One of the the great lessons Toad has learned is from Epicurus, (or, he thinks, maybe Epictetus):

    “If you want to make yourself rich, teach yourself what you can live without.”

    Nothing to do with God, of course. But, still, it has worked for him. (Toad, that is, of course, not God.)
    What Toad is getting at, as you can plainly see, is that there is a direct, unbroken, line from the Stoics to the Spanish mystics.
    As one might expect.

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  10. toadspittle says:

    And now, Toad is off to his old ‘Uncle Ned’ as Omvendt so quaintly puts it.
    And, because his wife is on the pilgrim way to Santiago right now, he will share said bed with his favourite dog, who takes this as a great compliment and delight.
    And so he should.

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  11. golden chersonnese says:

    Kathleen says No Golden, I don’t think such an ascetic life as St John of the Cross is necessarily a “Spanish thing”. There are saints of other nationalities, the saintly Cure d’Ars (French), St Lius Gonzaga (Italian), who come to mind, who also pummeled their bodies ascetically in such a way., while Teresa says John of the Cross is following a very strict Augustinian Tradition and Toad says there is a direct, unbroken, line from the Stoics to the Spanish mystics..

    Kathleen, I can quite see how denial of self is helpful for spiritual growth as you show with the Curé of Ars (not ‘Arc’, Toad) and St Aloysius. I simply marvelled at how St John of the Cross seemed to seek out the hardest things to do in ordinary, everyday life rather than just accepting humbly the sufferings and privations that come to most of us in one way or another. Our lives should be “inclined to the most painful things”, he says above. “That is a hard saying”, as someone else said.

    I’d say all this goes well beyond the call of duty for one of Toad’s stoics, and Teresa thinks it might be part of an Augustinian tradition.

    Would you know, Maryla, where Juan got most of his inspiration? Was it the Stoics or the Augustinians or some other source altogether, perhaps even just the Scriptures ?

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  12. golden chersonnese says:

    Teresa says A second reason why it certainly has nothing to do with Stoicism is that Stoicism teaches quite different things than ascetics of John of the Cross: Stoicism doesn’t teach to seek pain, it teaches us to obey the necessity and accept whatever happens with an equanimity, its aim is the Apathy, that is, not to feel any pain at all, and not to be moved by affects, but only be controlled through the reason.

    For which many thanks, dear Teresa.

    And yet it seems to me that John of the Cross was even more ascetical than St Bernard and the others you mentioned. Quite in a class of his own, for which I thought a kind of Spanish thing might be responsible.

    I see his entire Dark Night of the Soul is on YouTube in 50 parts. Also a three part doco on Dali and St John of the Cross.

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  13. kathleen says:

    “[Living] in Spain, particularly north of Madrid, on the arid plains of the Meseta……. has taught Toad some priceless lessons on living in what is, by today’s standards, a simple fashion.”

    That’s a gem Toad! And a great start to find the ‘elusive’ (?) God you are searching for 😉

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  14. kathleen says:

    Teresa @ 2:52 today

    Thank you for this very insightful comment. That rules out Toad’s Stoics then! You have certainly whet my appetite to know more about the Augustinian Tradition from where St John of the Cross most likely drew his inspiration.

    Yes Golden, I too feel totally knocked backwards by the saint’s seeking out such a hard way to God.
    Mind you, no one should feel obliged to blindly follow such a tough path. Our beloved St Therese of Lisieux admitted that although she admired such endeavours of asceticism, she had found another way, the Little Way, which was simply “accepting humbly the sufferings and privations that come to most of us in one way or another” (as you put it so well)…… and which can also be difficult and challenging.

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  15. mmvc says:

    Was St Juan in a class of his own, GC? St Francis of Assisi springs to mind as another who was pretty radical in his attempts to die to self (sprinkling ashes on his food to render it more tasteless, walking barefoot in the snow and throwing himself into nettles (or was it thornbushes?) to quench all appetites… I’m recalling a Franciscan priest’s homily here).

    The primary influence on the great ascetic saints must surely have come from the Scriptures. John the Baptist, the precursor of the Lord, was pretty tough on himself wasn’t he? And then Christ’s own example and teaching is a constant invitation to renounce the world, to sell everything for the pearl of great price, to take up our cross and follow Him. In their humility the saints recognise God as the source of their inspiration and strength. We are all called to practise detachment, some more radically than others (no need to be perturbed by St Juan’s demanding teaching, GC, Kathleen or anyone. 🙂 Isn’t he ultimately inviting us to become more Christ-like?) As for the Little way, I’m all for it. Any short-cut will do! 😉 Though I agree that even the tiniest effort seems at times to demand nothing short of heroism.

    I was delighted to discover in my Advent reading what Blessed John Henry Newman had to say about little acts of love:

    One little deed, done against natural inclinations for God’s sake, though in itself of conceding or passive character, to brook an insult, to face a danger, or to resign an advantage, has in it a power outbalancing all the dust and chaff of mere profession.

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  16. golden chersonnese says:

    Maryla ponders, Was St Juan in a class of his own, GC? St Francis of Assisi springs to mind as another who was pretty radical in his attempts to die to self (sprinkling ashes on his food to render it more tasteless, walking barefoot in the snow and throwing himself into nettles (or was it thornbushes?) to quench all appetites

    Yes, thank you, Maryla, St Francis was exactly the one I had in mind when I read your account of John of the Cross’ very ‘advanced’ (shall we say?) asceticism. I really can’t think of anyone else like them except for the ascetics of the Easter Chruch such as the Stylites and Saint Anthony of Egypt.

    But come to think of it these pillar-standers and desert-dwellers were all either actually or effectively hermits. Theirs were lives in which they actively sought great hardships and pain. But Juan was not a hermit, but always living and working closely with others.

    I’ve just now cheated and had a look at the Catholic Encyclopaedia’s on John of the Cross and have discovered that my suspicions were right; John of the Cross was hardly influenced by any of the earlier mystics. But he knew Thomas Aquinas quite well and above all had an almost perfect recall of the whole of Scripture.

    However beholden to other sources he was not as:

    there is no vestige of influence on him of the mystical teaching of the Fathers, the Areopagite, Augustine, Gregory, Bernard, Bonaventure, etc., Hugh of St. Victor, or the German Dominican school. The few quotations from patristic works are easily traced to the Breviary or the “Summa”. In the absence of any conscious or unconscious influence of earlier mystical schools, his own system, like that of St. Teresa, whose influence is obvious throughout, might be termed empirical mysticism. They both start from their own experience, St. Teresa avowedly so, while St. John, who hardly ever speaks of himself, “invents nothing” (to quote Cardinal Wiseman), ‘borrows nothing from others, but gives us clearly the results of his own experience in himself and others. He presents you with a portrait, not with a fancy picture. He represents the ideal of one who has passed, as he had done, through the career of the spiritual life, through its struggles and its victories’.

    Now how come I got that right, Teresa? And was it a Spanish thing after all? 🙂

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  17. kathleen says:

    This has been yet another fascinating discussion, and an eye-opener for me on many facets of asceticism and St John of the Cross. Many thanks.

    Do any of you watch EWTN? All this week they have been showing an old series on St John of the Cross on EWTN Gallery. It seems he walked literally hundreds of miles in his short life to visit and minister to the various Carmelite monasteries and convents……. and on Spanish roads in those days – mind boggling! It’s amazing to think he had any time left to write at all. A lot of his prayer, meditation and inspiration must have been done as he trudged the dusty paths though.

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  18. golden chersonnese says:

    Teresa says: Golden, I read the article on John of Cross on New Advent yesterday. But I am suspicious as to the claim that he didn’t stand in any tradition.

    Erm . . . now there’s a puzzle, Teresa.

    One would scarcely have thought that the Catholic Encyclopaedia could be in such error about John of the Cross, if indeed it is in error. And it just seems very strange that, if John is in this or that particular tradition, he nevertheless does not make any mention of any of those “earlier developers” of the any mystical tradition. It seems he only mentions Aquinas and the Scriptures (if I’m not wrong, I haven’t seen otherwise).

    I’ve read, Teresa, a few parts of the article by Mondello that you gave and intend to read the rest this week. It’s great and beautifully written.

    However, the article, I feel, does not make any strong claim that John was consciously trying to develop any ‘tradition’ of mysticism in the West. The part which talks most about John’s place in the ‘tradition’ does not claim any close following by John of others in the ‘tradition’. It rather only points out where John is similar to this or that philosopher or mystic. There is no claim that John adopted holus-bolus the precise thoughts of earlier mystical writers, just that he ‘appears to be indebted’ to them here and there. It’s more like a claim that John was breathing the same air as everybody else in Europe, not much more than that.

    As I said, Teresa, it’s still a bit of a puzzle what the CathEn said. CathEn are obviously trying to stress his originality and direct spiritual intuition on his part rather than his being overly reliant on earlier writers. Would you think so?

    Well, I apologise to all if this all seems to be arid speculation about St John, but I believe that realising how original and intuitive John was can only make our regard for the saint all the greater. As Toad said at the very top of this blog: very interesting man!

    So yes, Kathleen for me, as for you, it has been a very profitable exchange, as you said.

    Finally, would the following be a bonus or a puzzler for Toad? Mondello says: . . . in short, we find reason in the mystical philosophy of St. John of the Cross, coherence and logic. Indeed, we find that, externally considered, the mystical experience is a profoundly rational experience – and it is this discovery, sweeping aside many long-borne misconceptions about mysticism which, if justification at all is required, suffices to justify an epistemology of mysticism.

    Now there’s a thought, Toad.

    And where is Toad?

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  19. toadspittle says:

    Toad…is working. For once. And has a new dog.

    “The goods of God, which are beyond all measure, can only be contained in an empty and solitary heart.”

    Says St. John of the Cross. Not a party animal it seems.

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  20. golden chersonnese says:

    Toad responds, Toad…is working. For once. And has a new dog.

    Well, my dear Toad, I hope in deference to John of the Cross the work you are doing is particularly painful, noisome, toilsome and unpleasant work; not your ordinary chores or anything too run-of the-mill, mind.

    Callar y obra, that’s how you put it.

    I’m not sure what Juan had to say on canine companions. 😉

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  21. golden chersonnese says:

    Thanks again to Teresa for giving us the link to the book by American Catholic philosopher, Dr Geoffrey Mondello.

    I recall in earlier blogs on CP&S there was some disagreement amongst CP&Sers about the place of mysticism in Catholic life today. Some were perhaps a little suspicious of it.

    At the end of Mondello’s book on John of the Cross (to be found at http://www.johnofthecross.com ), the author gives his own thoughts on that question and his thoughts are of course very positive towards the place of mysticism in the lives of modern Christians.

    I commend his epilogue to CP&S readers (which can be found here):

    http://www.johnofthecross.com/epilogue-to-the-metaphysics-of-mysticism.htm

    Some small part of Dr Mondello’s epilogue is worth leaving here on top, however:

    However successful we are in explaining it away, this unmistakable invitation (to union with God), I am convinced, is etched into the heart by God Himself, and continues to beckon us, despite the disdain, even the reproach of reason, to something beyond ourselves, something infinitely greater than ourselves. And our reluctance to respond to this invitation seems, in the end, to be rooted in fear; the fear that, in the words of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, “if we give Him our finger, He will take our whole hand.” In an age that blenches before any absolute commitment whatever, many of us simply are not prepared to make a commitment as absolute as the invitation requires. For ultimately, we realize, it entails far more than our hand, or even our heart, embracing, as it does, the totality of our being in the totality of His love.

    So there is the gift today that was the life of St John of the Cross.

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  22. golden chersonnese says:

    And, my dear Toad, a Christmas gift for you from Dr Mondello also – an article on miracles with which I recall you earlier had a fascination.

    I see you’ve been talking to Hands, Badgers and other creatures over at joyful papist’s blogue recently about them too. You mentioned the “miracles” of Ganesh drinking up milk through his trunk. We had statues of Ganesh here on the Golden Chersonese doing that too in the mid nineties. “Capillary action”, everyone was saying then (except most of the Hindus).

    Here’s the link to Dr Mondello’s article on miracles:

    http://www.boston-catholic-journal.com/what_are_we_to_make_of_miracles.htm

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