The “ideal man” of the Renaissance was one who was an expert in everything. But nobody can be a complete expert. The Spaniard John Yepes (St. John of the Cross) was all thumbs when he tried to learn how to weave. But after he entered the Carmelites in 1563 he blossomed into one of history’s greatest spiritual geniuses.
Already given to much self-denial when he became a Carmelite, John got permission to follow the order’s original, stricter rule of life. When he was about to celebrate his first Mass, he met St. Theresa of Avila. Entrusted with the reform of the Carmelites, both women and men, Theresa asked him to head a house of observant Carmelites at Duruelo. He accepted the task gladly, and the reformed group, because they wore sandals rather than shoes, came to be known as the “Discalced” (“shoeless”) Carmelites.
On moving to Duruelo, John changed his religious name from John of Matthias to John of the Cross. The change was intentional and prophetic. He spent the rest of his life seeking to imitate Christ by accepting, even seeking, every possible humiliation.
Much of that humiliation came from those of his fellow Carmelites who disapproved of his campaign for the stricter rule. Thus in 1577 some confreres seized him and demanded that he renounce his reformist efforts. When he said he could not, for he was acting on papal authority, they beat him bloodily, denied him the privilege of saying Mass, and imprisoned him for nine months in a dark monastic cell six by nine feet. Eventually he escaped and carried on his work elsewhere. But he did not blame his misguided persecutors. Indeed, it was while in prison that he wrote “The Spiritual Canticle,” the first of his many important treatises on spirituality, composed in exalted prose and poetry.
Little by little the Carmelite reform gained ground; but even as he grew older, experiencing the heights of prayer, St. John was mistreated by some of his fellow Carmelites. On the basis of mere suspicion, the Carmelite vicar general stripped him of his offices and sent him to a remote monastery. Another friar, playing “private eye,” sought out possible evidence to discredit Father John. Other Carmelites became timid about being thought too friendly towards him. When John took seriously ill in September 1591, his superior denied him sufficient medical care and refused him visitors. Fortunately, the general superiors learned of this neglect and rebuked the guilty man. But when John of the Cross died on December 14, 1591, he was still under a cloud in his own religious order.
All that changes after his death. St. Teresa had said, years before, “The people take him for a saint, and in my opinion he has been one all his life.” Now even his previous enemies among the Carmelites hailed the deceased friar as truly holy. In 1726 Pope Benedict XIII canonized him; and two centuries later Pope Pius XI declared him, by reason of his spiritual writings, a “doctor of the Church.”
Activist Catholics may not be attracted to a saint like John of the Cross because he embraced passivity and self-immolation. “Seek preferably,” he had advised, “not the easiest, but the hardest. Not what comforts you but what grieves you. Not what is best in anything but what is worst.”
Few of us are called to such a radical program, even though we surely realize that God always rewards such self-giving with strength to carry on, and rare graces besides. But St. John of the Cross still reminds us by his life that Jesus calls on us all, according to the measure of grace He grants to each of us, to heed His command, “Learn of Me for I am meek and humble of heart.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara