The Carmelite Order traces its spiritual roots back to the prophet Elijah, but its practical foundation was in the twelfth century, round about the same time as the Franciscans and Dominicans. In such long-standing institutions, there is always the need of reform (well, the unique Carthusians are an exception), as the spiritus mundi creeps in, breeding a compromise, a lethargy, a pusillanimity, the ‘spirit and fire’ of Elijah giving way to a bureaucratic numbness, and a resistance to the Holy Spirit.

Such was the battle of the sixteenth century reformer Saint John of the Cross (+1591). Not a reformer in the sense of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, who, likely contrary to their original intentions, accelerated the compromise with the world by their rejection of Tradition, but rather by going back to the true source of spiritual renewal, Christ, the Sacraments and, in this present case, the original Rule of the Order in 1209, which called for a greater insistence of prayer – especially nocturnal, penance, fasting and enclosure.

John, along with his female contemporary, Teresa of Avila, was called to bring the Carmelites back to this rule, to its original spirit; and, as befits all true reformers, he was persecuted and rejected for his efforts, eventually being captured and imprisoned by his fellow Carmelites locked in a cell barely big enough for his body, and publicly lashed at least once of a week. One wonders. But then I suppose zeal takes various forms, and one might sympathize with men being told that their lives were soft and weak, and to start waking up at midnight. Who was this little Spaniard to tell us what to do?

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