JOHN OF THE CROSS IN EVERYDAY LIFE

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In the months ahead I want to share readings and reflections that are for everyone who longs for a deeper spirituality. Too often John is mistakenly seen as elitist—a misunderstanding that has done a lot of harm, misinterpreted John, and excluded so many people of good will from the opportunities intended for them. John may have started by focusing on the members of the Carmelite Reform, but over time God’s Church recognized John’s gifts for everyone, declaring John a doctor of the universal Church. Why? Because John’s teaching is part of the universal call to holiness. You will find John’s teachings and their guidance and challenges in my selection of blogs for the next few months. Scholars today focus less on the intentions of a writer and more on the response of readers. This reader response criticism is what identifies an author’s true audience, and we know that more people read John of the Cross today than ever before. Thus, readers throughout the world have found in John answers to their needs and now claim John as their mentor and guide. Frequently, nowadays, good dedicated people stop short of what they could do in the spiritual life; they become easily satisfied with one popular writer or another. John of the Cross will challenge us much more than most. Let us give him the chance.

Reflection Points

1. Let us give ourselves enthusiastically to these readings.
2. What spiritual needs do we have and who do we know can respond to them? Maybe John is our answer.
3. Let us hope that these readings and reflections may well lead us where we have always wanted to go.
4. As we begin our readings and reflections perhaps we will find John has answers we have been seeking.

CHALLENGES FOR TODAY
• Pray for openness to the Holy Spirit.
• Let John speak for himself; don’t merge his ideas with others’ views.
• Pray the Lord will keep your heart open to challenge.

Travels with John of the Cross–Ubeda

My wife and I have traveled a lot to the places linked to John of the Cross. We recently went to Ubeda where John died. However, we first stopped in Baeza, where John had opened a house of studies for the friars, close to the old university. There he resided from 1579-82. In Baeza John wrote part of “En una noche oscura” (the Dark Night poem), and some of the ascent of Mt. Carmel. When John of the Cross became ill towards the end of his life, he was sent to Ubeda, in the province of Jaen, for treatment. At first he was made unwelcome in the monastery by the prior, Francisco Crisostomo. whom John had corrected earlier in life. When other friars reported to the provincial about John’s mistreatment, the provincial, Fr. Antonio Heredia, the first companion of John in the reform, came to Ubeda to rectify this mistreatment.

The entrance to the monastery in Jaen where John of the Cross died

The entrance to the monastery in Jaen where John of the Cross died

We entered the monstery of discalced Carmelites through the same door through which John was brought on September 28, 1591, suffering from fever and inflammation of his leg. John suffered much in those days in Ubeda. His health deteriorated and he died at Midnight December 14th 1591. He was 49 years old.

 

John's room or cell in the Monastery of Jaen

John’s room or cell in the Monastery of Jaen

The monastery’s museum contains the room where John died, the table on which his body was prepared for burial, the chapel where his funeral took place and where he was briefly buried from his death in 1591 to May 1594, when his body was transferred to Segovia.

The monastery Church

The monastery Church

 

A portrait of the burial of John of the Cross

A portrait of the burial of John of the Cross

 

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Elsewhere the museum shows episodes from John’s life, using the actual items associated with John whenever possible, such as a table where he sat to give spiritual direction. There are also relics, writings of John, artistic portrayals of his life and teachings, and art and books inspired by John.

A statue of John in the center of the town of Ubeda

A statue of John in the center of the town of Ubeda

Visiting Ubeda was both a fascinating and moving experience for us.

John of the Cross and Toledo

 

Toldeo, the Alcantaran Gate. Just beyond this bridge John was in prison.

Toldeo, the Alcantaran Gate. Just beyond this bridge John was in prison.

John arrived in Toledo in December 1577 and would spend nine months in the prison there. Toledo was a beautiful city, until recently the nation’s capital. It stands on a hill, with the river Tagus flowing around it; it gives the impression of openness to the sky, an architectural masterpiece where the renaissance of the north meets the Moorish influences of the south; the Mudeja reminds travelers that the Moors conquered Toledo as far back as the tenth century. The Carmelite monastery was quite close to Toledo’s great castle and at the same time not far from the river Tagus. John’s tiny cell had only a small slit for a window. Here John suffered the deepest darkness of spirit, doubt, and uncertainty, even though of his trials he later wrote, “Well and good if all things change, Lord God, provided we are rooted in you” (S. 34). Here John was immersed in darkness and could hear only the rhythmic flow of the river. Here he wrote “By the streams of Babylon” and also the poem “For I know well the spring that flows and runs, although it is night.” He wrote the latter around the feast of Corpus Christi—a wonderful expression of Trinitarian theology and spirituality that culminates with the gift of the Eucharist. Possibly around Christmas, John wrote the nine romances that describe the history of salvation as a project of God’s love for us, culminating in the mother, Mary, who gazes in wonder at the world turned upside down as God gives self to us in love. Although John’s experience in Toledo was one of abandonment, cruelty, and total lack of love, he nevertheless wrote the first 31 verses of the love song, the Spiritual Canticle that describes the eager search of a bride for her lover. In a dark night, John was fired by love’s urgent longings. Although John was only in Toledo for nine months—nine long and painful months, nevertheless, it is the place that captures the agony and the ecstasy of John of the Cross.

 

In the footsteps of St. John of the Cross: Fontiveros

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

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

I have always enjoyed travelling in Spain and visiting the places of John of the Cross. The first time was when I was in university and went to Spain in the summers to teach English to some Spanish students. Since then I have returned with my wife, Helen and traveled first in the south, especially in Andalusia and later on a couple of occasions throughout Castile. I would like from time to time to share with you some of our travels so you too can keep in your mind the places in which John lived as you read and study his wonderful teachings.

Fontiveros is situated on the Castilian plateau, about thirty miles from Avila. At the time of John’s birth it had about 5,ooo inhabitants. It is still a small town now just off the main interstate from Avila to Salamanca. My wife and I visited the town and enjoyed connecting with the place of John’s birth.

John of the Cross was born in 1542 in Fontiveros, a town of about 5000, just northwest of Avila. His parents, Gonzalo de Yepes and Catalina Alvarez, scraped together a livelihood from weaving silk scarfs. Sadly, soon after his birth Juan’s father died and then his older brother, Luis, who had suffered from malnutrition. This left his mother, Catalina, with her other two sons, Juan and Francisco, without adequate income to support our young family.

His father, Gonzalo, came from a family of wealthy merchants, but they were unwilling to offer  any financial support because they thought Juan’s father, Gonzalo, married below his status when he chose my mother, Catalina, whom he loved, instead of some other woman who would bring additional wealth and status to the extended family. So, Catalina and her family were put out on the streets by those who could and should have helped us. Catalina faced disappointment from those around her; she gained no financial support from where she might have expected it. The only thing to do was uproot the family, leave the tombs of her loved ones in Fontiveros, and endure the hardships of travelling here and there in search of employment. Very soon in life John experienced the tragedies of unemployment and uprootedness; experiences common to so many today.

Statue of John in the Main Square of Fontiveros

Statue of John in the Main Square of Fontiveros

Fontiveros is still a quiet place, but one can see the churches that Catalina must have known and then see the little church built over the birth home of John. The parish church where John was baptized also contains the tombs of his father, Gonzalo de Yepres and his brother, Luis. The people of Fontiveros were clearly proud of their saint and excitedly showed us around their little town.

I have always found it important to be in the places where John was so that I could see what may have influenced him. In his later life he is influenced by by the places in which he lives while at the same time influencing them himself. In the case of Fontiveros, John was only here as a baby, and was never really a part of the town. However, don’t tell the locals that! He is their saint and they are proud of him. When we asked directions from three young children they were thrilled to take us to John’s home and clearly were proud of their saint.

In the footsteps of St. John of the Cross–Medina del Camp

The great town square of Medina del Campo

The great town square of Medina del Campo

John’s mother, Catalina, moved her family to Medina del Campo, a Castilian town of about 30,000, a favorite of Isabella, the Catholic Monarch, who died here in 1504. This was the family’s third and final move, for in Medina they found work and food and immersed themselves in charitable activities for the needy. John lived here for thirteen years, from age nine to twenty-two (1551-64). Around this time, Catalina sent young John to one of Medina’s so-called Catechism schools, boarding schools where orphans learned a trade and were fed and clothed by the support of generous benefactors. Later, John moved to Conception Hospital and showed considerable ability and interest in hospital ministry, both in his dedicated and loving service of the patients and in begging for financial support for the hospital’s many needs. John also learned excellent administrative skills from Don Alonso Alvarez de Toledo, the gentleman who gave his wealth and life to the service of the hospital. At 17, while continuing his work at the hospital, John began studying at the nearby Jesuit College, where he showed significant success at school work and developed a love for study. Although given little time for school work, John delighted in studying at night, and began to feel at home in the experiences of the night.

A statue that the people of Medina del Campo set up to honor John of the Cross

A statue that the people of Medina del Campo set up to honor John of the Cross

During this time, Catalina and her extended family continued to struggle in poverty, but always shared the little they had with others, less fortunate, including abandoned orphans. Catalina had trained Francisco and John well; both were experts in the service of the poor, sick, and needy; and these qualities would remain with John throughout his life. He learned that accumulation of material goods has no real value; whatever you have can become a source of richness. Their move from self-centeredness to other-centeredness became the model for John’s own life. Moreover, Catalina and Francisco had the gift of helping people to find satisfaction in giving and responding to the needs of others, a lesson John would never forget. They taught John the importance of simple, honest, dedicated work, purity in relationships and love, and the enriching values of family and friendships.

The convent founded by Mother Teresa where she interviewed John of the Cross, asking him to help lead the reform of the friars.

The convent founded by Mother Teresa where she interviewed John of the Cross, asking him to help lead the reform of the friars.

Inside the monastery is the tomb of John's mother, Catalina.

Inside the monastery is the tomb of John’s mother, Catalina.

John returned to Medina del Campo to celebrate his first Mass.

The Church where John celebrated Mass, part of the previous Monastery of St Anna, now no longer owned by the Carmelites.

The Church where John celebrated Mass, part of the previous Monastery of St Anna, now no longer owned by the Carmelites.

The Feast of St. John of the Cross

St. John of the Cross died in Ubeda at midnight on December 14th 1591. He was just 49 years old and had given himself to the reform for 23 years. I remember the first time my wife and I visited the monastery of the Discalced Carmelite friars in Ubeda. The monastery was closed for the day but the Prior knew we were coming and had kindly instructed one of the brothers that we were to be given complete freedom to visit and spend as much time as we wished. We entered the monastery and museum of the life and times of John through the same door through which John of the Cross was brought on September 28 1591, suffering from fever and inflamation of his leg. John suffered much in those days in Ubeda, and died peacefully on December 14th. The museum contains the room where John died, the table on which his body was prepared for burial, the chapel where his funeral took place and where he was briefly buried from his death in 1591 to May 1593, when his body was transferred to Segovia. Elsewhere the museum shows episodes from John’s life, using actual items associated with John wherever possible, such as a table where he sat to give direction.

The Tomb of John of the Cross in Segovia

The Tomb of John of the Cross in Segovia

On the feast of St. John of the Cross, we are reminded that if we center our lives on love, all else will fall into place. John stated this in one of his sayings: “O Lord, my God, who will seek you with simple and pure love, and not find that you are all one can desire, for you show yourself first and go out to those who seek you” (S. 2). Then again, John summed up his own convictions on the centrality of love in another saying that became quite famous: “When evening comes, you will be examined in love” (S. 60). What we strive for is to say with the bride in the story of the Spiritual Canticle: “nor have I any other work now that my every act is love” (C. stanza 28). 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. May this day remind us of his challenges for our own lives.

I have brought together much of John’s teachings for our contemporary lives in a new series of reflections on his major works. I hope they will be helpful to you in your spiritual journey. You can see the books on my web-page leonarddoohan.com and all books are available for purchase on amazon.com. These books would make a wonderful Christmas gift for a friend interested in John of the Cross.

I would like to introduce a new series of books on St. John of the Cross. I have been working on these for over six years. This series presents introductions to each of the great works of John of the Cross. Each volume is a study guide to one of John’s major works and gives all the necessary background for anyone who wishes to approach this great spiritual writer with appropriate preparation in order to reap the benefits of one of the most challenging figures in the history of spirituality. Each book is a complete introduction offering background, history, knowledge, insight, and theological and spiritual analysis for anyone who wishes to immerse himself or herself into the spiritual vision of John of the Cross.

While targeted to the general reader these volumes would be helpful to anyone who is interested in the spiritual guidance of this saint. These books give insight into the critical components of spiritual life and can be helpful for anyone interested in his or her own spiritual journey. They could be helpful for the many people involved in the spiritual guidance of others, whether in spiritual direction, retreat work, chaplaincy, and other such ministries. Throughout these books the reader is encouraged to develop the necessary attitudes, enthusiasm, spiritual sensitivity, and contemplative spirit needed to benefit from these spiritual masterpieces of John of the Cross. Attentive reflection on these studies will encourage readers to have a genuine love for John of the Cross and his approach to the spiritual journey.

These books give historical, regional, and religious background rarely found in other introductory books on John of the Cross. They each present an abbreviated and accessible form of John’s great works. Later chapters in each book give John’s theological and spiritual insights that could be used for personal reflection and group discussion. Sections abound in quotes and references from John’s books and each sub-section can be used as the basis for daily meditation. The volumes complement each other, and together give the reader excellent foundation for reading the works of this great spiritual leader and saint.

Volume 1. John of the Cross: Your spiritual guide

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This unique book is written as if John of the Cross is speaking directly to the reader. It is a presentation by John of the Cross of seven sessions to a reader who has expressed interest in John’s life and teachings. This book introduces the great mystic and his teachings to his reader and to all individuals who yearn for a deeper commitment in their spiritual lives and consider that John could be the person who can guide them.

Table of contents

  1. John’s life as a contemporary life
  2. John as a spiritual guide
  3. John’s vision of the spiritual life
  4. Preparations for the spiritual journey
  5. Major moments and decisions in the spiritual life
  6. Necessary attitudes during the spiritual journey
  7. Celebrating the goal of the spiritual journey

 

Volume 2. The Dark Night is Our Only Light: A study of the book of the Dark Night by John of the Cross

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This introduction to the Dark Night of the Soul by John of the Cross gives all the necessary background for anyone who wishes to approach this great spiritual work with appropriate preparation in order to reap the benefits of one of the most challenging works in the history of spirituality. The book starts with the life of John of the Cross, identifying the dark nights of his own life. It provides the needed historical, religious, and personal background to appreciate and locate its content. It then presents readers with aids they can use to understand the work. With these preparations in mind the book moves on to present the stages of the spiritual life and the importance of the nights. A summary of John’s own work brings readers in direct contact with the challenges of the message and its application today. The book ends with 20 key questions that often arise when someone reads this book.

Table of contents

  1. John of the Cross and the dark nights of his own life
  2. Influences on John’s writing of the Dark Night
  3. Aids to reading the Dark Night
  4. Understanding the book of the Dark Night
  5. The book of the Dark Night by John of the Cross – a summary
  6. Five key spiritual challenges of the book of the Dark Night
  7. The dark night in contemporary life
  8. Twenty questions for John of the Cross and his book of the Dark Night

 

Volume 3. The Spiritual Canticle: The encounter of two lovers. An introduction to the book of the Spiritual Canticle by John of the Cross

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The book starts with the life of John of the Cross, showing how he was always a model of love in his own life, and how, guided by his own experience he became a teacher and later a poet of human and divine love. The book provides the needed historical, religious, and personal background to appreciate and locate its content. The book then presents the links between John’s Spiritual Canticle and Scripture’s love poem, the Song of Songs. A summary of John’s own work brings readers in direct contact with the challenges of the message and its application today. With these preparations in mind the book moves on to present the stages of the spiritual life and the importance of the journey of love. The book then focuses on key concepts in the Spiritual Canticle, applying each of them to contemporary situations. Finally it considers the images of God presented in the book and how they relate to the spiritual journey.

Table of contents

  1. John of the Cross: model of love and poet of love
  2. The Spiritual Canticle
  3. The Spiritual Canticle and the Song of Songs
  4. The Story of the Spiritual Canticle
  5. The dynamism of the spiritual life in the Spiritual Canticle
  6. Key concepts in the Spiritual Canticle (part I—God)
  7. Key concepts in the Spiritual Canticle (part II—the bride)
  8. The image of God in the Spiritual Canticle

Conclusion: The Spiritual Canticle and the search for union in love

I hope you will enjoy reading these new books and find them helpful in your understanding of the great works of John of the Cross and that they will also help you in your own spiritual life.

These books are all available from amazon.com