St. John of the Cross
Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
In 1542, was born at Fontiveros, a hamlet of old Castile, St. John of the Cross, renowned through the entire Christian world, as the restorer of the Carmelite Order. His mother, after his father's early death, went to Medina del Campo, where John commenced his studies, and continued them until he entered the order of the Blessed Virgin of Mount Carmel. From his early youth he had entertained a child-like devotion to the Blessed Virgin, who more than once saved him most miraculously from death. One day, when playing with some other lads around a deep pond, he fell into it. In this danger, the Divine Mother appeared to him in a most beautiful form, and offered him her hand, to draw him out of the water. But as his hands were much soiled, he hesitated to take those of so brilliant a lady; whereupon his Guardian Angel, or some other inhabitant of heaven, held out to him from the edge of the pond, a long pole, by the aid of which he was happily saved. At another time he fell into a well, and when all feared that he was drowned, they saw him sitting quietly upon the water. When they drew him out, he said that the Queen of Heaven had caught him in her cloak, and thus prevented his sinking.
Before he was nine years old, he showed a wonderful zeal in mortifying his body, chastising himself by taking only a short rest on a hard bed, and by voluntary fasts. While yet a student, he nursed, with great solicitude and charity, the sick in the hospitals. After he had taken the Carmelite habit, he was not satisfied with the penances then practiced in the convent, but endeavored to regulate his life in accordance with the first rules and ancient austerity of the Order. When he prepared himself to say his first holy Mass, he searched his conscience very carefully, but found no grievous fault. He then gave humble thanks to the Almighty, and during his Mass, begged for the grace to be kept in future free from all mortal sin. His prayer was accepted, and he heard the words: "I grant thee thy wish." From that time St. John never offended the Lord by a mortal sin, nor voluntarily by a venial one.
St. Teresa, who lived at that period, said of him that he was a Saint, and had been one all his life. This renowned and holy virgin met St. John at Medina, and conferred with him about her desire to found houses for religious, who would live according to the original strict regulations of the Carmelites. John, who, in his eagerness to live in greater austerity, had thought of joining the Carthusian monks, asked St. Teresa's advice. She told him that it would be more agreeable to God, if he remained in his Order, and restored among the men the same primitive rigor which she was endeavoring to restore among the women. She added, that God had called him to this work. John took counsel with God and his confessor, and then resolved to follow St. Teresa's advice. He erected his first monastery on a farm which had been presented to him for this purpose; and God so visibly blest his undertaking, that he not only filled his house, in a short time, with zealous men, but was enabled also to found several other convents.
In these religious houses, all the inmates lived so holy and so austere a life, that many thought it was more to be admired than imitated. The Saint was an example to all, and one could hardly imagine a penance which he did not practice. He gave no ear to those who told him to moderate his severities, but said: "The narrow path leading to heaven cannot be travelled by me in a manner less austere." The hardships he endured in founding his monasteries, and in restoring the severe regulations of the Order; the persecutions and wrongs he suffered, cannot be described in the short space allotted to us; yet in all these trials he was never despondent. The love of God possessed his heart so entirely, that he desired nothing but to labor and to suffer for His honor.
The Lord asked him one day what recompense he desired for all his trouble and labor. "Nothing else, O Lord, but to suffer and to be despised for Thy sake," was his answer. Three things he used to ask of the Almighty:--first, much work and much suffering; secondly, not to depart this life as a superior; thirdly, that he might live and die despised. So unusual a desire to suffer and to be despised, was the result of his meditation on the Passion of Jesus Christ, and of his great love to God. This love was so intense, that his countenance was frequently seen radiant with a heavenly light, especially when he spoke of divine things. At the time of prayer, as well as during holy Mass, he often fell into ecstasy and was dissolved in tears. Our Lord once appeared to him in the same form as when He died for us on the Cross. This picture remained so indelibly imprinted on the Saint's memory, that it almost daily drew tears from his eyes.
Into all those over whom he had the slightest influence he endeavored to instill a tender devotion to our crucified Lord, as well as to the Most Holy Trinity and to the Blessed Eucharist. His language to sinners was so forcible, that he converted even the most hardened. He was much aided in this by the gift which the Almighty had bestowed upon him, of reading the thoughts of the heart. Many who came to him were reproached with their secret sins, and admonished to reform their lives. He possessed also the gifts of prophecy, of driving out devils, and curing all kinds of diseases. Besides this, he had many visions of the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph, St. John, and Christ the Lord. Especially remarkable were the heavenly favors with which this great servant of the Almighty was comforted during an imprisonment of nine months, to which he was unjustly condemned. Christ appeared to him and said: "Behold! John, I am here! Fear not. I will rescue thee! "The Blessed Virgin, accompanied by a great many Saints, appeared to him, and said: "My son, be patient and endure; for your trials will soon give way to joy." In another vision, she admonished him to escape from the prison, promising him her assistance; a promise which she also kept. St. Teresa, who, during her life, had been closely united with him, appeared also to him after her death, speaking to him most kindly. In his adversity she comforted him, and encouraged him to new labors for the honor of God.
The reward of all the work which the holy man had accomplished, as also of the trials and tribulations he had suffered, was at length bestowed upon him, in the year 1591, when he was in the forty-ninth year of his age. He was seized with fever, in the hermitage of Pegnuela, and was brought from there to Ubeda, according to his wish. He had an ulcer on that part of his right foot where the holy feet of our Lord were pierced with nails. To open it, the surgeon was obliged to make a deep incision. The pain thus caused was very great; but greater still was the patience of the Saint, who even rejoiced at bearing, in some manner, the image of the sufferings of Christ, and at having five wounds on one foot.
God had already, some time previously, revealed to him the hour of his death; and the Blessed Virgin, whom the Saint had always especially honored, appeared to him on the eve of the Immaculate Conception, saying that she would come for him on the Sunday after the festival. When the physicians told him that his end was not far distant, he said, in the words of the Psalmist: "I was glad when they said unto me, We shall go up into the house of the Lord." Half an hour before his death, he called all his religious to him, exhorted them to persevere in their zeal, and said: "My parting hour draws near." After the usual prayers of the Church, he heard the bells ring for the midnight Matins. "I shall sing the Matins in Heaven," said he; after which, taking the Crucifix, he kissed it most devoutly, and calmly ended his holy life, saying: "Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my soul." A large ball, as of fire, was seen above the dying Saint. After his death, his countenance beamed with a heavenly brightness, and was so beautiful that none grew weary of looking at him; while at the same time such delicious odor emanated from him, that the whole monastery was filled with it. The Almighty has carefully preserved his body incorrupt until this hour.
St. John asked of God, in his first Mass, the grace of remaining free from all mortal sin; and at another time, he begged to suffer, to labor, and to be despised for Christ's sake. Oh! how different from this is the object of your prayers! What do you seek and ask of God? To what end do you promise masses, fasts, pilgrimages, and prayers? Is not almost everything you ask temporal? When you, your child, your husband or wife is sick, then you promise in your prayers to do all that is possible in order that God may ward off the disease. When you have a cross to bear, you pray to God to release you from it. Although it is praiseworthy to fly to God for refuge in such circumstances, tell me, why do you not ask His assistance in much more weighty matters, in such as concern your soul?
Why do you not ask as often or oftener and more earnestly for spiritual gifts, and beg the Almighty to avert spiritual evils? Is not this an incontestable proof that you are far more solicitous for your body and your temporal welfare, than for your soul and your salvation? And is not this not only unreasonable, but even wicked? Correct this fault in future, and pray to God frequently and fervently to bestow spiritual gifts and graces upon you, and to avert from you spiritual and eternal evils. Pray to Him for the grace to avoid sin; to be freed from temptations, or to be upheld in battling against them, for strength to correct evil habits, to overcome sinful inclinations or to practice virtues; to die a happy death, and to escape eternal destruction. "Pray," says Cardinal Hugo, "for all that you need for your salvation." Such graces are more necessary than all others, and you may be sure that they are useful to you, while you do not know that temporal blessings are for your good.
II. Although St. John worked so much for the honor of God, and had been favored by the Lord with so many revelations, and other extraordinary gifts, yet he was unjustly cast into prison, and remained in it nine months. This shows very clearly, that suffering and persecution, whilst we endeavor to live piously, are no sign that we are in disfavor with God, or forgotten by Him; but that He loves us and desires to lead us to heaven by the same path Christ walked. It is a mark of our future salvation; since, by suffering, we become conformable to Christ, and may hope to partake of His glory in heaven.
You believe that you are in favor with God when all goes well with you; but not when you have crosses and trials. The Saints judged quite differently: "It is a sign of God's love to me," says St. Thomas of Villanova, "a sign of future salvation, when the Lord gives me to drink of the cup of suffering." And St. Peter Damian writes: " When a man lives piously, and yet suffers, let him think that he belongs to the true members of Christ; for as he now follows Him in suffering, so will he also partake of His glory in heaven." But when one who does not live piously, has to suffer, let him think that God wishes to save his soul. Why? St. Augustine gives the following reasons: "He who scourges you in this world, does it to correct, not to condemn you. Hence, be patient when He punishes as a Father, that you may not find in Him, one day, a severe judge." When God sends you chastisements while you are living in sin, He does it to admonish you to reform and do penance, that He may not be obliged to punish you in eternity. "Hence," says St. Gregory Nazianzen, "we ought rather to wish that God would punish than spare us, when we have sinned." To sin and not be punished in this world, is a sign that God will punish us in the world to come.