December 14: Juan de la Cruz (John of the Cross), Mystic, 1591

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About this commemoration

John of the Cross was unknown outside the Discalced Carmelites for nearly three hundred years after his death. More recently, scholars of Christian spirituality have found in him a hidden treasure. Once described by Thomas Merton as “the church’s safest mystical theologian,” John has been called the “the poet’s poet,” “spirit of flame,” “celestial and divine.”

John was born in 1542 at Fontiveros, near Avila, Spain. After his third birthday, his father died leaving his mother and her children reduced to poverty. John received elementary education in an orphanage inMedina del Campo. By the age of seventeen he had learned carpentry, tailoring, sculpturing, and painting through apprenticeships to local craftsmen. After university studies with the Jesuits, John entered the Carmelite Order in Medina del Campo and completed his theological studies in Salamanca. In 1567 he was ordained to the priesthood and recruited by Teresa of Avila for the reformation of the Carmelite Order.

By the age of thirty-five he had studied extensively, had been spiritual director to many, and yet devoted himself to the search for God so fully that he reached the peak of the mystical experience: a complete transformation in God.

John became disillusioned with what he considered the laxity of the Carmelites and in 1568 he opened a monastery of “Discalced” (strict observance) Carmelites, an act that met with sharp resistance from the General Chapter of the Calced Carmelites. John was seized, takento Toledo, and imprisoned in the monastery. During nine months of great hardship, he comforted himself by writing poetry. It was while he was imprisoned that he composed the greater part of his luminous masterpiece, The Spiritual Canticle, as well as a number of shorter poems. Other major works are, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Living Flame of Love and The Dark Night. It is this latter work, Noche obscura del alma, that gave the English language the phrase dark night of the soul.

After a severe illness, John died on December 14, 1591, in Ubeda, in southern Spain.


I Judge eternal, throned in splendor, who gavest Juan de la Cruz strength of purpose and mystical faith that sustained him even through the dark night of the soul: Shed thy light on all who love thee, in unity with Jesus Christ our Savior; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

II Judge eternal, throned in splendor, you gave Juan de la Cruz strength of purpose and mystical faith that sustained him even through the dark night of the soul: Shed your light on all who love you, in unity with Jesus Christ our Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Song of Solomon 3:1–4

Colossians 4:2–6

John 16:12–15,25–28



Preface of God the Son

Text from Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.


We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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12 thoughts on “December 14: Juan de la Cruz (John of the Cross), Mystic, 1591

  1. Collect: Why is The Hymnal 1982 # 596 (words by Henry Scott Holland) the opening salutation for this collect? Is this just coincidence?

    Judge eternal, throned in splendor, Lord of lords and King of kings, with thy living fire of judgment purge this land of bitter things; solace all its wide dominion with the healing of thy wings.

    Title: Juan de la Cruz (John of the Cross) is exactly the opposite of the editorial style employed yesterday, Lucy (Lucia). It is either use their given name and then in English, or the other way around.
    Other examples of this confusion are: August 23 – Martin de Porres, Rosa de Lima, and Toribio de Mogrovejo (no English names given); July 19 – Bartolome de las Casas (no English given); April 10 – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (no English given, though probably none is needed); January 29 – Andrei Rublev (no English given, though probably none is needed); April 29 – Catharine of Siena (only English given); to name a few.

  2. Juan de la Cruz (John of the Cross), Mystic, 1591
    (“his father died leaving his mother and her children reduced to poverty”)
    The verb “leaving” sits awkwardly in this thought. Two possibilities:
    “his father died. This reduced his mother and her children to poverty.”
    “his father died, reducing his mother and her children to poverty.
    (2nd note: they’re still his children, not just “hers” even after he dies.)
    About the Merton comment, describing John as “the church’s safest mystical theologian,” — this is not a self-explanatory comment. It lacks explanation or a context in which to understand it. Conceivably, it could even be taken as a “put-down.” I think it should be either explained or omitted.
    About the phrase in the collects, “you gave Juan de la Cruz strength of purpose and mystical faith that sustained him” – it is not always or automatically the case that a “mystical” faith is a good thing. I would like it to say something indicating he was Christian, not simply a self-differentiating mystic. He is remembered because he lived an outstanding life (and undertook his ministry) based on his Christian faith. It took a mystical expression, to be sure, but the collect should affirm his Christian faith as primary. Not every mysticism is Christian, and not every Christian mystic should be upheld as a model to emulate. As I understand it, the “dark night” expresses, in part, the reality that the consolations of mysticism (as commonly understood) aren’t sufficient to base one’s prayer life (nor one’s faith in God) upon.
    The readings and psalm appear well chosen. My only question is whether it is necessary (or pastorally worth it) to continue the gospel beyond verses 12-15.
    Personally, in my observance of this commemoration (in daily office only) I wondered if its silence about the substance of his spirituality gave an insufficient impression – especially in an Anglican setting. Mysticism can, ironically, be self-absorbed – even as they build a picture of being God-absorbed. Stereotypes of great holiness can be hijacked in the impression that God is chiefly concerned with individual moral perfection and ineffable dimensions of personal prayer. The baptismal dimension of participating in the body of Christ, of sharing in the church’s mission, or of Christ latent in all brothers and sisters, can easily be overshadowed by a preoccupation with “my progress in prayer.” Even God can become, for this kind of mindset, more of an adversary as Judge of the imperfect, or prize to be attained, than Love creating, redeeming and longing for the fullness of life on earth, and eternally. In this regard, I felt the commemoration wasn’t directly wrong in what it said, but was silent. There’s a lot of spirituality that is alien to our understanding in John of the Cross – and certainly not all of it bad. We could use a heightened appreciation of eschatology. The commemoration here is obviously not a textbook, I realize. It can’t explain everything. But, John’s spirituality sits curiously on the foundation of Jesus Christ, the Apostles, and the Church. Those, at least, are my thoughts and concerns, for what they’re worth.

    • John’s theology of Prayer and spirituality is based in the Church and the community. The Eucharist, Baptism and the other sacraments are the first and prime Means of grace. We meet God in the love of Other, and we should love with gods love, even if we don’t like the Other in question. It is not a “curious” foundation, at least for those of us who’ve studied him. Christ and his Church is THE foundation.

      • John Robinson – I’m coming back to this in April 2011, and I greatly appreciate all the comments you posted here. Most especially I want to say I don’t disagree with the one I’m appending this to. While I wouldn’t disagree, not everyone (not many, probably) are going to have the familiarity with John of the Cross that you show in your comments, and I think it’s extremely important that the narrative convey some of that perspective, not only about the communal, baptismal dimension of John’s Christian life, but also the sense you share (below) in your comment on the “dark night.”

        Also, (not specifically addressing only John R) I found this as the OT lesson for Catherine of Siena, and it struck me as profoundly apropos (more so than Song of Songs) for John of the Cross, as the right OT lesson here (despite its extreme brevity):

        Lamentations 3:31–33
        31 For the Lord will not reject forever.
        32 Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
        33 for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.

  3. (“his [John’s] father died leaving his mother and her children reduced to poverty.”)
    Another possibility:
    “John’s father died, reducing the family to poverty.”

    And, despite the way I worded it above, they were still “their” children (not just “his” or “hers”) even after he died.

  4. Fine commemoration (though the commenter above is correct in suggesting consistency of language would be helpful – even the collect and biography differ). Also, there is an extra space in the longest paragraph between “that” and “he.”

  5. The bio needs a lot of work. Too much emphasis on biographical detail and not only not enough on his mysticism, but incomprehensible in what there is. ‘The peak of the mystical experience: a complete transformation in God’—are these his own words? If so. they need a lot of explaining. The goal of every Christian life is complete transformation in God, and I know many who are not mystics whose lives cannot be described except in those terms. The goal of the mystic is usually described as being that of a direct experience of God, which few that I know would claim (and I share John LaVoe’s caution about claims to such experience). The consensus seems to be that John’s experiences were of God, which is why we commemorate him, and that’s what the bio needs to focus on, preferably quoting him, since his writings seems to have inspired his readers very effectively.

    I suspect the collect contains a serious misunderstanding of what is meant by ‘the dark night of the soul’. The collect makes it sound like ‘hard times’, whereas I have always thought for John it meant the absence of all distraction from God, a time of silent and single-minded pursuit of God’s love. Can’t remember where I learned that now, but the words of the poem certainly suggest something along those lines:

    In darkness, and secure,
    by the secret ladder, disguised,
    – ah, the sheer grace! –
    in darkness and concealment,
    my house being now all stilled.

    On that glad night,
    in secret, for no one saw me,
    nor did I look at anything,
    with no other light or guide
    than the one that burned in my heart.

    As has already been said, the quote from the hymn in the collect is distracting, and unless it is a translation of an image John used, in which case that should be explained, I suggest finding something else.

    • John actually spends a good deal of time down playing what most people see as “mystical experiences.” One story has him listening tot he confession of a Nun and a vision starts. He basically says, not now, she needs me and the experience withdraws.

      We can’t confuse our experience of God for God. there is no room in John’s theology of Prayer for spiritual thrill seekers. he’s also deeply suspicious of people who embrace extremes of ascetic practice. he actively denounces what he sees as “bestial penance’s.”

      the Dark night can be painful, hard and harsh, after all our false gods are passing away .

  6. The first sentence of John’s 1586 commentary on the poem reads: “1. In this first stanza, the soul speaks of the way it followed in its departure from love of both self and all things. Through a method of true mortification, it died to all these things and to itself. It did this so as to reach the sweet and delightful life of love with God. And it declares that this departure was a dark night. As we will explain later, this dark night signifies here purgative contemplation, which passively causes in the soul this negation of self and of all things.”

    By dark night, John does not mean despair, doubt, or any of the other things it has come to mean in contemporary parlance, but rather the elimination (purgation) of all distraction, including the “love of both self and things.”

    I agree that the write-up should focus on his understanding of mystical experience, rather than on his biography, elements of which are misleading, including the phrase “university studies with the Jesuits.” Such a thing didn’t exist in Spain, or anywhere else in the 1550s or 1560s. More also could be made of his association with Teresa of Avila, who began the reform of the Carmelites before John and inspired him to attempt it among the men’s order as she had begun it with Carmelite nuns and who apparently dissuaded him from joining the Carthusians.

  7. All of the critiques are on target. While I admit that the biography is supposed to be short, I wonder if this could have been better and more fully written, perhaps by a person who knows more about John and his thought. This has signs of not having been as well crafted. To be exact: the collect completely misses the mark about the Dark Night. It is not something to be dreaded and to be sustained through. It is a mark of true Christian maturity, for John, when a person is left without the need for consolations, warm fuzzy feelings and other, affective, sensations that so much of our culture sees as the “point” of religion. An example of this would be Mother Teresa. She didn’t “lose her faith” she grew into God’s strength. For John one must follow Christ tot he Cross, and that isn’t a pleasant place. For John one must follow Christ to his Cross, and embrace it in order to fully be of service to others. This involves the rejection of idols and the little gods we create in our search for God. The pain of the Dark Night is, in part, the death of these false gods. The collect misleads and misses all of these points.

  8. The entire collect is inappropriate, not only for the theology, but for the wording. Here is my humble suggestion, based upon the collect from the Carmelite Breviary:

    Almighty and all loving God, who endowed John of the Cross with a spirit of self-denial, a love of your Cross, and a tireless heart for others: may we, following his example seek you first, love with your love and come to the eternal vision of your glory. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Brother and Friend, in unity with the Holy Spirit. Amen

    Almighty and all Loving God, who didst endow John of the Cross with a spirit of self-denial, a love of thy Cross and a tireless heart for others: vouchsafe that may we, following in his example, seek thee first, love with thy love and come to the eternal vision of thy glory. Through Jesus Christ our lord, Friend and brother in unity with the Holy Ghost. Amen

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