Have You Read About the Amazing Life of St. John of the Cross?
One of the great mystical doctors of the Church, St. John of the Cross was born in Spain on June 24, 1541. His feast day December 14, is also the day of his death, or, his entry into eternal life. In his lifetime of just 49 years, this saint became a great reformer, mystic-poet, and theologian-priest. Indeed he lived up to his name “of the Cross” with heroic sanctity.
But what can a life like his offer most Catholics today? Is it realistic to believe that a Carmelite priest who made his way through the Counter-reformation could be relevant to the faithful in 2017? I believe the answer is not only yes, but more than we might expect. Here’s why. Through his writing, spiritual practices and identity St. John of the Cross points the way to living a richer life of faith.
What is a Doctor of the Church?
Doctors of the church do not have letters like MD or PhD after their name. However, this title, one that is just as prestigious, is bestowed upon certain saints. According to Catholic Online, Doctor of the Church “indicates that the writings and preaching of such a person are useful to Christians 'in any age of the Church.'” Such men and women are also particularly known for the depth of understanding and the orthodoxy of their theological teachings. While the writings of the Doctors are often considered inspired by the Holy Spirit; this does not mean they are infallible, but it does mean that they contributed significantly to the formulation of Christian teaching in at least one area.
Catholic Culture adds that this title has been given since the Middle Ages “to certain saints for their defense and explanation of the truths of the Catholic Faith. Their preaching is outstanding, guiding the faithful through all periods of the Church’s history.”
Originally the Western Fathers of the Church, Gregory the Great, Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome, were considered the great doctors, but the Church has officially added many more names to the original four, including Sts. Catherine of Siena (1347-80) and Theresa of Avila (1515-82) and many more.
Popes in recent history have named other holy men and women to this prestigious list. Today there are 35 doctors in the Catholic Church, four of whom are women. St. John of the Cross was named Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI in 1926 for his contributions to Mystical Theology.
Mysticism is another term used to describe experiences of profound union with God. We refer to those people who have this union or awareness of oneness with God as mystics.
John of the Cross was a man of deep and abiding prayer; he was a mystic. In fact, he is the patron saint of mystics. Like other mystics, his prayer is one that Jesus speaks about in the Gospel of John with words like “Abide in me” (15:4) and “I in them” (17:26).
Mysticism is the fruit of an ardent prayer life. Conversation with God has built a relationship so intimate that the habit of prayer is one that places the mystic in God’s presence. No words are necessary. Contemplative prayer is strengthened and nourished by an awareness of God’s presence not by rational thought, but by love. Thus, contemplation is union with the indwelling Christ that takes place in the heart; that act is the prayer.
As a both a mystic and a doctor of the Church, St. John of the Cross contributed to the writings and study of mysticism, or more specifically mystical theology. According to the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia,
“Mystical theology is the science which treats of acts and experiences or states of the soul which cannot be produced by human effort or industry even with the ordinary aid of Divine grace. It comprises among its subjects all extraordinary forms of prayer, the higher forms of contemplation in all their varieties or gradations, private revelations, visions, and the union growing out of these between God and the soul, known as the mystical union.”
Mystical theology, often known as spiritual theology, provides the faithful with a greater understanding of those mystical experiences celebrated in Catholic tradition. For example, the visions of Teresa of Avila, St. Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment of Spirits or the events of Fatima are much more than historical events or methods of prayer. They reveal that the same spirit at work in our lives takes form in people and places for the purpose of calling us into deeper union with God and with one another.
As a mystic, St. John of the Cross would have had a keen awareness of God’s movement in himself during prayer. Known as the “Doctor of detachment,” he is regarded as a premier teacher on how to detach and let go of the things of this world to live for God alone. Detachment is important to the spiritual life. In the article “Experiencing Life’s Flow,” Patrick Kelly SJ writes, “we get off track in a spiritual sense when we become too attached to money and status. Jesus repeatedly reminds his listeners of this point, insisting that 'no one can serve both God and mammon.' St. Ignatius Loyola points to the same dynamic in the 'Two Standards' meditation of the Spiritual Exercises, writing that the tactic of the enemy of our humanity is to ensnare people in the desire for riches, honor and pride.”
With the gift of detachment, one focuses on what leads to and builds a steadfast spirituality. In detachment one’s spirit finds quiet and repose, coveting nothing. For St. John of the Cross, detachment enabled him to live and focus on God alone, which proved necessary in his life’s story. According to Franciscan Media, “John engaged in the work of reform, and came to experience the price of reform: increasing opposition, misunderstanding, persecution, imprisonment. He came to know the cross acutely—to experience the dying of Jesus—as he sat month after month in his dark, damp, narrow cell with only his God.”
St. John of the Cross wasn’t perfect, but in spite of misgivings, trials and tribulations it is inspiring that so little worried him. Truly, he was able to trust God. In St. John of the Cross, we have a wonderful spiritual role model with a unique name, the Doctor of detachment.
Detachment enables us to be unflappable.
Unflappable. When I heard this word ascribed to St. John of the Cross, I paused. “What a great word,” I thought to myself. And, more importantly, what a wonderful quality. It’s not a character trait I hear about often. I wondered: is ‘unflappable’ an old-fashioned word? Or are too few of us unflappable? I think humanity, young and old, might benefit from knowing and surrounding ourselves with a person who is unflappable.
Though unflappability is a quality to describe a singular person, it can benefit a community tremendously. The one who is detached promotes God, or the good of others and not of him or herself.
Again, an example from sports comes to mind. Though the school where I teach has a long-standing rival, there is one basketball game against another team in our league that trumps all other contests: the Jungle Game. Both teams and their fans extend spirit and passion so strong that it’s downright hair-raising. Always a sell out, this game which takes place in a gym that is standing room only is well named.
With the game tied late in third quarter, I looked at our point guard tasked with inbounding the ball. While looking for an open teammate, nearly 500 boys crowded as close to him as they could on the sideline, yelling in his ear, aiming to distract his focus and deter the task at hand. If they had succeeded, I would understand why. But they didn’t. Why? This athlete, in that moment and in his role was unflappable.
There is so much in the world that is seeking to distract us from what is truly important—serving others, reaching out to those in need, paying attention to our loved ones. There are too many voices that are aiming to shift our attention from where we are to the place God may be leading us. Detachment from the demands of this world and the noise around us can keep our eyes on the goal—to be one with God. We need the examples of others who are unflappable to point the way. St. John of the Cross, the Doctor of detachment is a worthy one.
St. John of the Cross wrote, taught and preached often of the spiritual exercise and gift of detachment. He said “love consists not in feeling great things but in having great detachment and in suffering for the Beloved.” His love for Christ is exemplified in his willingness to give his entire life over to Him—to stay detached from temptation and riches of this world. As a poet-mystic, a theologian and philosopher, friend, spiritual director and confessor of Teresa of Avila, we see a person who exemplifies even more than detachment. Richard Gaillardetz writes of this virtue in his essay, “For the Love of the Game.” It’s the virtue of magnificence.
Magnificence refers to the accomplishment of greatness. It is realized whenever a person makes the most of their God-given gifts. According to Thomas Aquinas the opposite of magnificence is the vice of parvificence, often rendered in English as meanness. Meanness here does not convey the contemporary sense of the word, suggesting some malicious action, but rather it refers to one who makes too little use of their gifts or abilities. Through the pursuit of excellence in any and every sphere of life, we strive to become the person God invites us to be.
The life and legacy of St. John of the Cross shows how we are fearfully and wonderfully made. This Doctor of the Church paved a way for understanding mysticism, the fruit it bears and how that can shape a community of faith beyond what is ordinary. Contemplation, detachment and unflappability can lead us to union with God…and ultimately with one another in love.