In St. John’s day, a quarter of the population of Spain belonged to Religious Orders. Either a young man joined an Order, or he went adventuring by sea to far-off lands and conquests. Therefore, it was not surprising for a bright, gifted young man like Juan de Yepes (St. John) to enter a religious house. He sought and knew he would receive support from other members in the religious community. The strict rule, under which they lived, appealed to him. The tradition of those who had gone before him, strengthened him; it offered him the security he needed, that it was the one God wanted him to take.
The object of the Carmelite life was to meditate night and day on God’s Law and His Word. Their houses were purposely found in places far removed from the distractions of the world, very often in the desert, in hermitages. They would practice long and severe fasts. Their life was spent communing with their Lord in contemplation, meditating on this King of all Who loved them. In a word, they were to live austerely, centering on the World beyond, and their Creator.
At least that’s what they had been and were called to be.1 This is what St. John thought he was joining, but the Carmelites of St. Teresa and St. John’s time were being invaded by the world. Literally thousands of lay people trafficked in and out of their houses, affecting and infecting those within, with the world and its standards. The convents less resembled houses of prayer and more reflected opulent houses of the world.
St. John leaves behind his old life and begins a new life
Everyone loved St. John. His family was no exception. The night he made his decision to leave, to start his new life in the Lord, he waited till the house was dark and quiet. Fearing his family would try to dissuade him, not knowing if he could resist them and the love he felt for them, he left the only way he could, not even saying good-by. What did the young man feel, as he ran through the night? Was he sad at all he was leaving? Was he excited at all that was ahead?
Months passed quickly for John, as a novice. He found his life full, each day bringing new excitement and joy. Many hours flew by in the worship of God and the reading of the Word. He loved it all, the reciting of the solemn offices of the Church, the long passages they read of the Bible, the chanting of the solemn office of the Eucharist where and when God once again came to him, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.
Unlike much of our vision of contemplative life, contemplation is often through action, caring for the household of a convent. There are rooms to be cleaned, meals to be cooked, tables to be served, dishes to be washed, provisions to be gotten; all in all, hard work making the hours fly. St. John not yet fully professed, like novices before and after him, was always being tested. It is so important that the religious die to the ego, or as we say in the ministry the “I” this and the “I” that part of our life.
It is imperative that the religious understand, as in any relationship, the courtship and the attraction period does not last forever. The life is lived in the everyday saying of “yes!” In every matter requiring obedience St. John excelled, joyfully proclaiming his fiat, his act of faith each day. This would be a stronghold for him in later years when that “yes” would be so painful.
After six months of the novitiate, he professed his final vows, donned the scapular of the fully confirmed Carmelite and left to study Latin and Philosophy in Salamanca. His professor, the one who would nourish his mind and spirit, drew crowds. Through him, students discovered learning could be stimulating. The professor’s lectures were simply stated, clear, yet balanced with humor. He was everything the young man, from the little town in Medina, needed.
Was his professor too popular? Was his teaching too innovative? Whatever the case, the Inquisition was to rear its ugly head and he was arrested! There is nothing as deadly and angry as the self-righteous. His jailers made sure he had barely enough to eat, sometimes nothing at all. Alone, no one permitted to visit him (they probably would have been too frightened to do so, if they could), it was hard to hold on to any sanity.
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