St. John of the Cross, born Juan de Yepes y Alvarez, in Spain in 1542, was a Spanish mystic, Carmelite Friar, influential poet and major figure of the Counter Reformation. He was educated in Biblical Studies, Theology and Philosophy and chose at an early age to pursue a Religious calling. In 1563 he joined the Carmelite Order and was ordained a Priest in 1567.
St. John of the Cross was a follower of Theresa of Avila. He later became her Priest Confessor. He and Theresa were on a mission to reform the Carmelite Order. To restore the Order to the more strict observance that earlier followers were required to adhere to. Because of these waves of reform, St. John was kidnapped and held in prison in a cell barely large enough for him to lay down in. He was fed bread and water and his only possessions were a prayer book and an oil lamp to read it by. He was taken out into the town square once a week where he was publicly whipped and then returned to his tiny cell. Through all of this, his faith remained strong and he found solace in writing poetry. After 9 months, John managed to escape from prison and rejoined Theresa and her Nuns in Toledo. He spent the remainder of his life traveling and establishing new Carmelite Houses throughout Spain until his death in 1591.
As we read and reflect on the life, ministry and death of St. John of the Cross, we can’t but help to see the need for reform in our own time. Not just in the Church, but in our Country, in our society and in our own lives. As the year 2017 rapidly comes to and end, and we look forward to the start of a new year, we must pause to reflect on all that has happened. 2017 saw, in our Nation, division, hatred, prejudice, turmoil, death, destruction, a watering down of Church teachings and the decline of society.
In the Church, we saw traditional Christian doctrine replaced by a more watered down and “socially acceptable” set of beliefs. Beliefs that Jesus is no longer the only path to Heaven. That Hell does not exist. That salvation is no longer necessary. Sin is no longer sin. Forgiveness is no longer needed because sin does not exist. God is no longer The God….the one and only. He (or she) is now defined by human characteristics and within the confines of human rationalization. We now are able to decide who and what God is based on who and what we want God to be in order to meet our own views or agenda. I attended a Bible Study earlier this year at an Episcopal Church where each participant described for us the “version” of God they worship. My version, the God who has existed before the dawn of time, was viewed as out dated, judgmental and not “hip.” Yes….you heard me! My God was not “hip!”
In our society we saw racism rear its ugly head once again. Blood was shed on our streets. A war broke out between the police and the public. Misguided youth rioted in towns across America; burning down buildings, destroying property and assaulting anyone in their path of destruction. Leaders in our Government on both sides of the aisle, instead of standing up for what was right and leading us by example, used these travesties to push their political agendas. We saw the Nation torn apart by one of the most hostile, disgusting and rigged elections in American history. Politicians, vying for the role of Leader of the Free World, acted in ways that should embarrass us as a Nation and as a People for many years to come. All of this fanned and fueled by a dishonest media. Now as we come to the close of 2017, we are plagued by a storm of sexual harassment allegations. From Hollywood to the Senate, hundreds of victims are coming forward to share their story.
If now is not the time for reform, I don’t know when is! Just as St. John of the Cross set out to reform the Carmelite Order, we too should do all we can to usher in reform in both the Church and in our society. Reform is not easy and often leads to hardship or even punishment for those who champion it. Fear of arrest and imprisonment, just as St. John endured, is indeed a valid fear. Maybe it’s a fear of losing your job or losing your friends. I have seen many within the Episcopal Church speak out against the ever growing heresy within her walls, only to then be thrown out of the Church as a result. I have seen friends lose friends over the election and even one passed over for a promotion because his beliefs are too “traditional.” But do not be discouraged. Find within yourself and within the Holy Scriptures the strength and the courage to speak out. To champion reform. To be the lonely voice crying, shouting, over the crowd. Preach reform, teach reform, and above all, strive to reform yourselves first and foremost. As the late Michael Jackson said, “if you want to make the world a better place, just look in the mirror and make a change.”