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.