Monday, December 15, 2008

St. John of the Cross (observed on December 15th by Carmlelites this year)

A beautiful icon of St. John of the Cross by Lynne Taggart, who has created icons of other Carmelite saints

The Feast of St. John of the Cross fell on a Sunday, so we were notified at our last Carmel meeting, that we would be observing it on Monday the 15th.

St. John of the Cross, along with St. Teresa of Avila, founded the Discalced Carmelites. From the online Catholic Encyclopedia detailing the life of St. John of the Cross:

....Already at that early age he treated his body with the utmost rigour; twice he was saved from certain death by the intervention of the Blessed Virgin. Anxious about his future life, he was told in prayer that he was to serve God in an order the ancient perfection of which he was to help bring back again. The Carmelites having founded a house at Medina, he there received the habit on 24 February, 1563, and took the name of John of St. Matthias. After profession he obtained leave from his superiors to follow to the letter the original Carmelite rule without the mitigations granted by various popes. He was sent to Salamanca for the higher studies, and was ordained priest in 1567; at his first Mass he received the assurance that he should preserve his baptismal innocence. But, shrinking from the responsibilities of the priesthood, he determined to join the Carthusians.

However, before taking any further step he made the acquaintance of St. Teresa, who had come to Medina to found a convent of nuns, and who persuaded him to remain in the Carmelite Order and to assist her in the establishment of a monastery of friars carrying out the primitive rule. He accompanied her to Valladolid in order to gain practi cal experience of the manner of life led by the reformed nuns. A small house having been offered, St. John resolved to try at once the new form of life, although St. Teresa did not think anyone, however great his spirituality, could bear the discomforts of that hovel. He was joined by two companions, an ex-prior and a lay brother, with whom he inaugurated the reform among friars, 28 Nov., 1568. St. Teresa has left a classical description of the sort of life led by these first Discalced Carmelites, in chaps. xiii and xiv of her "Book of Foundations". John of the Cross, as he now called himself, became the first master of novices, and laid the foundation of the spiritual edifice which soon was to assume majestic proportions. He filled various posts in different places until St. Teresa called him to Avila as director and confessor to the convent of the Incarnation, of which she had been appointed prioress. He remained there, with a few interruptions, for over five years.....

In some circles, St. John of the Cross is considered with disdain. He was, and is even moreso today, very counter cultural (like many of the saints, and Mary, who have been stuffed into the closet because their words and examples would lead us to include Calvary, to pursue humility, virtue, sacrifice and other things also held in disdain today). In imitating Christ, we cannot simply focus on the Nativity and the Ressurection. Rather, our imitation of Christ must include the Cross. St. John of the Cross teaches us how to die to self, to recognize our worldly attachments so that we may purge ourselves with the grace of God, in pursuit of union with Him.

The world does not comprehend detachment, nor does it comprehend mortification or taming of the will.

In an era when Catholics willfully feed off of shows like Desperate Housewives, we need to step back and examine our every act. What else but our lower nature would attach itself to such things?

Rarely do we hear priests from the pulpit challenge us on what we watch and how we spend our time. Is it pleasing to God? Does it build virtue or fuel vice?

Taming the will or moritifcation went out of fashion decades ago, but does the concept apply today? Yes! More than ever. Our society is filled with examples of behavior whereby people follow their will the way a magnet sticks pulls to metal. When the will is in control, it means trouble. We want to eat as much as we want, to watch TV or be on computer, or play in numerous sports leagues or other activities, but we don't want to cut into these things. Do we spend even a fraction of that time with God, in silent prayer and reflection?

St. John of the Cross challenges us to examine our soul for attachments and gives us an understanding of why mortification is important. If we don't tame our will, our will tames us. If you have ever tried to lose weight, fought an addiction of some kind, or intemperate use of something, you know the power of the will when it is in control.

The best relationship we can have with Jesus Christ is one without boat anchors (attachments).

While St. John is writing the passage below in the context of religious life, there is much here applicable to ordinary people going about their day. It is from the Introduction to the Counsels to a Religious. Added emphasis in bold and [my comments in red]:

3. To practice the second counsel, which concerns mortification, and profit by it, you should engrave this truth on your heart. And it is that you have not come to the monastery for any other reason than to be worked and tried in virtue [are we not to be tried and worked in virtue in our everyday lives?]; you are like the stone that must be chiseled and fashioned before being set in the building. Thus you should understand that those who are in the monastery [or your home, workplace, parish, school, etc.] are craftsmen placed there by God to mortify you by working and chiseling at you. Some will chisel with words, telling you what you would rather not hear; others by deed, doing against you what you would rather not endure; others by their temperament, being in their person and in their actions a bother and annoyance to you; and others by their thoughts, neither esteeming nor feeling love for you. You ought to suffer these mortifications and annoyances with inner patience, being silent for love of God and understanding that you did not enter the religious life for any other reason than for others to work you in this way, and so you become worthy of heaven. If this was not your reason for entering the religious state, you should not have done so, but should have remained in the world to seek your comfort, honor, reputation, and ease.
St. John of the Cross gets at a key point in religious life - that you go there to surrender your all to God. However, out of pure love of Christ, we can work at these things in our everyday lives with those around us. In the same way that a religious offers it up, so should we.

While not all writings are applicable to lay people, many of them are indeed worth contemplating and mining for your state in life. Secular Carmelites, while fully Carmelite, are not bound by some of the same obligations as the priests and religious because when one is married, with children, has work responsibilities outside of the home, some things may not be practical. In a Carmel, one distances themselves from family. Those of us living in the world may ask ourselves, whether we are placing any one person above God. If we place God first, we give our very best to all of those around us, especially those who depend on us.

Here is one last excerpt, this time illustrating the beauty of his writing. It is from the first Chapter of the Dark Night of the Soul (paragraph 2), where St. John talks about the imperfections of beginners:

2. It must be known, then, that the soul, after it has been definitely converted to the service of God, is, as a rule, spiritually nurtured and caressed by God, even as is the tender child by its loving mother, who warms it with the heat of her bosom and nurtures it with sweet milk and soft and pleasant food, and carries it and caresses it in her arms; but, as the child grows bigger, the mother gradually ceases caressing it, and, hiding her tender love, puts bitter aloes upon her sweet breast, sets down the child from her arms and makes it walk upon its feet, so that it may lose the habits of a child and betake itself to more important and substantial occupations. The loving mother is like the grace of God, for, as soon as the soul is regenerated by its new warmth and fervour for the service of God, He treats it in the same way; He makes it to find spiritual milk, sweet and delectable, in all the things of God, without any labour of its own, and also great pleasure in spiritual exercises, for here God is giving to it the breast of His tender love, even as to a tender child.

The "Christ of St. John of the Cross" painted by Salvador Dali, first revealed in 1952.

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The obedient are not held captive by Holy Mother Church; it is the disobedient who are held captive by the world!