Of all those in the mystic tradition that Thomas Merton expressed fondness for, it may be that he revered none greater than the 16th century Spanish contemplative known as St. John of the Cross. Though, as Merton points out, the saint was not famous in his lifetime, the Trappist monk feels compelled to tell us of a man who, in his perfect charity, was a beacon of Christian spiritualty. In focusing on John’s ardent commitment to the ascetic lifestyle, even in times of great hardship, Merton shows his reader the true meaning of sainthood. In his completion of this essay, Merton makes it clear that this work was a thinly veiled prayer to John, his fellow contemplative. He asks that the reader, as well as the writer of the work may be granted that which the prayer seeks.
Merton begins his treatment of St. John of The Cross around the time he was thrown in prison by opponents of the reform he was attempting to bring to the Carmelite order. It is this period which is the focus of the essay, because it is during this period, according to Thomas Merton, that his mystic relationship with the Lord can clearly be seen. Merton describes that John’s cell was deprived of light and air, and he was allowed to see the outside world only when taken to be publically scourged. However, in all that time, the contemplative kept about him the meek solitude that is a hallmark for men of his station. The reason for this, Merton explains, was due to his desire to deal not with men, but with God only.
John eventually made his escape from the prison in 1578, but Thomas Merton can’t help but wonder what it was during all that time that penetrated the darkness of his stifling cell. He opines that the faith of the mystic was so strong that it was not shaken even when it appeared there would be no end to his torment. From the trials of St. John of the Cross, Merton begins discussing suffering. In the eyes of Merton, no man may become a saint without solving the problem of suffering, as John of the Cross did. In fact, Merton continues, no man outside of the authors of the scriptures has solved this problem as well as the Spanish mystic and contemplative. According to Merton, the problem of suffering is most adequately solved in the act of suffering itself. It is the experience, Merton writes, that acts as a living solution to the problem.
Thomas Merton goes on to regard his fellow mystic as the purest of souls, one whose strict and uncompromising devotion to a life of asceticism is viewed by some Christians as a lifestyle too extreme to be realistically adhered to. However, Merton writes that it is not correct to label the contemplative an extremist, as he banished all extremes in his own humility. Therefore, he remains neutral in his simplicity, his doctrine only considered impossible by the standards of a society which seeks to hide itself from God by making that which is required to know him needlessly complicated. According to Thomas Merton, the hardest thing for the person of the modern day to accept about St. John of the Cross is the contemplative lifestyle that brought forth his outstanding interior solitude. Once one has experienced this type of solitude through the grace of God, John believed, the Journey to him becomes less an obstacle than a joy.
Thomas Merton continues that the lifestyle that was led by St. John of the Cross was one that specifically followed the biblical teaching that any man that would come after Jesus should deny himself. To this end, Merton stands almost in awe of the mystic, whose complete self-denial dwarfs the efforts of the modern day contemplative. In the eyes of Thomas Merton, John of the Cross is one of the most accessible saints. Through his written work, Merton writes, he bares his soul as few men of his standing ever have. It is through this work that the mystic of the modern day may gain insight into what it truly means to achieve sainthood.