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.

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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.

 

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.

John of the Cross a Contemporary Inspiration

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.