What if you joined a religious order only to find that the religious lifestyle that once existed in it was now almost unrecognizable? Abuses are everywhere, laxity is the norm, nobody enforces the rules, and anyone who challenges the new status quo is met with cruelty.
You consider leaving, but one special leader within the order tells you that she has big plans and a good friend who will help out, and that she needs your help to do it all. So, you stay—only to be thrown in jail.
What do you do? You love the Church and your order, but your confreres all hate you, and they want you dead. Not just silenced—dead!
That’s where we find the famous Carmelite and Counter-Reformer, St. John of the Cross, whose feast we commemorate today. December 14 is the day he died, but he didn’t die in that prison. He escaped, and where most of us might run away as far as possible or seek vengeance, and certainly leave that religious order, John was stubborn in his commitment to improving anything worth improving, loving anyone worth loving, and telling the world about his Dark Night. After suffering so much, nothing was going to stop him.
But John was not stubborn to the point where he let it affect his ability to work with and respect the opinions of others, nor did he let his stubbornness make him pigheaded; his was a determination, a resolve to do what he knew was right for the glory and love of God, even if it meant he would be hunted, imprisoned, and despised. We can learn from his life to reform correctly, which begins with reforming ourselves.
For John and his Carmelite friend, St. Teresa of Avila, reforming an order was as much a legal, political, and administrative process as it was a spiritual one. There is not a formula to be learned from them for reforming each and every problem in the Church today, but there are lessons about the character and virtue required for those who wish to make better of themselves first and their communities second.
First, if we wish to really help the Church, we must learn detachment. We must become unattached to worldly things. John consistently stressed that “individuals must deprive themselves of their appetites for worldly possessions.”
There is a difference, of course, between owning something for utility or proper entertainment and being attached to something for possession’s sake. The issue with attachment is when we base our happiness on the accumulation of stuff and the hoarding of things that have no eternal value. John explains: “It ought to be kept in mind that an attachment to a creature makes a person equal to that creature; the stronger the attachment, the closer is the likeness to the creature and the greater the equality.”
Next, we must hold strong to the virtue of hope. Hope is an absolute necessity if we are to commit our lives to a constant conversion, and it’s indispensable as well for those hoping to reform the Church in any measure: be it the culture in their parish, the focus of a small group, the consistency of a local chapter of a third order, or just the domestic church of their own family.
Hope is necessary because we’re human and will feel tempted at times to give up or to slacken our efforts. Through hope we can resist and focus on what we know to be true. In moments when we are filled with hope and holy ambitions, John tells us, “As often as distinct ideas, forms, and images occur to them, they should immediately, without resisting them, turn to God with loving affection, in emptiness of everything rememberable.”
The third thing we need to have is what John of the Cross calls “the first passion of the soul and emotion of the will.” He’s referring to joy, one of the fruits of the Spirit. What is joy, though? Our saint tells us:
Joy is nothing else than a satisfaction of the will with an object that is considered fitting and an esteem for it . . . Active joy which occurs when people understand distinctly and clearly the object of their joy and have the power either to rejoice or not. . . . In this [passive] joy, the will finds itself rejoicing without any clear and distinct understanding of the object of its joy.
John, though an austere and serious person, knew how to have fun and laugh. Once he escaped from prison, his first stories to his friends were about the funnier things that happened there, and his first homilies made audiences hysterical with his observations of the humorous moments in life.
There’s much more to be studied about St. John of the Cross’s reforming style and accomplishments, but detachment, hope, and joy are the top three we can learn from him to enable our resilience in times of change and performance in times of reform—especially our self-reform. Christian reform is not about novelties and progress but is a return to the soul’s conversion to Christ. True interior reform will keep the whole Church in a constant state of conversion.
We don’t have to be jailed and left for dead to learn how to reform our soul and the Church. Read more about these lessons from St. John of the Cross and the other true reformers in Shaun’s new book, Reform Yourself! How to Pray, Find Peace, and Grow in Faith with the Saints of the Counter-Reformation, available now from Catholic Answers Press.