When Joey didn’t arrive on his due date, I looked up the saint days for the next week. The name of St. John of the Cross jumped off the list at me, as I’d just finished reading his biography. I didn’t know much about this Spanish priest until reading this book, yet I found his story fascinating.
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By worldly standards, St. John of the Cross was a nobody. He was born in poverty in Spain in 1542. His father and his younger brother died before John’s tenth birthday. John attended a school run by nuns, then a Jesuit-run college, and then joined the Carmelites. While many in the Order loved John, others hated and persecuted him—he even spent almost a year in jail. He died in poverty, as he had lived, after a long and painful illness.
By spiritual standards, St. John of the Cross is a giant. He was good friends with St. Teresa of Avila, another great saint of the Catholic Church. Together, they worked to reform the Carmelite Order. The Reform movement split the Carmelites into two opposing camps, yet John always advocated balance and tried to reconcile the two groups. He also wrote “some of the most important pieces of religious poetry our world has known.”
George P. Evans’ biography of this great saint is readable and enjoyable. He brings St. John of the Cross to life, explaining historical events that affects St. John’s life and portraying St. John as a man of great faith, yet someone whom we can still relate to. I appreciated moments when he showed St. John’s humour. For example,
When a friend told John how much he was intrigued at John’s enjoyment of working with rocks and building materials, John humorously but tellingly replied: “Don’t be surprised, son, for when I am dealing with them I have fewer sins to confess than when I am dealing with men.”
If a giant of the faith can say something like that, then perhaps there is still hope for me! St. John certainly had his struggles with those in his order. While he desired a life of quiet contemplative prayer, he readily served his Order, as a confessor, priest, leader, teacher, and more. His ability to see God through all the hardships in his life impressed me.
John’s months in prison, in particular, led him to some of his deepest spiritual insights:
His deprivation and desolation could have depleted his spirit and embittered him. But, brought low, John opened himself to God’s power in his life. Detached from virtually all other supports, he disposed himself to being filled with God’s powerful presence. God strengthened and deepened John’s spirit. His confinement liberated him to know and love God even more. In his cell, John fell into deeper intimacy with his God, on whose friendship he so much needed to draw.
At the back of the book, Evans provides an Appendix with a summary of St. John’s main teachings. This includes an overview of the poetic images drawn from John’s life experience. There’s also a prayer in honor of St. John of the Cross, reflection questions, and a chronology of important events from St. John’s life.
John of the Cross is part of the Saints by Our Side series from Pauline Media. Father George P. Evans has been a priest since 1977 and is currently the pastor of St. Julia Parish in Weston and Lincoln, Massachusetts. Holding a doctorate in theology from The Catholic University of America, he regularly teaches courses in theology and spirituality.
I received this book for review courtesy of the publisher; all opinions expressed are my own.