St John of the Cross

Priest and Doctor of the Church (entered heaven on this day in 1591)

Dear John,

Can I make a bold suggestion?  As you begin your Christmas vacation, can I suggest that you take advantage of having more free time by dedicating a little more time to prayer?  I’m not saying you have to go overboard; I’m just so exasperated with what usually happens to my nieces and nephews during Christmas break.  They backslide in their spiritual lives.  It’s odd, because Christmas is such a spiritual time, but it’s true.  I think the attraction of worldly pleasures and the increased amount of free time gets the better of them.  And so all the spiritual progress they made during the fall (and often it’s a considerable amount, as in your case), progress which was just getting to the point where it could bear some visible fruit, is lost.  Like a late frost that kills the first buds of spring, their idleness and carelessness during vacation forces them to have to start all over again when they get back to school in January.  It doesn’t have to be that way, though.  You can have a great time and still keep advancing spiritually.  Two things will help you: a bit more time in personal, tranquil prayer each day, and reading some great spiritual book, like those written by today’s saint (or those written about him).

John of the Cross was recruited by that other remarkable Doctor of the Church, St Theresa of Avila, to extend to the Carmelite monks and priests the reform she had initiated with the Carmelite nuns.  It entailed a return to the more primitive Carmelite practices, which the founders of the Order had begun in the Holy Land back in the 12th century: more austere poverty, more silence, more time spent in contemplative prayer, more geographical stability.  John and Theresa established four houses of these “discalced” (referring to their minimalist footwear, an expression of their evangelical poverty and a means for practicing penance) Carmelite friars before controversy boiled over.

The unreformed Carmelites resented John, and began to make things difficult for him.  In all truth, there was quite a bit of legitimate confusion and misunderstanding on both sides, but the upshot was that John ended up being imprisoned, calumniated, stripped of his positions, and repeatedly abused throughout the second half of his life (he died when he was only 49).  To top off these exterior trials, God supplied him with considerably more difficult interior hardship.  He endured tortuous scruples, spiritual barrenness, and violent interior temptations.  Of course, the Lord also graced him with moments of sweet consolation and a rich reservoir of vibrant faith and passionate love.  Drawing from this divine school of Christian wisdom, he produced his masterful works (poems and commentaries) on the spiritual life, best known among which is “The Ascent of Mt Carmel.”  For these, in 1929 he was named a Doctor of the Universal Church.

Here’s a taste of his style: “Despite all the mysteries and wonders which have been discovered by the holy doctors and understood by holy souls in this state of life, there still remains more for them to say and to understand.  There are depths to be fathomed in Christ.  He is like a rich mine with many recesses containing treasures, and no matter how men try to fathom them the end is never reached.  Rather, in each recess, men keep on finding here and there new veins of new riches…”  If the great Doctors of the Church can speak of always finding new things in their search for Christ, surely you who are a spiritual youth can join in the quest with gusto.  I hope you do, because Christ deserves it and you need it, and I know you won’t regret it.

Your devoted uncle,


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