Saturday, December 14, 2013

December 14 - Juan de la Cruz, Mystic, Reformer, Imprisoned


Juan had a challenging childhood. His father died and left him and his mother and two older brothers alone at Avila in central Spain. Further, theirs was a family among the great group known as conversos--Jews forced to convert at the tip of a sword. Though his family had been forcibly converted to a faith that had cost them any chance at financial success and committed many sins against them, Juan found himself at home in the Christian faith. He was educated at a Jesuit institution when the Society of Jesus was still new. The Jesuit founder--Ignatius of Loyola--may have been alive for the first few years that Juan spent studying. As he grew older, he joined a Carmelite monastery with intentions of eventually becoming a Carthusian hermit.Then, he met Teresa.

Teresa de Avila (or Teresa of Jesus as she is sometimes called) spoke to Juan in a way that enticed him. She convinced him--slowly at first--not to join the Carthusians in pursuit of solitude and prayer but rather to make a life of reformation his prayer. Teresa was working to bring reformation to the Carmelite order and saw a coworker in the recently-ordained Juan. They began to work together and spiritual formation and maturity seemed to travel in their wake as they settled among various Christian communities. They were, however, met with resistance--as can be expected--by those who were uninterested in the reformation and healing of the Church.The resistance began as being barred from entering some convents and monasteries but eventually became more severe as they became more influential among spiritual communities.

Juan had been ordered to relocate by a superior--perhaps to break up his work with Teresa--and had been advised to stop his reforming work. When he refused both, he was seized by his brothers and imprisoned in a small cell. It was barely big enough for him to lay down and yet they felt it was the best place to keep him. He was fed and given water but was abused and mistreated by the same people who he had covenanted to love and take care of. Weekly, he was brought out of his cell to be publicly whipped and humiliated for his works of reformation and discipleship. While in his cell he wrote poetry including his most famous poem: La noche oscura del alma or The Dark Night of the Soul. In it, we read of the mystic path that leads the follow of Christ through a dark night of the seeming absence of God from the life of the disciple. In this dark place, disciples learn to lay down their egos and lives so that they might find life through death and darkness. In his small cell, these words must have resonated in his soul to provide him with some modicum of comfort even as his life seemed to fall apart around him. 

He was able to engineer and escape by breaking his cell door and squeezing through a small window in a nearby room. Having left captivity behind, he tried to return to a normal life and found himself consistently drifting back to the monastic life. Instead of seeking solitude again, Juan began founding monasteries with Teresa and continuing to pursue the reformation of the Church he loved and had served even in the face of its enemies and adversity.

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