Tuesday, December 14, 2010

St John of the Cross

Born in Spain in 1542, from the beginning of his life Juan de Yepes, known to us as St John of the Cross, understood the mystery of love and sacrifice. His father came from a very wealthy Spanish family, and was disowned and disinherited when he married the daughter of a poor weaver. Just after John was born his father died. John's mother, destitute, managed to keep her homeless family together as they wandered in search of work.

When he was fourteen, John got a job in a hospital, looking after patients who suffered from incurable diseases and madness. So, it was in the context of poverty and suffering that he sought to know God.

In 1563 John took the habit of the Carmelite friars in Medina. The following year he was professed and went to the University Salamanca to study arts and theology. In 1567 he was ordained to the priesthood, and in the same year Teresa of Avila asked him to help her Reform movement. John supported her belief that the order should return to its life of prayer.

But many Carmelites and their sympathisers felt threatened by the Reform, and on 2nd December 1577 some members of John's own order kidnapped him. At the Toledo priory he was locked in a cell six feet wide and ten feet long for nine months, with no light except that which filtered through a slit high up in the wall. During those months of darkness, John could have become bitter, revengeful, or filled with despair. But instead, he kept himself open to God, for he knew that no prison could separate him from God's love. During this time he had many experiences and encounters with God in prayer, and described them in his poetry. He later forgave those who had imprisoned him, saying, "Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love."

After nine months, in 1578, John escaped by unscrewing the lock on his door and creeping past the guard. Taking only the spiritual poetry he had written in his cell, he climbed out a window using a rope made of strips of blankets. With no idea where he was, he followed a dog to civilization. He hid from pursuers in a convent infirmary where he read his poetry to the nuns. He went to southern Spain to join the reformed Carmelites, and devoted his life to helping people discover the transformative power of God's love.

The best known of John's books are are: The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night of the Soul and A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom Christ. He is considered one of the greatest Spanish poets of all time.

St John of the Cross died at the age of 49 on 14th December 1591 at Ubeda as he was preparing for assignment to Mexico. He was canonized in 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII, and is a Doctor of the Church.

Here are a few of his sayings:

"If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark." (From The Dark Night of the Soul)

"In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone." (From Sayings of Light and Love 64)

"It is great wisdom to know how to be silent and to look at neither the remarks, nor the deeds, nor the lives of others." (From Sayings of Light and Love 110)

"In tribulation immediately draw near to God with confidence, and you will receive strength, enlightenment, and instruction." (From Sayings of Light and Love 64)

O living flame of love
that tenderly wounds my soul
in its deepest centre! Since
now you are not oppressive,
now consummate! if it be your will:
tear through the veil of this sweet encounter!

O sweet cautery,
O delightful wound!
O gentle hand! O delicate touch
that tastes of eternal life
and pays every debt!
In killing you changed death to life.

O lamps of fire!
in whose splendours
the deep caverns of feeling,
once obscure and blind,
now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely,
both warmth and light to their Beloved.

How gently and lovingly
you wake in my heart,
where in secret you dwell alone;
and in your sweet breathing,
filled with good and glory,
how tenderly you swell my heart with love.

My Beloved is like the mountains.
Like the lonely valleys full of woods
The strange islands
The rivers with their sound
The whisper of the lovely air!

The night, appeased and hushed
About the rising of the dawn
The music stilled
The sounding solitude
The supper that rebuilds my life.
And brings me love.

Our bed of flowers
Surrounded by the lions' dens
Makes us a purple tent,
Is built of peace.
Our bed is crowned with a thousand shields of gold!

Fast-flying birds
Lions, harts and leaping does*
Mountains, banks and vales
Streams, breezes, heats of day
And terrors watching in the night:

By the sweet lyres and by the siren's song
I conjure you: let angers end!
And do not touch the wall
But let the bride be safe: let her sleep on!

Go HERE for the entire poem.


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