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St. John of the Cross | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M. | From
Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel--On Prayer
When we compare the amount of information available about the person of St.
John of the Cross with what we have for many other saints, such as Teresa and
John Vianney, we may say that we know both more and less. Concerning
biographical data, concrete facts, historical happenings, we know less about
the former than we do about the latter. From the extensive eyewitness accounts
given for the canonization processes for the Curé of Ars and for Teresa of
Jesus, we know a great deal about their daily activities and about how they
appeared in the eyes of others. The latter also tells us much about herself in
her autobiography, her Book of Foundations and the many letters that have survived. St. John of the Cross said nothing
about his activities in his major works, and a mere handful of his letters have
come down to us. However, we do know from other parties enough of his manner
and deeds to form an accurate picture of his personality.
Yet in some ways we know much more about John than about other saints and other
famous men and women. What we know so extremely well about him is what is most
important about anyone: his deepest self. And because his inner life was so
immensely rich, there is far more to know than what we find in the ordinary
heroes and heroines of history. Though this saint seldom used the personal
pronoun I in his writing, he is of course constantly revealing his inner
depths. In this John is incomparable. There are few men or women in history who
have combined in their persons the loftiest sublimity of love experiences with
an extraordinary talent for describing them.
While we have already noted that a man's life activities and written words are
mutual commentaries, we must add that this truth is especially pertinent to St.
John of the Cross. His teaching is the unvarnished Gospel, neither more nor
less, and to understand it rightly with neither exaggeration nor diminution we
need to see in his manner and deeds how he himself applied it to the concrete circumstances
of the daily round. His mode of life is likewise a silent but eloquent
testimony of what is indispensable for deep prayer to be given and received.
What kind of man was this saint who is so seldom well understood? We may say
that he was serene, plain, simple ... fearless of enemies but gentle toward
everyone... intelligent and logical.. . outspoken but soft spoken. . .
powerfully resolute and completely honest. moderate but by no means mediocre..
. uncompromising with principles but compassionate with human failings ...
poetically brilliant but no weaver of euphemisms... hard on himself but tender
John so loved nature that Peers called it his dominant interest on the natural
plane. He enjoyed going outdoors and praying immediately from the book of
creation lying before his eyes. It is said of him that he would be found in his
cell with elbows on the windowsill, gazing, in absorbed prayer, upon the
flowers during the day or the stars at night. That nature sparked a burning
love for God in this man is shown likewise by the inspired imagery we find in
his works.  That the saint also enjoyed a keen appreciation for music
appears, for example, in the verse, "silent music, sounding
solitude", of Spiritual Canticle.
People who know St. John of the Cross only superficially may consider his
spirituality to be predominantly negative. That there is a prominent
sacrificial element is true, just as there is in the Gospel. But what is not
sufficiently understood is that in both John and the Gospel the negative is
never sought for itself, and that the positive overwhelmingly predominates.
That this is so we will consider in its proper place, but it may be well to
note here that this man had an exceptionally affirmative, optimistic vision of both
the human person and the divine plan. Even his nada doctrine was entirely aimed
at reaching an enthralling immersion in God. The sanjuanist optimism can be
seen, for example, in his portrayal of all creation as a resplendent bride
given by the Father to the Son: "I will hold her in My arms and she will
burn with Your love, and with eternal delight she will exalt Your goodness ....
By these words the world was created, a palace for the bride."  It
would be difficult to find in all of literature a more jubilant, a more
positively ecstatic outlook on creation and the human person within it. The
critics of John seem not to read this far or else not to absorb what he says. Optimism
is found everywhere in the saint's writings, even in the most stark sections on
detachment and self-denial. Always he invites the reader to an entire
enthrallment, an abiding joy beyond imagining.
St. John of the Cross did not seem to excel in speaking to large groups of
people with the effectiveness of a John Chrysostom or a Francis of Assisi, but
he did have a powerful gift for relating to individuals and small groups in
informal chats. Peers tells us that while he could easily be missed and passed
over in a crowd, "once seen and spoken to alone, [he] could never be
forgotten".  This charism, together with his uncommon grasp of the
interior life, readily explains his popularity as a spiritual director. He was
much sought after in this capacity by all sorts of people: laymen and laywomen,
nuns, university students and their professors. His insights into Scripture
were so well known and appreciated that professors at the university in Baeza
consulted him to learn of these "new" explanations of the biblical
On the natural level it appears that John's greatest talent was his poetic genius.
The Spanish scholars I have met and read are agreed that he is probably the
greatest poet in the Spanish language. Kavanaugh and Rodriguez write that the
saint is known as "the loftiest poet of Spain", not because of
volumes upon volumes of verse but because of a mere handful often to twelve
compositions. They add that "these compositions, however, display such
variety that it can almost be affirmed that each of them represents a
completely distinct poetic vision and technique, a singular accomplishment in
Spanish literature".  E. Allison Peers considers John "a
supremely skillful artist endowed in the highest measure with natural
ability". Commenting upon the poetic perfection of Spiritual
Canticle, this critic observes that
either his stanzas were kneaded, pulled to pieces and refashioned again and
again in the cell of his mind--"polished and repolished ceaselessly" as
the French preceptionist has it--or he was possessed of the most marvelously
intuitive poetic faculty imaginable and developed what the Catalan Maragall was
later to call the art of the "living word" (paraula viva) to an extent heretofore unknown. 
Peers notes the saint's extraordinary achievement of attaining to "the very
highest rank of European poets" by a tiny output of a little over fifty
stanzas. That this friar knew what love is all about can be witnessed even from
the secular world, for he is considered "a poet's poet, whom in these days
of a Spanish lyrical renaissance, contemporary singers revere as perhaps no
other".  Citations, some even more superlative, could be multiplied,
but we shall add only that the saint's literary genius was not confined to his
St. John of the Cross is also a poet in his prose, and the very abundance of
his talent in this respect throws into sharper relief the austerity of his
doctrine. The sum total of his merits as a writer of prose, of which its
poetical quality is of course only one, constitutes a very remarkable achievement
.... [Up to John's time] there had, in fact, been very little mystical prose at
all, and that little had mainly been concerned with one aspect of mystical
experience--the Prayer of Quiet. St. John of the Cross had therefore to invent
phrases in order to express ideas which previously had had no outlet in
It surely had to be a singular work of divine providence that God would prepare
as the prince of mystics a man who not only experienced abundantly the very
highest gifts of prayer but also was endowed in the natural order with matchless
literary talent and poetic power to express worthily, that is, beyond the
inadequacy of prose, the raison d'être of being human, an intimate immersion in
the indwelling Trinity.
However, as is the case with any man or woman, the most important thing about
St. John of the Cross was not what he did but what he was. Sheer sanctity was
his paramount trait. This man was on fire, utterly absorbed in God. He
experienced ecstatic prayer even though he said almost nothing about the
subject (because "Madre Teresa" had already so well said all that
needed to be said about it), and he reached the transforming union while still
a young man. The saint was capable of an absorption during meals such that he
could not recall what he had eaten-much like St. Thomas Aquinas, who provided
his own anesthetic for bleeding by the simple procedure of going into
As we would expect, John's transformation into the divine (understood, of
course, in a nonpantheistic sense) showed itself in his active caring for
others. The dire poverty of the nuns at the Incarnation convent while he was
their confessor so touched his heart that he went out to beg alms for them, and
he made a point of seeking delicacies for the ill. When his own friars were
sick, the saint gave them exquisite care. If one of them had no appetite, John
would suggest kinds of food he might like and then procure them immediately. He
would rise at night to check on the welfare of an ill confrere even when
another friar had volunteered or been appointed to watch at the bedside. We
know that he had a special love for the nuns at Beas, and he showed it at least
once by walking several miles out of the way to visit them. This affection
appears likewise in letters addressed to them. In one he remarks how they will
know from his coming visit that he has by no means forgotten them, and he
refers to "the beautiful steps you are making in Christ, whose brides are
His delight and crown".  Further on he speaks to them as "my
beloved daughters in Christ",  and in another he assures them that
their letter to him was a great comfort.  In still another he strives to
lighten the burden of pain in one of these Beas nuns: "Do not think,
daughter in Christ, that I have ceased to grieve for you in your trials and for
the others who share in them." 
The depth of John's love for his fellowmen can perhaps be best seen in two
incidents the outside world would not have noticed at all. We understand those
incidents adequately only when we recall the saint's uncompromising teaching on
and practice of detachment from every single selfish desire. He had an
extraordinary love for Francisco, his blood brother who was himself a mystic
and remarkably holy. The saint called Francisco his most loved treasure in the
world. When this brother once visited John and had decided to leave after two
or three days, John told him not to be in so much of a hurry and to remain on
for a few more days.  The other incident illustrates both the saint's fondness
for St. Teresa and his insistence that no self-centered egoism is to be
permitted in any event, even if another- saint is the object of it. I refer to
John's finally deciding to destroy the letters from her that he had saved. It
is easy to imagine the terrible pull in his sensitive heart. On the one hand he
knew the goodness resulting for both parties from a friendship entirely
immersed in God. He knew, too, that he and Teresa loved each other dearly and
purely. But he also knew that there could be danger, not in their case of any
obvious sin, but of slight, impercep- tible clingings that could result from
retaining a packet of letters. Peers' comment is interesting:
I have always thought, for example, when rereading the letters in which St.
Teresa refers to St. John of the Cross and trying to realize what the two must
have been to each other, that few things he did in his life can have been
harder than the burning of a bundle of her letters to him--probably all he had
ever had from her. 
In tracing out the traits of this saint, we may not omit a few words about a
characteristic that we would hardly expect in a man so widely known both in
name and in teaching for devotion to the Cross. I refer to John's gentleness.
Serene, calm, at peace in his own personal life even under harsh, cruel
persecution, John did not retaliate, did not deal brusquely, rudely or severely
with others. He was clement, indulgent, benign and forgiving. Unwittingly he
gave us a portrait of his own manner when he sketched out his counsels on how
all of us are to behave under duress. "A soul enkindled with love is a
gentle, meek, humble, and patient soul", he observed. "A soul that is
hard because of its self-love grows harder."  People deeply in love
with God invariably grow in a habit of amiable and compassionate responses to
those whom God Himself loves. "Keep spiritually tranquil in a loving
attentiveness to God," advised John, "and when it is necessary to
speak, let it be with the same calm and peace."  Virile and brave
though he was, the saint showed this same humane compassion for others in the
very imagery he chose in his writings:
It should be known, then, that God nurtures and caresses the soul, after it has
been resolutely converted to His service, like a loving mother who warms her child
with the heat of her bosom, nurses it with good milk and tender food, and
carries and caresses it in her arms. 
Chrisogono tells us that a young woman wishing to go to confession but knowing
John's reputation for an austere life approached him with a fear bordering on
panic. She drew from the saint the observation that a confessor who is holy
ought not to frighten people. Disclaiming holiness in himself, he nonetheless
went on to remark that "the holier the confessor, the gentler he is, and
the less he is scandalized at other people's faults, because he understands
man's weak condition better". 
Perhaps the surest mark of sanctity is the hearing of piercing suffering with
much love, first for God and secondly for those inflicting the pain. It is easy
for most of its to appear humble, patient, modest and loving when the sun
shines, when others commend us, when we succeed, when we are healthy, when the
way is clear of obstacles. What man or woman really is shines forth under
contradiction, failure, illness. Any biography will make plain that John lived
throughout his life the title he bore and the doctrine he taught. One example
must suffice. While he was imprisoned for the second time by the calced friars,
he was verbally abused and whipped on two occasions. He lived in a cell that
was six feet by ten, with boards on the floor as his bed. There was no window,
only a two-inch opening at the top of the wall facing the corridor. It was so
cold during the winter that the skin on his toes came off from frostbite. His
food was bread, water and sardines. He was administered the periodic
"circular discipline", so called because each of the eighty members
of the community took turns in lashing his bare back. He bore through life the
scars of this brutal punishment. During and after these nine months of dark
solitude and torture, John uttered not a single complaint and bore no
resentment toward his captors.  One could see the image of the Crucified
But the saint's affliction and agonies suffered at the hands of others did not
satisfy his thirst to imitate the Master in his Passion. It is worthy of notice
that while John says almost nothing in his writings about external penances, he
practiced a great deal of them in his personal life. While he was prior at El
Calvario monastery, he was first among the friars to set to menial tasks such
as washing dishes. As prior of Los Martires he chose the narrowest and poorest
cell in the monastery as his dwelling. He slept on "handfulls of rosemary
twigs interwoven with vine shoots" and later used bare boards as his bed.
 John wore a penitential chain so tightly around his waist that when it
was later pulled away during an illness, the links were found to be embedded in
his flesh.  Because the saint loved music so much and because during his
final illness he was suffering intensely, a layman, Pedro de San José, thought
he might soothe John's discomfort by bringing in some musicians. The response
of gentle John was typical both of his kindliness and of his love for the
Brother, I am most grateful for the kindness you wished to do me; I appreciate
it very highly; but, if God has given me the great sufferings I am enduring,
why wish to soothe and lessen them by music? For the love of Our Lord, thank
those gentlemen for the kindness they had wished to do me: I look upon it as
having been done. Pay them, and send them away, for I wish to endure without
any relief the gracious gifts which God sends me in order that, thanks to them,
I may the better merit. 
The reader who wishes to develop a deeper appreciation for this remarkable man
may consult the three books on John referred to in the footnotes to this
chapter. We may for now be content with the judgment of our other saint. Teresa
puts the whole matter in a nutshell in brief excerpts from two of her letters.
Of Friar Juan de la Cruz she writes that "he is a divine, heavenly man
.... You would never believe how lonely I feel without him .... He is indeed
the father of my soul"  "People look upon him as a saint, which,
in my opinion he is and has been all his life." 
 See, for example, our Chapter 4, "Creation and Meditation".
 Romances 3 and 4, Creation, KR, pp.
 E. Allison Peers, Spirit of Flame (New York: Morehouse-Gorham, 1945), p.
 KR, Complete Works of St. John of the Cross, p. 709.
 Spirit of Flame, p. 136.
 Ibid., p. 138.
 Ibid., p. 139.
 Letter 6, p. 687.
 Ibid., p. 688.
 Letter 7, p. 688.
 Letter 8, p. 689.
 Crisogono of Jesus, O.C.D., The Life of St. John of the Cross (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958), p. 268.
 Spirit of Flame, pp. 111-12.
 Sayings of Light and Love,
nos. 27 and 28, p. 669.
 Maxims, no. 3, p. 674.
 Dark Night of the Soul, bk.
1, chap. 1, no. 2, p. 298.
 Crisogono, p. 128.
 See Crisogono, pp 103-5, and Bruno of Jesus and Mary, O.C.D., St.
John of the Cross (New York: Sheed and
Ward, 1932), pp 169-70.
 Crisogono, p. 128.
 Ibid., p. 239.
 Bruno, pp. 347-48.
 Letter 261, p. 625.
 Letter 240, p. 496.
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Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M., is a well-known retreat master and expert
in the spiritual life.
A Marist Priest, Father holds a Ph.D. from Catholic University of America
and has taught on both major seminary level for about fifteen years. He
spent the last twenty-seven years giving retreats and writing books (over
twenty at last count) on various aspects of the spiritual life.
Ignatius Press has published several of his books, including Fire
Are The Poor, Faith
and Certitude, Authenticity,
Evidential Power of Beauty, and Prayer
Primer. He has presented many series on EWTN, including an extensive
the spiritual life of St. Teresa of Avila and a series on
the life of prayer.
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
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