Saint, Spaniard and Poet
St. John of the Cross is best known for his poem, The Dark Night of the Soul. Not a poem of tragedy and storms, St. John and all his poems spoke of love and joy, that happiness that only the Father can provide! The Dark Night of the Soul tells of lover encountering Lover, only to become one in heavenly communion. Like with St. Teresa, his only true desire was to achieve that complete union when he and the Lord would be one.
As we turn the pages of St. John of the Cross’ story, you will discover a powerful woman in this powerful man’s life. Like with St. Francis of Assisi, whose Sister Moon was St. Clare, the story of St. John cannot be told without St. Teresa of Avila. God was to use her to change the course of his life. He loved her with a powerful celibate love, the gift we will all bring to the Father as we face Him on our last day. Almost thirty years older than he, at times she led him; at other times, she leaned on him. Born into a strong macho society, he was free to recognize, love and follow this controversial woman who, with him, would unseat and ruffle the feathers of the Church and world of sixteenth century Spain. Working through the Church, always loving and obeying Her, even when they did not always agree with Her leaders, Sts. John and Teresa brought about Reform.
Keeping His promise that Hell would not prevail against His Church, our Lord raised up another Saint to save Her. It was a time of heresy and division. There was a storm brewing over Europe which would destroy everything in its path. Good people were doing bad things, and the Church would bear the scars for centuries to come.
St. John of the Cross, known in Spain lovingly as San Juan de la Cruz, was born four hundred years ago into a time of darkness and disgrace. God always balancing the scales, there was an excitement that filled the air of Spain, as well. It was a time of pathos, not knowing when to cry and when to rejoice. It was the year 1542. After hundreds of years under the oppressive yoke of the Moors, a golden age was emerging for Spain.
Fifty years before the birth of St. John, Catholic Queen Isabela, believing in Columbus, had backed up that belief, financing him and his expedition. He set out to open a new route to India. His discovery of America for Spain, instead, opened an early gateway to the Americas, gaining a sizable advantage for Spain and her navigators. Her Treasury swelled as her ports buzzed with traffic from the sea.
Spain has always been made up of soldiers of fortune and men in love with God and His Church; one moment, planning the possession of more land and more gold, for the glory of Country, and the next, building churches and spreading the Gospel to their newly discovered colonies for the glory of God. They were a contradiction within themselves, an enigma. Subjected to cruelty and slavery for centuries, they became a nation of men who could be as cruel to those they conquered. St. John would write and suffer for his opinions, for his desire to reform this unruly Spain gone proud and haughty, this Spain he so loved.
He was born of little estate
He was born of peasants in a land where the land and the weather can be an enemy. But to the poor, of which he was a part, it could be a killer. He was placed by God in a village called Fontiveros in the Castile section of Spain. Here, the villagers he grew up with lived simple, hard lives. John, along with his two brothers and widowed mother, were colder and hungrier than most, his mother unsuccessfully trying to eke out a meager living doing some weaving. With not even her husband’s relatives willing to help, the little family had to move to Medina del Campo or starve. Here, the little band would know some relief; they would be able to find some work and therefore, some food.
John, the youngest son, found work in a hospital serving men suffering from tumors. This brought some money into the house and still enabled him to go to school. All the deprivation, he had known, physical and emotional, had not affected his will or his mind. Right from the beginning, he showed himself to be enthusiastic and brilliant.
God, His plan in the works, began molding John through a new company of men dedicated to Him and His Church. The teachings of these holy men, already known as the Society of Jesus, would remain with him the rest of his life. But whereas they left an indelible imprint on his mind with their character, he had a problem with some of their methods. The structure of this company very clearly projected that their founder was a Spaniard and an officer.
The founder of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius Loyola, was the prototype of Cervantes’ Man of La Mancha, the dreamer of impossible dreams, the believer of a new world somewhere. And the new world Ignatius Loyola dreamt of was his love, the Church. He was a knight; but the treasures he would bring to his Queen, the Church, would be men’s souls. He would champion the Woman clothed with the Sun, his Mother Mary. All he had been trained for as a soldier for his country, he would use to form this army of the Church.
Although this would influence St. John and his walk to the Lord, his road was to be different. He was being called to be a new Saint, one who would touch lives that possibly Loyola could not; so God would use his training under the Company of Jesus, but would fashion him uniquely and authentically through Himself and for Himself, a one of a kind!
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