14 December: Saint John of the Cross. Born in 1542 as Juan de Yepes, he was the son of a poor silk weaver in Spain. His father was of noble birth but had married much beneath him and thus had been cut off by family. He had taken to silk weaving as a means of livelihood, but had never been able to make much of it. Soon after the birth of Juan, he died. The family was left in dire poverty; the children grew up always underfed, so much so that to the end of his life, Juan remained dwarfed in stature. Unable to learn a trade, he became the servant of the poor in the hospital of Medina, while also pursuing sacred studies. In 1563, Juan became a lay-brother to the Carmelite friars, who had him ordained priest. St. Teresa of Avila then strongly persuaded him to help her reform the Carmelite Order. Together they founded the Discalced (meaning “barefoot”) Carmelites, an order devoted to service of the Blessed Mother through prayer and penance. He took the name “John of the Cross.” His reform of the Carmelites, though approved by the general, was rejected by the elder friars, who condemned him as an apostate, and cast him into prison. He escaped after nine months of suffering (being beaten and nearly starved to death). Twice again, John was persecuted by his brethren and publicly disgraced. This only deepened his interior peace and devout longing for heaven. He had a great devotion to Our Lord’s Passion and voluntarily sought out humiliations. When Our Lord asked him what reward he would ask for his labors, John answered: “To suffer and to be despised for Thee.” On December 14, 1591, John was dying of a painful infection at only 49 years old. He asked to have “Song of Songs” read to him. While listening, he was heard to say, “So beautiful are the flowers!” And then he died. St. John was a great contemplative and spiritual writer. His mystical poems on divine love are considered some of the greatest verses ever written in the Spanish language. Among the Church’s contemplatives, St. John is known as a master of mystical theology and has had a great influence on Catholic spirituality. Saint John of the Cross was beatified by Pope Clement X in 1675; canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726; and proclaimed Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI in 1926. He is the patron of contemplative life, mystical theology, mystics, and Spanish poets.
“With what procrastinations do you wait, since from this very moment you can love God in your heart?”
(Excerpt from Prayer of a Soul Taken with Love — St. John of the Cross)
Ideas for celebrating this feast day at home:
- A Spanish-inspired dinner would be perfect for St. John’s feast day. Try this easy recipe for Spanish rice with beef. Other ideas would be gazpacho soup, tapas, or a Spanish paella!
- In honor of the Carmelite order, make a caramelized treat for dessert: caramelized brown butter rice krispies or homemade caramel candies
- St. John was a prolific writer and poet. Today, ask children to write a small poem in honor of Christ or the Cross. These little poems of faith could be placed in the Christmas manger as a gift to Jesus.
- Three of St. John’s works, Ascent of Mount Carmel, Dark Night of the Soul, and Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridgegroom Christ are available online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
- Reflect on the following sayings from St. John of the Cross: “In the evening of your life you will be judged by your love.” / “Where there is no love, put love and you will find love.” / “Keep your heart in peace; let nothing in this world disturb it; everything has an end.”