Thursday, February 14, 2019
Review: Saint John of the Cross by Father Paschasius Heriz

Published in 1919 and with an imprimatur and glowing review by Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, "Saint John of the Cross" by Father Paschasius Heriz is a true treasure. Fr. Paschasius of the Carmelite Community at the Catholic University of America was a scholar and an expert on the Carmelite order. I found the first edition of this book at a second-hand store and bought it.  Inside was a true treasure of immense spiritual wisdom as evident by the life and example of St. John of the Cross.

St. John of the Cross was born in 1542 in Spain near the city of Avila to a very pious mother named Catalina Alvarez. His mother was married to St. John's father who married her for her great piety and devotion. However, for doing so, his father lost all of his wealth as a noblemen and lived only a short time afterward. St. John of the Cross's mother raised her sons, three of them, in great poverty. St. John of the Cross had two brothers - Luis who died early in life and Francis, the eldest, who would be a great friend and brother to St. John. Francis would outlive St. John of the Cross.

As a young child, St. John had an accident where he nearly drowned by was saved by an apparition of the Mother of God. That event left an impression and a fervent devotion in him - a devotion that would last for the entirety of his life. In fact, as a young man who would be saved again from falling in a deep well again by the Mother of God to the astonishment of those around.

St. John spent his adolescent years in study and rigorous prayer and penance. He was known for his immense charity to the poor by his work at the hospitals. Around this time, he received a revelation from the Lord Himself who shared that He wished for the saint to become a religious and help restore ancient perfection to an Order in his Church.

St. John of the Cross was above all a humble man and his whole life he with fear for his sins and thought he could do little perfect. Yet, by all accounts of those around him, he lived an entirely unblemished life. His prayer routine was constant, he ate little, he inflicted physical punishment upon himself his entire life, and he wished to aspire to no great thing but to live humbly and in penance for sins.

At the age of 21, St. John entered the Carmelite Order by prompting from the Holy Ghost on February 24, 1563. At that time, he took the name John of St. Mathias, since he received the habit on the Feast of St. Mathias.  At the onset, St. John felt called to personally keep the ancient Rule of the Carmelites that was given by St. Albert, patriarch of Jerusalem, which was approved by Pope Innocent IV. His superiors permitted him to do so. However, the Carmelites at that time instead kept a mitigated rule that was approved by Pope Eugenius IV. The mitigated rule allowed the consumption of meat, it did not require the fast that lasted from the Feast of the Holy Cross all the way to Easter and allowed the friars to wear shoes. Yet, St. John was called by God to observe this Rule and he did while at the Carmelite Monastery even though by doing so he was ridiculed and many days would go hungry as there were no special meals of food prepared for him. Yet, he continued to observe the ancient observance and would permit himself no excuse from any function at the monastery. At the age of 25, St. John was asked to prepare for the priesthood even though he felt far too unworthy to do so. Yet, he submitted - his whole life he submitted to his superiors - and was ordained. Feeling unworthy to offer the Mass, St. John prayed at his first Mass to preserve in purity his whole life and God answered Him at that Mass with a voice that said, "Thy prayer is granted."

The young St. John felt drawn to the Carthusian Order but he was asked by St. Teresa of Avila to help her in the restoration of the primitive Carmelite Rule of Life. He did so and received the habit of the primitive Order. Along with two other friars in 1568, Saint John renewed his solemn vows and renounced the mitigations of the rule sanctioned by Pope Eugenius IV. And they promised both Our Lord and Our Lady that they would live under the primitive rule until death. And in keeping with the custom which St. Teresa had for the sisters to change their names to avoid all connection with their family names, the saint changed his name to John of the Cross.

During the years that followed, again with the support of his superiors, St. John founded many monasteries with the approval of the Order and lived in one that was abject and completely impoverished. He chose the poorest and smallest room for himself. He read souls and counseled many nuns and friars. He is documented on several occasions to have performed exorcisms to have relieved possessed persons. And it was during this time he received many mystical experiences including trances and visions while in prayer or saying Holy Mass.

After nine years of his keeping the primitive Rule, St. John was forcibly arrested by the Carmelite Order which wished to suppress the keeping of the Primitive Rule. St. John underwent the punishment as a prisoner in a Carmelite monastery. There, the prior treated him with great irreverence, forbid him to say Mass, starved Him, refused to let him change his habit or bathe for the entire nine months of his imprisonment, and more. He was treated with the utmost contempt and St. John welcomed it all as a means to make reparation and penance. He longed to suffer and was the most docile and patient of sufferings; in fact, by the accounts were written, the patient endurance of his unjust torture resembled the patience of our Lord in His passion. Yet, after nearly a year, he received a vision from our Lady with the means to escape and he did so.

He spent the remaining years of his life in constant prayer and work for the Order. He served as Vicar-Provincial, he performed miracles, and he continued to found monasteries. This lasted for many years and then in 1587 Pope Sixtus V sanctioned the separation of the friars of the reform from the friars of the mitigation. At last, in 1588 the first General Chapter of the Reform was held where St. John of the Cross was made the first Consultor and Prior of Segovia. Around this time he was in deep prayer when our Our Lord spoke to Him in a vision and asked, "John, what shall I give thee for all thou hast done and suffered for Me?" And after He asked three times, St. John responded, "To suffer and to be held in contempt for Thy sake." And his prayer was granted. In the ensuing years, he was relieved of all offices as superior, he spent his remaining years under a superior who was unkind and hateful towards him for having corrected a fault of his years before, and he died in humiliation. But St. John endured it all and desired the physical and spiritual torment he endured all for the graces and for the sake of God. At last, he died in December 1591 on a Saturday, the day dedicated to Our Lady, which was revealed to Him.

Miraculously, his body and his bandages gave forth a great perfume whose smell could not be contained. Great light filled his tomb just days after he died and his body was incorrupt. It was determined that some of his limbs were to go to some of the houses of the order so it was divided up. And the relics of his body brought many miracles to those who touched them.

Indeed, in life and in death, the life of St. John of the Cross, great father and founder of the Discalced Carmelites, is worth great meditation. I highly recommend "Saint John of the Cross" by Father Paschasius Heriz.

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