The title of my first book on John of the Cross was The Contemporary Challenge of John of the Cross. I feel strongly that John is a major challenge both religiously and socially in our contemporary Church and world. Unfortunately there is little written from this perspective. Rather John is treated at a figure of literature or history or worse still domesticated by those who find him too challenging. John was a prophet in his own time and continues to be in ours.
John was under five feet tall, thin from his sacrifice and imprisonment, and oval faced with a little growth of beard and mustache. He wore the rough brown habit of the reform, a coarse white mantle, and sometimes a dark brown skull-cap. Contemporaries said that, although clearly ascetical, he had a pleasing appearance and was interesting to talk to. He was always in control of himself; peaceful, calm, and quietly joyful. He was simple, straightforward, and shunned all manifestations of authority. Those who knew him said he was polite, delicate in dealing with others, and could share both their manual work and their recreation. He loved the beauty of nature, and deep friendships were important to him. He was a compassionate person, particularly sensitive to the poor, sick, and suffering. Above all, John was a giant in the spiritual life, drawing teaching of universal value from experience, both his own and others.
John’s early life already showed traces of values that were to make up the general direction of his future. He could see, in the example of his parents, what it meant to sacrifice all for the sake of true love. The poverty of his family showed him that mere accumulation of things does not guarantee love and happiness. However, the pain and struggles that came with poverty made John sensitive to deprivation in others and always ready to alleviate it where he could. His family fostered piety, and John treasured such attitudes throughout his life, especially devotion to Mary. Compassionate charity, learned especially in his hospital service, became a permanent feature in his concern for others. At considerable personal sacrifice, John always integrated study into his life, from the early years in Medina del Campo right up to his last years in Andalusia. Deep love for God and for others was the special quality that permeated John’s whole life, as it did his message. Poverty, charity, piety, study, and deep love formed permanent parts of John’s life.
John was a man of destiny. From his early life, when friends had all kinds of plans for him, he had a clear picture of what he wanted from life. He had a sense of vocation—personally called by God. He worked in the hospital, was successful, enjoyed the work, but knew there is more to life than generous, successful ministry. He went to the Jesuit school in Medina, thoroughly enjoyed study, valued it all his life, but recognized that for him there was more to life than education. Entering the order of Mount Carmel, attracted by it spirit of contemplation and Marian piety, he had a happy novitiate and learned to encounter God in new ways. But this experience too, great as it was, did not satisfy John’s yearning for God. He then went to Salamanca for theology, a chance to study about God, but no amount of study alone led him to union with God. He decided to join the Carthusians, but Teresa encouraged him to seek the deeper contemplative union he wanted in her renewed Carmel. By the age of 25, John had learned that ministry, education, religious life, and theology do not automatically insure union with God. Even reforming an institution to facilitate the life one seeks is no guarantee. John sensed an irresistible attraction to God and pursued this goal uncompromisingly and relentlessly. What he had experienced he valued but, without despising previous experiences, he left them aside to continue the search in new ways.
Some people accumulate many small manifestations of love for God; others make a single-minded, single-hearted choice for love of God, and see everything as secondary to the quest for God’s love. Accumulated love rarely implies renunciation; choice-oriented love always does. The seeker renounces all that up to the present was viewed as the best means available, renounces without despising previous means, moves forward to the goal of life. Choice-love is creative of one’s personality, as is evident in John, who sought God even through the nights, journeying to the union for which he yearned. Accumulated small expressions of love never substitute for choice-oriented love, even though they may help to manifest and maintain it. Choice-oriented love is the clearest indicator of ongoing conversion, while accumulated love can still be shown by someone who refuses to face the need for a new conversion.
When you read the life of John of the Cross you cannot help but be filled with sadness, joy, peace, and a sense of wonder and awe. Reading his life is exciting. John integrated all the best values from his experience in one great thrust of self-dedication to God. His goal was always clear, never neglected or watered down; he pursued it with the united effort of all his strength and talents. His was not a selfish goal of personal growth, for he took others along with him, sharing the vision and the love by which he felt drawn.
John shows us how to live in a struggle-filled post-conciliar Church, since he himself entered Carmel the year the Council of Trent finished its deliberations. He learned to cope with people who resisted the renewal he wanted, with ecclesiastical authorities interested in the power that religion brings, with the spite of some, the envy of others, and dishonest slander of still others. Through all his struggles, he maintained right priorities and proved that contemplative union is possible under any circumstances. John’s life was one long night.