Three symbols and a project: Introduction to Saint John of the Cross

Saint John of the Cross was born in 1542 in Fontiveros (Avila), from a very poor family. He was orphaned of father, being very young. He lived through the economic crisis of the 2nd part of the 16th century. That poverty has forced his family into a rural exodus. His mother lived on public charity, forced to ask for help. He was helped by the Jesuits who offered him free quality education. He was a very sensitive man, since his childhood, with the soul of an artist. With skills at the same time manual and charity towards sick ones.

For love of Our Lady, he entered the Carmelite Order in 1563 in Medina del Campo. And he studied at the famous University of Salamanca (1564-1568). In 1567 the decisive encounter with Santa Teresa took place that would change the course of his life in one of her first masses in Medina. She convinces him to start with the male reform of Carmel instead of going to the Carthusian Order as he wished. On November 28, 1568, began the first Monastery of the friars of the Reform in Duruelo, a lost town between Avila and Salamanca. The success is immediate.

After working on the formation and development of the new Order, for 5 years (1572-1577) he was a confessor at the Monastery of The Incarnation, where he continued his spiritual friendship with Mother Teresa. There he was a confessor, accompanied the sisters on their spiritual path, and wrote the first “Sayings of Light of Love”. On December 2, 1577, he was captured as a rebel by unreformed Carmelites. This will be the decisive test of his life, where he will live in his own skin the “dark night” and the “transformation of love”. From that hell, made of humiliation, the most beautiful love poems of all universal literature will emerge. The best known to this day is still the poem called the “Spiritual Canticle” and the commentary on it.

He was released from prison on the night of August 14-15, 1578. He had to flee from his pursuers to the remote lands of Andalusia, to the Calvario convent. There he met a second woman, a close friend of St. Teresa, from the first group of foundresses, the captain of the prioresses, Ana de Jesús, who was prioress of Carmelo de Beas de Segura, and their friendship was very important for the development of the experience of Saint John of the Cross. There he will write the first commentaries, “The Dark Night”, “The Ascent of Mount Carmel”, and the commentary on “the Spiritual Canticle”.

The following years (from 1578-1588) will be of great work both at the level of travel, as a writer, superior and as a companion to the new foundations in Andalusia, specifically that of Granada. From 1588-1591 he lived in Segovia and was the first Definitor. It was a wonderful period. He maintained a great friendship with a laywoman, Mrs. Ana de Peñalosa, to whom he will dedicate his last great work: “The living flame of love”.

One day, he placed in the Church a picture with Jesus carrying the cross, and looking at this picture, he heard Jesus say: “John, what do you want me to do for you?” And instead of answering: wisdom, happiness, or other things of this type… his love makes him answer: “Lord, to suffer and be despised for your love”. In 1591, the last of his life, for having opposed the superior during the Provincial Chapter, he was removed from all his posts, and sent “in exile”, again to Andalusia. He is almost sent to Mexico, but he contracts gangrene in his leg, which leads to his death in Úbeda.

Some of his brothers that he had corrected, when he was superior, treat him badly, while the others admire his holiness and his patience. When he was already dying and they propose to recite the Office for the dead, he prefers that they recite the Song of Songs for him. He dies on the night of Friday to Saturday December 14, 1591 to sing matins to heaven, under the scapular of the Virgin.


 The night

Saint John of the Cross has lived in the physical night for 9 months, the time of a new birth. But at night he could hear the sound of the water from the Tagus River. For him it is a powerful symbol of God’s action in us. For him, the night is not a negative symbol, it is the consequence of the excess of light that comes from God. We cannot look God face to face without being dazzled by the intensity of God’s light. We must accept to enter the dark night of faith if we want it to be illuminated in the light of the transfiguration. For Saint John of the Cross, the night is the excess of divine light. With three verses from Psalm 138, we can perfectly summarize this idea: “even for you the darkness is not dark / the night is clear as day / for you the darkness is like light”.

The Living Flame

The Fathers of the Church used to say: “That God had become man so that man may become God” (Saint Ambrose). Saint John of the Cross calls this process “the transforming union of love.” He uses the symbol of the wet wood that is going to be transformed in stages into a glowing ember.

“… has the same effect on a soul that fire has on a log of wood. The soul is purged and prepared for union with the divine light just as the wood is prepared for transformation into the fire. Fire, when applied to wood, first dehumidifies it; dispelling all moisture and making it give off any water it contains. Then it gradually turns the wood black, makes it dark and ugly and even causes it to emit a bad odor. By drying out the wood, the fire brings to light and expels all those ugly and dark accidents which are contrary to fire. Finally, by heating and enkindling it from without, the fire transforms the wood into itself and makes it as beautiful as it is itself. Once transformed, the wood no longer has any activity or passivity of its own, except for its weight and its quantity which is denser than the fire. For it possesses the properties and performs the actions of fire: it is dry and it dries, it is hot and it gives off heat; it is brilliant and it illumines; and it is also light, much lighter than before. It is the fire that produces all these properties in the wood”. (2N. 10, 1)

The spiritual marriage

But the most present symbol in the work of Saint John of the Cross is the one he takes from the Song of Songs: the love affair between man and woman, symbol of the love of God and of his Son for his Wife (the Church and The humanity).

Many of the poems of San Juan de la Cruz and therefore also his comments will sing the love of the Beloved for her Beloved. A verse from his poems summarizes this process: “The Lover with His beloved, transforming the beloved in her Lover.”

 Process of transformation

Starting from the awareness of the deformation caused by the breaking of the Covenant with God, the Christian becomes aware that he has to reform. This reformation of the human person goes through a configuration with Christ, the only true image of God. Little by little, the soul united to God becomes God by participation. It is ‘deiform’. Furthermore, the believer is united to each one of the Three divine Persons and participates in the dynamism of the very life of the Trinity. He begets the Son and aspires the Spirit.

In short, he goes from deformation to reformation, through conformation to Christ, to obtain the divine transfiguration.

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