Contemplatives and Mystics
The cross stands center
stage in Christian
spirituality. It symbolizes
death to self and the courageous
surrender to God that
were hallmarks of Jesus’ life.
Every disciple must pick up
his or her cross and follow
in the Master’s footsteps.
Indeed, embracing the cross
is the distinguishing act
which separates Christians
from other believers. All
the saints have trod the via
dolorosa, the way of sorrows.
This month’s trio of
saints each experienced the
cross in such a profound
way that they are called
“mystics”—people who had
a unique experience of and
response to God in the
depths of their suffering.
She was dead at the age of 24. She
spent the last decade of her life
behind the walls of a cloistered
Carmelite monastery in northern France.
She never wrote a word of theology.
And yet, Pope John Paul II declared
St. Thérèse of Lisieux a Doctor of the
Church. Ever wonder why?
was the ninth and last child of a saintly
couple. Her childhood was scarred
with separations. She was four when
her mother died. She later longed to
follow her two eldest sisters to the
Carmelite convent in Lisieux.
According to her spiritual autobiography,
The Story of a Soul, her
childhood came to a sudden end on
Christmas Day, 1886. She rushed
home from Midnight Mass knowing
her shoes, placed in the chimney
corner, would be filled with small
gifts. As she climbed the
steps to her bedroom,
she overheard her father’s
justifiable comment that
this would be the final year
that Thérèse, nearly 14,
would experience this
She described this jolt
as the “grace of leaving my
childhood.” In that instant,
she says, she received the
gift of “love and the spirit
Thérèse’s response to the
cross was emerging.
Path to holiness
She joined her two sisters
in the convent at age 15.
Again she was the youngest,
now among 26 other
nuns. At her profession
in September 1890, she
took the name Sister
Thérèse of the Infant Jesus and the
Thérèse’s holiness is found not
in the convent’s seven hours of daily
prayer, nor in her domestic work, nor
in her time in charge of the sacristy or
as assistant to the mistress of novices.
Her heroic sanctity is found in the way
she performed her daily tasks even as
she carried personal crosses. Attitude
was everything. Her “Little Way,”
which evolved over the years, was the
practical expression of her loving spirit
Her emotional suffering centered
upon her father who, soon after she
entered the convent, suffered a mental
illness which necessitated a three-year
institutionalization. Thérèse considered
his illness her greatest suffering.
That suffering would be eclipsed
on Good Friday, 1896, when she began
exhibiting symptoms of tuberculosis.
The 23-year-old nun experienced
incredible pain and bouts of suffocation.
A few days later, she began experiencing
a third cross, a complete loss of faith.
An incident of sheer desperation shows
how she struggled to cling to God:
Using her own tubercular blood
which she had spit up, she penned
the Apostles’ Creed and pinned it to
her religious habit.
Love alone counts
In the midst of all this, she continued
to be faithful to the daily schedule, to
give herself to community activities and
even to write devotional poems at the
community’s request. The attitude of
self-forgetfulness consumed her.
When asked about her “Little Way”
a few days before her death, Thérèse
described it as the way of spiritual
childhood, of confidence in and
abandonment to God. Expressed in
selfless deeds of love—a smile, a kind
word, a simple act of charity—it was
“to throw at Jesus’ feet the flowers of
little sacrifices, to win Him through
The “Little Flower,” as she once
referred to herself, cared to give the
very best—flowers symbolized in
practical little sacrifices of self-forgetful
love. The future Doctor of
the Church summed up her secret the
day before her death: “It is love alone
St. John of the Cross (1542-1591)
At age 34, some members of
his religious community felt
so threatened that they imprisoned
him in a small windowless room
and routinely beat him three times a
week. After nine months, he managed
to escape under cover of night—making “night” an important symbol
in his spiritual experience. Taking
only the poetry he had composed
during confinement, he climbed out
a window and, over time, emerged as
one of the greatest mystics of Christian
spirituality. In 1926, he was named a
Doctor of the Church.
Juan de Yepes y Álvarez was the
youngest son of a wealthy silk merchant
and a poor weaver girl in Fontiveros,
Spain. His father, disowned by his
family for marrying below his rank,
died soon after Juan’s birth. His mother
struggled to make ends meet, finally
settling the homeless family in Medina
After a basic education, John
worked at the Plague Hospital de la
Concepcion. The hospital’s founder
offered the teenager the chance to
attend a Jesuit school. Juan later
turned down the opportunity to study
for the diocesan priesthood. Instead,
at age 20, he entered the Carmelite
Order and took the name John of St.
Matthias. He continued his education
and was ordained a priest in 1567.
An agent of reform
Returning to Medina del Campo to
celebrate his first Mass, he met Teresa
of Avila. This encounter would change
his life as he agreed to bring her
reform, based upon a stricter lifestyle
of poverty and prayer, to the male
In November 1568, John and
two other friars began to observe the
primitive Carmelite Rule in a small
farmhouse. Changing his name to
John of the Cross, he led his followers
in the practice of silence, prayer and
penance, together with a ministry of
preaching and hearing confessions.
They wore coarse wool habits and
went barefoot. Hence, they were
called “Discalced” (shoeless) Carmelites
in distinction to “Calced” (shoe-wearing)
John worked closely with Teresa
in the reform. He followed her to the
Convent of the Incarnation where she
was superior. At the early age of 30, he became the spiritual director to
both Teresa and the entire convent.
In 1575, the Calced Carmelites
began rejecting the reform. Soon after,
John was imprisoned.
Poetry and the ‘dark night’
It was during this experience of the
cross that John wrote his mystical
poetry, which continues to inspire and
encourage people in the life of prayer.
After his escape under cover of night,
some Carmelite nuns asked for an
interpretation of his poetry. This led
John to write some of his classic works:
The Ascent of Mount Carmel; The
Dark Night of the Soul; and explanations
of the poem Spiritual Canticle
as well as an untitled poem that begins,
“O Living Flame of Love.”
John is known for the concept of
the “dark night of the soul.” “Night”
is the central symbol in his writings. It
suggests that the spiritual journey is a
mystery which challenges the believer to
be led by blind faith in God. John used
it to describe detachment, the active and
deliberate renunciation of the possessive
desire for anything. He also used it
to describe the passive experience of
the cross—the agony of depression,
desolation and the feeling of divine
abandonment that God imposes on
those whom God is leading to the
deepest forms of contemplation.
Ill and unappreciated, John died at
age 49. Having accepted the cross both
in name and in experience, he now
enjoys endless light and eternal freedom.
St. Padre Pio (1887-1968)
When told that an airplane
had traveled nonstop from
Rome to New York in six
hours, he quipped, “Good heavens,
that is a long time! When I go, it takes
me only a second.” Padre Pio bore the
physical wounds of Christ in his body.
Yet, at his canonization in 2002, no
reference was made to his mystical gift
for bilocation or to the stigmata. Rather,
Pope John Paul II said in his homily,
“The life and mission of Padre Pio prove that difficulties and sorrows, if
accepted out of love, are transformed
into a privileged way of holiness, which
opens onto the horizons of a greater
good, known only to the Lord.”
One of eight children, Francesco
Forgione was born into a poor farming
family in Pietrelcina, a small town in
southern Italy. In the hopes of helping
young Francesco pursue his call as a
Capuchin priest, his father spent time
in America and worked on the Long
Island and Pennsylvania railroads.
Francesco entered the Capuchin
order at age 15 and was given the name
Pio. Due to ill health he had to return
home, where his pastor tutored him
in philosophy and theology. In 1910,
he was ordained a priest and became
On September 20, 1918, a year after
arriving at the friary in San Giovanni
Rotondo, Padre Pio, while praying, had a
vision of Jesus. Afterward, he discovered
quarter-sized holes in his hands and feet
and a two-inch wound near his heart.
He was able to hide the stigmata for a
few days but, when the religious guardian
of the friary ordered him to extend his
hands, Padre Pio burst into tears of
embarrassment. Life for him and his
friary would never be the same.
Padre Pio lovingly accepted the
consequences and inconveniences of
this rare manifestation of the cross. Besides the physical pain it entailed,
he endured the scrutiny of both medical
science and the Vatican’s Holy Office.
In 1924 and again in 1931, the authenticity
of the stigmata was questioned
and major restrictions were placed on
his ministry: He was not permitted to
celebrate public Masses or to hear
confessions for a period of time.
As word traveled about the stigmatist,
hundreds of pilgrims made their
way to Our Lady of Grace Friary. The
life of the friary became centered upon
the ministry of Padre Pio. He heard
confessions 10-12 hours a day. So
many penitents came for confession
that they were issued tickets. Added
to his gift for hearing confessions were
God’s instant answers to his particular
requests for healings and cures.
The saving cross
Padre Pio’s spiritual life centered on
Marian devotion and the recitation of
the rosary, his public Masses (which
could last up to three hours) and his
daily fidelity to hearing confessions.
But all of this flowed out of a heart
surrendered to the cross. That was his
secret. He once said, “If we knew the
value of suffering, we would ask for
nothing else.” Clearly, he saw the
redemptive and transformative quality
of the cross.
Padre Pio’s extraordinary compassion
for those who suffered found expression
not only in his ministry of prayer but
also in what Pope Benedict XVI has
called a “miracle”: the construction of
the House for the Relief of Suffering,
still one of the largest, most modern
hospitals in southern Italy. Conceived
by the saint in 1940, its doors opened
in 1956. Today, standing next to the
friary of San Giovanni Rotondo, it
holds over 1,000 beds.
After being present for 50 years,
the stigmata healed the week before his
death. No doubt God was giving Padre
Pio another gift—advance news of his
Next: Defenders of the Faith
Turn your experiences of the cross into something life-giving. Follow in the footsteps of...
• St. Thèrése of Lisieux, whose spirit of self-forgetfulness helped her move beyond her own suffering to focus on God and others. Listen to the troubles of another without judgment or comparison to your own.
• St. John of the Cross, whose poetry and concept of the “dark night of the soul” have helped many on their spiritual journeys. Read a good book on the spiritual life, then share it with a friend.
• Padre Pio, whose compassion for those who suffer led him to build a hospital. Reach out to a friend, family member or parishioner who is in the hospital or a nursing home. Commit to praying daily for the sick and suffering.
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