A new year with St. John of the Cross

For various reasons I have been unable to write my blog for several months. So, let’s make a new start and begin a year together focusing on reflections about John of the Cross. I look forward to continuing them in the months ahead focusing on  a special year with St. John of the Cross. In this year with St. John of the Cross we will read and reflect on his life, ministry, spiritual direction, spirituality, as well as selections from all his works, short and long. The readings and reflections will introduce us to all these, as well as comments from many leading writers and commentators on John. This year will be an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the spirituality of John of the Cross.


The area around the Monastery of John in Segovia–the monastery is on the left

I took this photo from the walls of the Castle of Segovia looking down on the residential area below. The church in the center right is now of the Knights Templar. John’s church and monastery are center left. John was the superior here for several years. One of his spiritual directees was Dona Ana de Penalosa for whom John wrote both the poem and commentary on the Living Flame of Love, and she left her palace and took up residence in one of the houses in the picture. She and her husband are buried in the church. 

Throughout the year we should keep in mind the importance of appreciating the entire spiritual system of John, which is reflected in all of his works. Likewise we should see the links between John’s various works, know something of the historical background and times of John, and be sensitive to his use of mystical language. When reading John’s works we must avoid entering them with prejudice from former false understandings of John. We should read his writings directly, often, and reflectively, and try to enter into dialogue with John. We should appreciate the unique focus and message of each of his works, remember the central significance of his poetry, and above all be sure to interpret his message for today.


The Church of the Segovia Monastery

This is the church of the monastery in Segovia where John of the Cross is buried. Next to it is the shrine of Fuencisla where the Madonna was honored even before John’s time and still is today.

Reflection Points

1. This year is an opportunity for each of us to respond to John’s call and challenge like never before—to dedicate ourselves to life with God in Christ.
2. Perhaps in the past we may have dabbled a little with John’s life and works. This year can be an integrated approach.
3. If we are faithful to these daily readings and reflections they can transform our approach to spirituality.
4. Let us prepare our hearts for the reflections that lie ahead.


• Pray for openness to the challenges of this year.
• Ask God to prepare you for the unexpected.
• Think about sharing these reflections in a group.

Drawn by a Vision (A reflection by Helen Doohan)


Church built on the home of John of the Cross in Fontiveros

John’s early life was marked by transition from one place to another because of family circumstances. From Fontiveros, where he was born, to Arevalo and then Medina del Campo where he spent many years, travel, transitions and new encounters characterized his formative years. Catalina was rejected by her husband’s family after his death and so she made the arduous journeys in search of work, education for her sons and a better life. Although never far from extreme poverty, she instilled the values of love, compassion, generosity, and care for others within the family. John benefited from her emphases throughout his life.

 Both Catalina and John were drawn by a vision of something better for themselves and the family. Yet they had to embrace hardship, rejection and suffering, growing and maturing because of these experiences. A vision always draws us out of ourselves. A positive and compelling vision enables us to accept difficulties along the way because they lead to growth.


A modern interpretation of John of the Cross on display in the museum in Ubeda where John died

 In our world today we see the extraordinary movement of people from Mexico, Central America, Syria, Afghanistan, northern Africa and other war torn countries. Poverty, lack or opportunity, destruction and death force people to make hard decisions and to travel to new places. Something draws them – a vision of a better life for family and friends, opportunities for work and education, safety and security. The vision I speak about is for basic human life and values. But we do not have these, how do we even begin to have a vision of the spiritual and the transcendent?

 Taking such steps to move into the unknown, as did so many of our ancestors, prepares us for the courage necessary to live a life open to radical transformation. John’s humble beginnings and his family’s search, drawn by a vision, prepared him for the outstanding life he lived in love and service to others. It also enabled him to see the possibilities for union with God and for a vital and reformed Carmel. We can only pray that today’s migrants will move to a greater vision. And we can hope that we too will be drawn by the light and love of the Christian message.



The Importance of Place (A reflection by Helen Doohan)

          Growing up in Brooklyn, with its city streets, diverse neighborhoods, crowded homes, and noisy environment, made my travel to the Midwest of the United States a striking experience. I saw first hand the fields of grain, white and ready for harvest, and only then did I fully understand the biblical imagery. A later visit to the Holy Land confirmed in me the need to experience a place, its culture and its people in order to truly understand the written word and to tap into the spirit of the writer.


Church built on the home of John of the Cross in Fontiveros

           Traveling through Spain, especially the northern part, offered me a clearer perspective into John of the Cross and his writing. His use of images, similes and metaphors come from the places he knew. The vast desert areas, dry and barren, where light and darkness form bold contrasts, account for John’s use of day and light, darkness and night to describe the spiritual journey. The fields, rich and fruitful, ready for the harvest meet basic needs and then some. The trees and vines, mountains, rivers and streams all find a way into John’s poetry. Cities like Segovia with its aqueduct, churches, shops and many streets, Salamanca which was John’s place of study, Toledo where John was imprisoned, Avila where he met with Teresa and began the reform, Medina del Campo where he worked as a boy and celebrated his first Mass as a priest, cities large and small with their people, art, culture and hardships affect John’s approach to his life and ministry.


The view from John’s monastery in Segovia

           I have been blessed to experience these wonderful places today and I ask myself which images were most important to John? Why darkness when there is so much light in certain seasons? How did John tolerate the loneliness of prison when he appreciated nature and people so much? Is his interpretation of Scripture colored by his daily life and the wonder and beauty of Spain? Is his expansive view of the Church and the reform of Carmel conditioned by the vastness of the land? And why is there such an emphasis on love in his writings?

In the evening of life you will be judged on love.

           Places are important both then and now but in order to be affected by them we need to truly see, smell and taste their richness. The open spaces must permeate our bones, the beauty of the environment fill us with wonder and the unending and enveloping sky move us to the transcendent. For us, as for John, these aspects of our world are seen as a gift of God and a gift of love.

John of the Cross’ continuing challenge

The Cathedral of Segovia which was being built during John’s life

My wife and I have just returned from a visit to the places of John of the Cross in northernSpain. It was a wonderful trip that gave us chance to appreciate John a little more. It was particularly encouraging to see many lay people for whom John is a significant challenge in their spiritual lives.

John insists that we are people transformed by faith, and the most immediate consequence of faith is our conviction that there is more in life than meets the eye; there is a world that is not immediately apparent. Our experience of faith teaches us that there are two horizons to life, and they are intimately linked. We discover in ourselves a zone that naturally yearns for transcendent reality, and we live at this level of mystery, where we are enthralled by enduring truths. Everything we think and do is transformed by this awareness of a relationship between our everyday life and a realm of life that gives meaning to this one. John speaks about this true life. “I no longer live within myself and I cannot live without God, for having neither him nor myself what will life be? It will be a thousand deaths, longing for my true life and dying because I do not die” (Stanzas of the soul that suffers with longing to see God, v. 1). Again, here, life is judged and given a new meaning by a horizon of life beyond this one.

Through the dark nights that John describes we are longing to find our true lives, and John teaches us that as people of faith we should naturally identify with the transcendent. John gives the impression of being someone totally dedicated to all that he is doing here in this world while at the same time being elsewhere, enjoying life on another horizon. This requires a spirit of reflection and a hunger for silence. When we emerge from tranformative silence we have an ability to view the world through a different lens that can change everything for us. Deep within each of us there is a yearning for union with God. John insists that this process of discovering the potential for growth that lies within us includes distancing ourselves from the accumulation of religious devotions and entering with simplicity into our own hearts. We seek the richness of life not by adding on more religious practices but by touching ultimate goodness and love that lie within us. Appreciating God’s gift of love (see “Romances”) and encountering the everlasting call of God in our own hearts, we then see that our faith experience guides the course of life. We need to pay attention to the connections between our own yearnings for fulfillment and the call of another realm of life. As we journey through life we catch a glimpse of a horizon of life beyond this one. This is one of the foundational experiences of our spirituality. The world in which we live only has meaning because of a realm of life of which we catch sight from time to time. We are not journeying in the unknown, even when we journey through the dark nights, for we can still feel a certain companionship of our God who draws us to divine life (II DN 11, 7).

Dr. Leonard Doohan is an author and workshop presenter
He focuses on issues of spiritual leadership. He also has a special interest  in John of the Cross
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John of the Cross–A Prophet of God

We often mistakenly think a prophet speaks about the future, but this function is minor and accidental to the prophet’s main task. The word “prophet” comes from Greek and means to speak on behalf of God. A prophet challenges people to live in the present according to the values of God, and surely there are few people to whom this applies more than John of the Cross. The influences on his life are at times unusual, but he pursues his goal of union with God in love no matter the circumstances. At times his is a voice in the wilderness proclaiming the wonders of God and calling us all to faithfully pursue transformative union even through the nights of life.

John lived with many people who had a wrong set of values. Whether they were political leaders who saw greatness in expansionism, wars, power, and wealth, or religious leaders forcing conversions, controlling other people’s belief, and imposing their own views on others. Likewise the social caste system stressed wealth, status, bloodlines as important aspects of life. John lived with people who were attached to the structures that gave them power and prestige. John understood how useless it was to force belief systems on people who did not want them. All around him he saw people creating God in their own image and likeness, unwilling to let go and let God be a transforming presence in their lives. A prophet condemns such warped views of humanity and challenges us to follow God, for faith needs to be a loving self-gift

John was poor in spirit, or even more, poor with spirit. He loved being poor and appreciated how this could lead to greatness. He lived peacefully in spite of religious corruption all around him. In fact, he always lived with love for the Church with its awkwardness and with its graciousness. He knew that even bad situations have potentiality for good, and he sought such goodness amidst the horrors inflicted on him. It is amazing how John kept focused on his goals of union with God no matter the circumstances around him. But, he was practical too, and knew when enough is enough; so he knew when it was time to escape from the prison that the religiously arrogant had created for him.

The Tomb of John of the Cross in Segovia

As a prophet of God, John above all told us how to see God’s love everywhere, in nature, in people, and even in oppressors. John appreciated his own enduring purpose in life, his own destiny. He yearned for transformation in loving union with God. John pursued spiritual growth but never selfishly, rather always with a sensitivity and compassion towards everyone he met. He was not a lonely mystic in selfish pursuit of perfection. He was a man for others; enjoying others’ company, facilitating their growth, and seeking whatever was best for them. More than anything, this prophet lived his life aware of a realm of life beyond this one that gave meaning to this one. No matter the situations of his day and the nights he had to live, John speaks of God and reminds us the nights might be dark, but they can be guiding, transforming, and beautiful.

Seeing things in a new way

Yesterday, I had cataract surgery on a second eye. The first time I went because the Optician said I needed to have it done. This time I went because I became aware that I couldn’t see things clearly anymore, they weren’t in focus, and there seemed to be a film over my eye that distorted my vision. I was aware throughout these weeks that this is an image of the spiritual journey and I was reminded that in Mark’s gospel the central section which is a journey to Jerusalem begins and ends with the healing of a man who is blind. This biblical technique, inclusion, is a way the author emphasizes that the central journey is nothing else except a healing of the blindness of those who accompany Jesus. You might remember that Jesus healed a man in two phases; first, the man could see a little — men look like trees to me — and then Jesus healed him  completely. Likewise Peter insist that Jesus is the Son of the Living God, but refuses to accept Jesus as Suffering Servant. In other words he sees Jesus only partially and needs to be healed a second time so that he can see completely who Jesus is for us. It’s as if Peter has a cataract!

The first time I had cataract surgery I didn’t appreciate that it was possible to see things much more clearly than I did. We all tend to think that the little we see is all there is to see, especially from a religious point of view. You might remember the story John tells of the blind old man who constantly tells his clearly seeing young guide where to go; the old man thinks that the little he sees is all there is to see, whereas the young guide who sees clearly is pushed around and ignored. That’s where John of the Cross comes in and challenges us to journey through the dark night and discover a new way of seeing ourselves, our relationship to others, and our understanding of God. We must learn to see what others do not see and to also see what we have always seen but to see it in a new way. This implies removing false values and letting God remove them from blocking our vision. “The appetities are like a cataract on the eye or specks of dust in it; until removed they obstruct vision” (I A 9, 4). False desires appear as new and attractive ideas. “The reason is that a new light set directly  in front of the visual faculty blinds this faculty so that it fails to see the light farther away” (I A 9, 3). “The blindness of the rational and superior feeling is the appetite that, like a cataract and cloud, interferes with and hangs over the eye of reason so things present cannot be seen” (LF 3, 72). “Since the cataract and cloud shrouds the eye of judgment, only the cataract is seen, sometimes of one color, sometimes another, according to the way the cataract appears to the eye. People judge that the cataract is God because, as I say, they see only the cataract that covers the faculty, and God cannot be grasped by the senses” (LF 3, 73).

So, I take my own experience of this week as a reminder that the spiritual journey is partly made of our own efforts to look at things in a different way, and that requires training and new priorities, but it also requires the surgery of the dark night when God is in charge, removing the cataracts that block the vision God intends us to see.