October 15 – John of the Cross

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

John of the Cross, person of prayer

John de Yepes, known as John of the Cross was poet, mystic and reformer, born in 1542 near Avila in Spain. His writing makes clear the spiritual significance of ‘the dark night of the soul’. John became a Carmelite Friar and got to know Teresa of Avila and supported her work for reform within the Carmelite community, introducing the movement to the men. He was imprisoned at Toledo by opponents of the reform in 1577, and treated with great cruelty. He wrote his first poems in this period. After nine months, he escaped and held leadership roles in the reformed group in the 1580s. However, as the reformed group also split, John supported the moderates, was removed from office, and sent to a remote community in Andalusia in 1591. He died there after a severe, three-month illness. It was only after his death that the significance of his thought and work for the community was recognised.

John’s writings flowed from his own experience, and are recognised for their literary beauty as well as their spiritual significance. There are three poems, all with related commentaries by him: The Dark Night of the Soul, The Spiritual Canticle and The Living Flame of Love, as well as the famous second commentary on Dark Night known as The Ascent of Mount Carmel. An emphasis on trust is God’s grace not worldly success is typical of his thought.

If only people would understand how impossible it is to reach God’s riches and wisdom except by passing through the thicket of toil and suffering! The soul must first put aside every comfort and desire of its own. A soul that truly yearns for divine wisdom begins by yearning to enter the thicket of the Cross.

Saint Paul therefore urges the Ephesians ‘not to be disheartened by tribulations’ but to be courageous, ‘rooted and grounded in love so that you may grasp, with the saints, the breadth and length and height and depth and the all-surpassing love of the knowledge of Christ, so as to attain the fullness of God himself.’  For the gate to these riches of God’s wisdom is the Cross; many desire the consoling joy to which the Cross leads, but few desire the Cross itself. (The Spiritual Canticle,  37)

With Teresa of Avila, John’s writing on the experience of prayer and growth in the spiritual life are regarded as having a unique authority.

By Dr Katharine Massam