Benedict XVI - General Audiences
On St. John of the Cross
"If a Man Has Great Love Within...He Endures Life's Problems More
H.H. Benedict XVI
February 16, 2011
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Two weeks ago I presented the figure of the great Spanish mystic Teresa
of Jesus. Today I would like to speak about another important saint of
that land, a spiritual friend of St. Teresa, a reformer, and like St.
Teresa, a member of the Carmelite religious family: St John of the
Cross, proclaimed a doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI in 1926, and
who is traditionally referred to as Doctor Mysticus, "Mystical Doctor."
John of the Cross was born in 1542 in small village of Fontiveros, near
Avila, in Castilla la Vieja, son of Gonzalo de Yepes and Catalina
Álvarez. The family was very poor because the father, of noble birth
from Toledo, was expelled from his home and disinherited for having
married Catalina, a humble silk weaver. John's father died when the
youth was very young, and at nine years old, John went with his mother
and brother Francisco to Medina del Campo, near Valladolid, a commercial
and cultural center. Here he attended the "Colegio de los Doctrinos,"
also carrying out humble works for the nuns of the church-convent of
Subsequently, given his human qualities and the results of his studies,
he was admitted first as nurse in the Hospital of the Conception and
later in the College of the Jesuits, just founded in Medina del Campo.
John entered it at 18 and studied social sciences, rhetoric and
classical languages for three years. At the end of his formation, his
vocation was very clear to him: the religious life and, among the many
orders present in Medina, he felt called to the Carmel.
In the summer of 1563 he began his novitiate among the Carmelites of the
city, taking the religious name of Matthew. The following year he was
sent to the prestigious University of Salamanca, where he studied
Philosophy and Arts for three years. In 1567, he was ordained priest and
returned to Medina del Campo to celebrate his first Mass surrounded by
the affection of his family.
It was precisely here that the first meeting took place between John and
Teresa of Jesus. The meeting was decisive for both: Teresa set forth her
plan for the reform of Carmel also in the masculine branch, and
suggested that John adhere to it "for the greater glory of God." The
young priest was fascinated by Teresa's ideas, to the point of becoming
a great supporter of the project. They both worked together for some
months, sharing ideals and proposals to open as soon as possible the
first house of Discalced Carmelites. The opening took place on Dec. 28,
1568, in Duruelo, a solitary place in the province of Avila.
With John, the first masculine community was formed with three other
companions. On renewing their religious profession according to the
Primitive Rule, the four adopted new names: John then called himself "of
the Cross," the name with which he would later be known universally. At
the end of 1572, at the request of St. Teresa, he became confessor and
vicar of the Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila, where the saint was
prioress. They were years of close collaboration and spiritual
friendship, which enriched them both. During that period were written
the most important Teresian works and John's first writings.
Adherence to the Carmelite reform was not easy, and it even resulted in
grave suffering for John. The most dramatic incident was his seizure and
imprisonment in 1577 in the convent of the Carmelites of the Ancient
Observance of Toledo, which was the result of an unjust accusation. The
saint remained in prison for six months, subjected to privations and
physical and moral constraints. Here he composed, along with other
poems, the famous "Spiritual Canticle." Finally, on the night of Aug.
16-17, 1578, he was able to escape in a hazardous way, taking refuge in
the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites of the city. St. Teresa and
his companions celebrated his liberation with great joy and, after a
brief time to regain his strength, John was sent to Andalucia, where he
spent 10 years in several convents, especially in Granada. He took on
increasingly important posts in the order, eventually becoming
provincial vicar, and completed the writing of his spiritual treatises.
Then he returned to the land of his birth, as a member of the general
government of the Teresian religious family, which now enjoyed full
juridical autonomy. He lived in the Carmel of Segovia, carrying out the
office of superior of that community. In 1591, he was relieved of all
responsibility and destined to the new religious Province of Mexico.
While preparing for the long journey with 10 companions, he retired to a
solitary convent near Jaen, where he became seriously ill.
John faced with exemplary serenity and patience enormous sufferings. He
died on the night of Dec. 13-14, 1591, while his brothers recited the
Morning Office. He took leave of them saying: "Today I am going to sing
the Office in Heaven." His mortal remains were taken to Segovia. He was
beatified by Clement X in 1675, and canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726.
John is considered one of the most important lyric poets of Spanish
literature. His most important works are four: "Ascent of Mount Carmel,"
"Dark Night of the Soul," "Spiritual Canticle," "Living Flame of Love."
In the "Spiritual Canticle," St. John presents the path of purification
of the soul, that is, the progressive joyful possession of God until the
soul feels that it loves God with the same love that it is loved by him.
The "Living Flame of Love" continues in this perspective, describing in
greater detail the transforming union with God. The example used by John
is always that of fire: as the fire burns and consumes the wood, it
becomes incandescent flame, so also the Holy Spirit, who during the dark
night purifies and "cleanses" the soul, then in time illumines and warms
it as if it were a flame. The life of the soul is a continuous
celebration of the Holy Spirit, that enables one to perceive the glory
of the union with God in eternity.
The "Ascent of Mount Carmel" presents the spiritual itinerary from the
point of view of the progressive purification of the soul, necessary to
ascend to the summit of Christian perfection, symbolized by the summit
of Mount Carmel. This purification is proposed as a journey that man
undertakes, collaborating with divine action to free the soul from all
attachment or affection contrary to the will of God. The purification,
which to arrive at union of love with God must be total, begins with the
way of the senses and continues with the one obtained through the three
theological virtues -- faith, hope and charity -- the purification of
intention, memory and will.
The "Dark Night" describes the "passive" aspect, that is, God's
intervention in the process of "purification" of the soul. On its own,
in fact, human effort is incapable of getting to the profound roots of
the person's bad inclinations and habits: It can restrain them, but not
uproot them totally. To do so, the special action of God is necessary,
which purifies the spirit radically and disposes it to the union of love
with him. St. John describes this purification as "passive" precisely
because, though accepted by the soul, it is realized by the mysterious
action of the Holy Spirit who, as a flame of fire, consumes every
impurity. In this state, the soul is subjected to all types of trials,
as if it were in a dark night.
These indications on the saint's principal works help us to approach the
outstanding points of his vast and profound mystical doctrine, whose
objective is to describe a sure way to arrive at sanctity, the state of
perfection to which God calls us all. According to John of the Cross,
everything that exists, created by God, is good. Through creatures, we
can come to the discovery of the One who has left his imprint on them.
Faith, however, is the only source given to man to know God exactly as
he is in himself, as God One and Triune. All that God willed to
communicate to man he said in Jesus Christ, his Word made flesh. He,
Jesus Christ, is the only and definitive way to the Father (cf. John
14:6). Anything created is nothing compared with God, and nothing is
true outside of him. Consequently, to come to perfect love of God, every
other love must be conformed in Christ to divine love.
This is where John of the Cross derives his insistence on the need for
purification and interior emptying in order to be transformed in God,
which is the sole end of perfection. This "purification" does not
consist in the simple physical lack of things or of their use. What the
pure and free soul does, instead, is to eliminate every disordered
dependence on things. Everything must be placed in God as center and end
of life. The long and difficult process of purification exacts personal
effort, but the true protagonist is God: all that man can do is to
"dispose" himself, to be open to the divine action and not place
obstacles in its way.
Living the theological virtues, man is elevated and gives value to his
own effort. The rhythm of growth of faith, hope and charity goes in step
with the work of purification and with progressive union with God until
one is transformed in him. When one arrives at this end, the soul is
submerged in the very Trinitarian life, such that St. John affirms that
the soul is able to love God with the same love with which he loves it,
because he loves it in the Holy Spirit. This is why the Mystical Doctor
holds that there is no true union of love with God if it does not
culminate in the Trinitarian union. In this supreme state the holy soul
knows everything in God and no longer has to go through creatures to
come to him. The soul now feels inundated by divine love and is
completely joyful in it.
Dear brothers and sisters, in the end the question remains: Does this
saint with his lofty mysticism, with this arduous way to the summit of
perfection, have something to say to us, to the ordinary Christian who
lives in the circumstances of today's life, or is he only an example, a
model for a few chosen souls who can really undertake this way of
purification, of mystical ascent? To find the answer we must first of
all keep present that the life of St. John of the Cross was not a
"flight through mystical clouds," but was a very hard life, very
practical and concrete, both as reformer of the order, where he met with
much opposition, as well as provincial superior, as in the prison of his
brothers of religion, where he was exposed to incredible insults and bad
physical treatment. It was a hard life but, precisely in the months
spent in prison, he wrote one of his most beautiful works. And thus we
are able to understand that the way with Christ, the going with Christ,
"the Way," is not a weight added to the already sufficient burden, but
something completely different, it is a light, a strength that helps us
carry this burden.
If a man has a great love within him, it's as if this love gives him
wings, and he endures life's problems more easily, because he has in
himself that light, which is faith: to be loved by God and to let
oneself be loved by God in Christ Jesus. This act of allowing oneself to
be loved is the light that helps us to carry our daily burden. And
holiness is not our work, our difficult work, but rather it is precisely
this "openness": Open the windows of the soul so that the light of God
can enter, do not forget God because it is precisely in opening oneself
to his light that strength is found, as well as the joy of the redeemed.
Let us pray to the Lord so that he will help us to find this sanctity,
to allow ourselves to be loved by God, which is the vocation of us all,
as well as being true redemption. Thank you.
[Translation by ZENIT]
[The Holy Father then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English,
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
In today's catechesis, we discuss the sixteenth-century Spanish
Carmelite mystic, Saint John of the Cross. John was born into a poor
family. As a young man he entered the Carmelites and was ordained
priest. Soon afterwards, he met Teresa of Avila in what was a decisive
encounter for them both, as they discerned plans for reforming the
Carmelite Order. He became confessor in Teresa's monastery, and together
they developed a rich articulation of the workings of the Lord upon the
soul in the spiritual life. Despite persecution and misunderstanding
from within his own Order, John produced some of the most illuminating
and insightful treatises in all of Western spirituality. His four major
writings are The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night of the Soul, The
Spiritual Canticle, and The Living Flame of Love. One of the themes much
developed by John was that of the purification of the soul: by means of
created things, we can discover traces of the living God in this world.
Faith, however, is the unique means by which we can come to know God as
he is in himself. The demanding process of purification, at times active
and at others passive, requires our determined effort, but it is God who
is the real centre; all man can do is dispose himself and humble himself
before the loving work of God in the soul. In this sense, John is for us
a model of humble dedication and of faithful perseverance on the road to
I extend a warm welcome to all the English-speaking pilgrims and
visitors, especially those students from Saint Benedict's School, Saint
Aloysius College, Saint Patrick's Grammar School, and students and
parishioners from the United States. Upon you all, I invoke God's
blessings of joy and peace!
Copyright 2011 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana
[He concluded in Italian:]
I address a cordial welcome to the Italian-speaking pilgrims. In
particular, I greet the participants in the General Chapter of the
Marian Clergy of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
hoping that they will continue with generosity in the service of Christ
and the Church, following faithfully the path traced by the Venerable
I greet affectionately the Missionaries of Charity and thank them for
the joyful Christian witness they give in the different Continents, in
the footsteps of their unforgettable founder Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.
I greet the regional coordinators of the Apostleship of the Sea, on the
occasion of the congress promoted by the Pontifical Council for the
Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, and I encourage them to
identify adequate pastoral answers to the problems of seamen and their
I greet the representatives of the Banca di Viterbo Credito Cooperativo
and hope that the centenary of the foundation of the Institute will
always inspire greater commitment to the service of authentic social
My thought goes, finally, to young people, the sick and newlyweds. You,
dear young people, make room in your heart for Jesus and spread his joy
and his peace. You, dear sick, offer your moments of trial to the Lord
so that the doors of hearts will open to the proclamation of the Gospel.
And you, dear newlyweds, always be witnesses of the love of Christ, who
has called you to realize a common project of life.
[Translation by ZENIT]
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