Fra Juan’s Canticle of Light and Darkness

The Carmelite Order traces its spiritual roots back to the prophet Elijah, but its practical foundation was in the twelfth century, round about the same time as the Franciscans and Dominicans. In such long-standing institutions, there is always the need of reform (well, the unique Carthusians are an exception), as the spiritus mundi creeps in, breeding a compromise, a lethargy, a pusillanimity, the ‘spirit and fire’ of Elijah giving way to a bureaucratic numbness, and a resistance to the Holy Spirit.

Such was the battle of the sixteenth century reformer Saint John of the Cross (+1591). Not a reformer in the sense of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, who, likely contrary to their original intentions, accelerated the compromise with the world by their rejection of Tradition, but rather by going back to the true source of spiritual renewal, Christ, the Sacraments and, in this present case, the original Rule of the Order in 1209, which called for a greater insistence of prayer – especially nocturnal, penance, fasting and enclosure.

John, along with his female contemporary, Teresa of Avila, was called to bring the Carmelites back to this rule, to its original spirit; and, as befits all true reformers, he was persecuted and rejected for his efforts, eventually being captured and imprisoned by his fellow Carmelites locked in a cell barely big enough for his body, and publicly lashed at least once of a week. One wonders. But then I suppose zeal takes various forms, and one might sympathize with men being told that their lives were soft and weak, and to start waking up at midnight. Who was this little Spaniard to tell us what to do?

It was during his confinement that Fra Juan composed his most famous poem, Spiritual Canticle, a meditation of the soul’s union with Christ, a sublime work of literature, on which the future Karol Wojtyla – who seriously considered becoming a Carmelite – would write his first dissertation. The friar also sketched a mystical image of Christ on His Cross, seen from above, which Salvador Dali – whose life was rather different from that of our saint – used to paint his own famous depiction.

Eventually, the resistance proving too much, a distinct Order was founded, the ‘discalced’ Carmelites, so-called due to their insistence on the poverty of not wearing shoes. Supported by the Pope and the King, John founded and reformed a number of such discalced Carmelite monasteries, traveling thousands of miles on foot, before succumbing to erysipelas at the house in Ubeda on this day in 1591.

John is remembered as one of Spain’s foremost poets as well as a spiritual genius whose works – the Spiritual Canticle, Ascent of Mount Carmel, Dark Night of the Soul –provide a beautiful, rhythmical and systematic description of true growth in holiness, which is really what life is all about, if we had, with him, eyes to see and ears to hear. For only one who had really travelled that narrow path could write about it so truly. Saint John of the Cross was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1926.

I will leave with words of the Saint from today’s Office:

Would that men might come at last to see that it is quite impossible to reach the thicket of the riches and wisdom of God except by first entering the thicket of much suffering, in such a way that the soul finds there its consolation and desire. The soul that longs for divine wisdom chooses first, and in truth, to enter the thicket of the cross.