Sixteenth-century mystic Saint John of the Cross was a doctor of the Church and a spiritual revolutionary. He taught that the goal of the spiritual life is union with God through the living flame of Love.
John of the Cross was born in 1542, Juan de Yepes y Álvarez, in a small town located in the central plateau of Old Castile, Spain. His father died after his birth, leaving his family in extreme poverty. He went to an orphanage school, he was chosen to serve as an acolyte at the convent, and in addition to his elementary studies, he became an apprentice to a local craftsman.
At seventeen he began to do work in a hospital and then he enrolled in a Jesuit college. He received a foundation in the humanities, preparing for the great works that he was to set forth in writing of his mystical experiences.
The Carmelite Order
At the age of twenty John entered the Carmelite Order. He studied philosophy and theology at Salamanca, and at the Carmelite College he was an outstanding student and was appointed prefect of studies. He was ordained in 1567, traveled to Mendina, and met Teresa of Avila. They held the polarity of the light of the Father-Mother God for their time. They worked together, they prayed together, and they both realized the weaknesses, the limitations, the confines within the church that were the result of applying the law and certain perversions of the law without the spirit, which John came to call the living flame of love. He later wrote a poem by that name.
Saint Teresa was already involved with the reform of her order by the restoration of its “Primitive Rule.” John confided to her that he longed to embrace the life of the contemplative in deep solitude and prayer. He began a reformed community of Brothers embracing this predominantly contemplative life, and this community became known as the Discalced (barefoot) Carmelites. Their active work consisted in preaching and hearing confessions.
The new order spread so quickly that it became a threat to the existence of the old order. And so the old order resolved to suppress the reformed houses that John had founded.This is the beginning of the persecution of the flame of love, the piercing of the heart of the saint.
For refusing to renounce the reform he was imprisoned in a little room originally intended as a closet. It had no window. It was frightfully cold in winter, suffocating in summer.
Three evenings a week he had to eat kneeling on the floor in the middle of the refectory. When the friars were finished their supper his shoulders were bared and each member of the community struck him with a lash. It is hard for us to imagine, and yet not so hard. We think that brothers in a community would not have this energy within them, and yet we are brothers and sisters in the community of the world and we see every day man’s inhumanity to man.
In a manner some declare was miraculous, he managed to escape. The years that followed his imprisonment were for John busy but comparatively calm. He was sought out as a spiritual director. He was liberal with his time. He guided his friars and nuns and many lay persons. He gave much time to prayer and to administration and during this time he completed most of his writings.
His writings are not evolutionary in nature but they all embody his final understanding of God, which he attained through his experiences. Many writers have periods of writing and one can trace the evolution of their understanding. Not so with John. It is almost like the Book of Revelation that was revealed to John the Beloved. It was complete, intact, a theology for this part of the path that we all must go through.
Toward the end of his life his calm was disturbed by a clash with his reformed order. For the first time he was not elected to any office. He was denied by the very order that he had founded, much in the manner of Saint Francis.
John was sent into solitude, where he became seriously ill. He sought medical attention in Ubeda, and the Prior, who had a particular aversion to him because of of his reputation for holiness, assigned him to the worst cell in the monastery. Prior to his death they forgave one another, embraced one another. Nevertheless he died having fulfilled the favors that he had asked of God: not to die as a superior, to die in a place where he was unknown, and to die after he had suffered much.
Saint John of the Cross was a profound contemplative, a theologian and a poet, and at the same time a busy reformer and administrator. He was the perfect fusion of the peace and power. In spite of severe trials, his life was one of complete dedication and deep inner peace and happiness. His trials were very severe. Out of the intense experiences in his life Saint John gathered material for reflection and the ultimate construction of his mystical teaching.
In his humble concern for all he served, in spite of adversity and suffering, Saint John of the Cross lived the mystic way of perfect love. He teaches us how the soul must behave so that God may act fully within it. He had a very particular devotion in his celebration of mass; the Blessed Sacrament was his glory, all his happiness, and for him, far surpassed all the things of the earth.
He lived as an example of all that he taught as the mystical way—perfect union with God through love. This is why he is one of the outstanding saints of the Western tradition.
For more information
Living Flame of Love audio album
Summit Lighthouse Calendar, December 1993.
Lecture by Elizabeth Clare Prophet, June 13, 1976.