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  • Writer's picturepetermtyler

Happy Feast of St John of the Cross!

I am pleased to say the first proofs of our edited book 'John of the Cross: Carmel, Desire and Transformation' went to the publishers today so we are looking for a publication in early 2024. To celebrate the day and whet your appetite here is part of Prof. Chris Cook's Introductory Biography:

¡Viva Juan de la Cruz!

John of the Cross was small in physical stature, probably as a result of childhood malnutrition, being thin and only 4 feet 11 inches tall. The corpus of written works that he left was small in number. In contrast, his towering spiritual legacy, the grandeur and beauty of his poetry, and the enormous respect and affection in which he was held by many during his lifetime, provide evidence of a large heart and mind. Dying before the age of 50 years, his lifetime achievements, in terms of his part in the Teresian Carmelite reform, his ministry of spiritual direction, and his writings, were towering achievements and yet, to all accounts, he was a humble man. John did not have an easy life by any standard and yet, ever more concerned about others than himself, whether for their material, emotional or spiritual wellbeing, the adversities that he had experienced seemed to make him more sensitive to the needs of others. He was experienced as good company by his brothers and sisters, but always aware of a need to spend time alone in the company of God.

It is perhaps surprising that there is no recent critical biography of John’s life, and almost all his biographers have tended to lapse into hagiography. In particular, we do not have a biography of John’s life that corresponds to the kind of psychological attention that has been given to figures such as Ignatius Loyola(Meissner, 2009), or Thérėse of Lisieux(Foley, 2008). John had failings, as do all human beings, but it is easy to overlook these as they fall under the shadow of his positive achievements.

If we were to resist the temptation to hagiography, what might we identify as John’s weaknesses? We might point out that, as a younger man, he was not always popular amongst his peers and was willing to admonish even his seniors. However, adversity later in life seems to have had a softening effect upon him in this regard. His asceticism was certainly excessive by today’s standards, but this was usually imposed upon himself more than upon others. If his health was damaged by the cruel treatment that he received during his imprisonment in Toledo, it was also not helped by his lack of concern for his own welfare. His willingness, even desire, to suffer for Christ may appear to us as excessive, but in his own time would have been seen as a virtue. The criticism most often levelled against John is doctrinal, rather than psychological, concerning his allegedly low Christology. Yet, this is an undeserved criticism and fails to appreciate the language by way of which John commonly talks about the depth of his relationship with Christ. John is thus a complex character, and easily misunderstood. As for so many of us, his strengths were often also his weaknesses.

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