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The Mystic Saints: John of the Cross

Perhaps the most revered of all the mystic saints, John of the Cross’s unquestioned devotion to a lifestyle of contemplative thought and rigorous asceticism makes him a prime example of what it means to be strong in Catholic spirituality. A prolific and celebrated writer, John of the Cross endured a life of turmoil in his unwavering pursuit of a union with god. A co-founder of the Discalced Carmelite Order along with fellow mystic St. Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross was elevated to sainthood in 1726 and was later made a doctor of the church for his contributions to ascetic and contemplative life. The persistence John  showed by continuing to live the life of a mystic in the face of his hardships makes him something of a role model for those who wish to strengthen their Catholic spirituality.

Born in Spain in 1542, St. John of the Cross grew up without much money after the death of his father left the family struggling to get by. From an early age, the mystic qualities of John of the Cross were evident, as twice during his young life he was said to have been rescued from death through divine intervention. Later, he would continue down the mystic path by tending to lepers at a local hospital, and attending a school of the Society of Jesus. When he was 21 years old, he joined the Carmelite Order, and instantly impressed the friars there with his devotion to contemplative thought and asceticism. This lifestyle of asceticism grew his mystic union with God as well as his Catholic spirituality, and saw him promoted to a priest in the Carmelite Order in 1567.

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Around this time, St. Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite nun, heard of John’s virtue as a man of great catholic spirituality and wished to meet him. In him, she saw a fellow contemplative mystic whom she believed was the right person to help her reform the Carmelite Order. He agreed, and in his agreement the Discalced Carmelite Order was born. It was soon after this that John‘s mystic union with God rose to new heights, as his continued  prayer and solitude made him yearn to imitate the life and sufferings of Jesus. In what would come to be a pattern in John’s life, this feeling of unparalleled joy would soon be replaced by devastation. Though he never lost sight of his mystic endeavors, John began to feel a loss of interiority and Catholic spirituality that he attributed to the work of devils. He would later describe this feeling as a stage all contemplative souls must journey through in order to achieve union with God.

Though he was able to continue his work as a mystic, the hardships that seemed to run concurrent with John’s life did not cease. In 1577, he was imprisoned by revolting members of the Discalced Order, who were opposed to the reforms he and Teresa of Avila had imposed. While imprisoned, John wrote what are considered to be some of his most thoughtful and beautiful works as a mystic. These works, which include “The Ascent on Mount Carmel “and “The Living Flame of Love”, focus on the strengthening of one’s Catholic spirituality through the practice of asceticism. These works reinforce the teachings of St. John of the Cross that in living a contemplative life, it is possible to attain a mystic union with God. Though he did eventually escape his captors, he was ultimately distanced from the Discalced Carmelite Order after a disagreement with his superiors, and lived the remainder of his life in exile.

In many ways, the life of John of the Cross can be seen to be a blueprint for sainthood. Throughout his many years of hardships and setbacks, John eventually came to achieve a mystic union with God through his lifestyle of asceticism and contemplative prayer. In his writings and teachings, St. John of the Cross tells the believer how to experience God more fully, and lays out the path that one must take in order to attain this experience. His countless contributions to the church and Christian mystic thought make him one of the foremost authorities on how to strengthen Catholic spirituality.

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