Saint John of the Cross is widely known for his spiritual writing. He is a Doctor of the Church, master of prayer, and expert of the spiritual life. His writings cover a wide range of subjects and themes, but John is seldom acknowledged for his teachings on the Blessed Virgin Mary. How is it that a man known for his spiritual wisdom, who devoted his entire life to achieving union with God in a religious order dedicated to living in imitation of Mary, is rarely recalled in relation to Our Lady?
To a certain degree, this lack of acknowledgment is understandable considering the incredible brevity of the content in which John of the Cross speaks of the Virgin. In all his extant writing (four major spiritual treatises, fifteen poems, thirty-three letters, and several other minor works) John mentions Mary explicitly only twelve times, and most of these references are only incidental. Other spiritual masters have written volumes on Mariology while John’s meager mentions of Mary could fit on a single page. While John did not write copious amounts on any topic (his complete works fit into a single, manageably-sized volume), his explicit references to Our Lady are proportionately much smaller than one would expect from the founder of a religious order dedicated to Mary.
What, then, should we conclude from this observation? Does Saint John of the Cross have any significance for Mariology? Unsurprisingly, many people would say no; I have even known Carmelite Friars to question the import of John’s contributions to Marian theology. Especially in recent times, very little is written about John of the Cross and Our Lady. However, other individuals come to the opposite conclusion, claiming that John offers a complete and systematic Mariology. Fr. Emmanuel Sullivan, OCD explains that “while the explicit references to Mary are very few, all of John’s writings are really centered on Mary. Actually, there is little about Mary that John has left unsaid. His whole spiritual doctrine conveys an implicit Mariology.”
It is in the life of the Saint that we find substantial proof of the centrality of Mary in his mind and heart. As a young boy, John was playing near a lagoon when he fell into the water and began to drown. He would recall that a beautiful lady, whom he later identified as Our Lady, came to his aid. Several years later, John fell into a deep well but was pulled out without injury. This miracle, too, he would attribute to the Blessed Virgin Mary. John’s early biographers also affirm that his decision to enter the Carmelites was largely influenced by the Marian character of the Order and his great love for Our Lady. When he planned to leave the Order to join the Carthusians, St. Teresa of Avila is said to have convinced him to stay and become the co-founder of her reform by appealing to Mary’s special patronage over the Carmelites. John was also known to attribute his miraculous escape from prison to the strength given to him from the Mother of God. Br. Martin of the Assumption, a regular traveling companion of St. John of the Cross, testified following John’s death: “He was so devoted to Our Lady that every day he prayed the Office of Our Lady on his knees.” And Martin added that, during their many journeys together, John would sing hymns to Our Lady. Finally, at the hour of his death, upon hearing the bell for Matins, John of the Cross said, “And I, too, through the goodness of the Lord, will have to say them with our Lady in heaven.”
Although the writings of John of the Cross are not explicitly Marian, his life certainly was. Clearly, the Blessed Virgin was central in his mind and heart from his earliest childhood until the moment of his death. He lived and breathed devotion to Our Lady. Such a deep love for Mary would not, then, be absent from his writing. Although his works may lack explicit references to Our Lady, the way he lived his life reveals that she is present, at least implicitly, in all of his writing. Thus, an attentive examination of his writing divulges an extensive Mariology. All that John says about union with God can be applied preeminently and perfectly to the Blessed Virgin. Considering that union with God is the central focus of all of his writing, his works are a treasury of rich insights into the life and holiness of Mary.
One such example can be found in John of the Cross’ Romances. These short poems (or more accurately one poem broken into nine sections) were written by John during his time imprisoned by the unreformed Carmelites in Toledo. The Romances are essentially his spiritual reflections on the prologue of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1:1). He illustrates the mystery of God’s breaking into human history as a beautiful love story between God and man. Beginning with the love subsisting within the Trinity, the poem intensifies as that love overflows into creation, eventually climaxing in the Incarnation and Birth of Jesus Christ.
Speaking of the great mystery of God becoming man in the Incarnation, John writes in the eighth Romance:
Then he called
the archangel Gabriel
and sent him to
the virgin Mary,
at whose consent
the mystery was wrought.
Interestingly, in this passage, God did not send the angel Gabriel for the sake of delivering a message to Mary—the message that she would conceive and bear a son. The purpose of Gabriel is not to deliver a message to Mary but to receive a message from her—the message of her consent. An angelic message is not necessary to communicate God’s plan to Mary, who is always attuned to God’s will through prayer. Instead, Gabriel serves as a means by which to receive the response of Mary “at whose consent the mystery was wrought.” John’s words suggest that it was not simply that Mary’s consent was required for the sake of the Incarnation to happen, like a sort of permission allowing God to act. Rather, it was her consent which was the very cause of the Incarnation. The mystery was wrought “at her consent.” Mary’s consent is an essential piece of the unfolding mystery and the very means by which the Incarnation transpires.
As we have seen, the writings of Saint John of the Cross contain a great deal more than merely incidental references to Mary. His prose and poetry are replete with a profound and compelling Mariology. His lived devotion to Our Lady overflows into all of his writing, which can be mined for its endless Mariological depth. Unfortunately, astonishingly little has been written on the Mariology of John of the Cross in English. He is a sure guide for all Christians, and especially for Carmelites, to intimacy with Mary and, through her, to union with God.