THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY
The sanctity of his boyhood merited for him the grace of a divine call to a state of holiness; and feeling an interior movement to quit the world, he sedulously sought counsel from the Father of lights, as to the manner in which he should obey this inspiration. For this end he redoubled his ordinary devotions and mortifications, performed a novena to the Holy Ghost and threw himself upon the tender patronage and powerful intercession of Our Lady. God hearkened to his fervent appeal; for his providence so disposed that at this period the renowned servant of God, Father John da San Bernardo, a Spanish Alcantarine, came into the country of our saint, with the view of establishing his order in the kingdom of Naples. The mean habit and devout demeanor of this holy man and his companions, touched and won the heart of Joseph; he desired to imitate what he beheld and doubted not but the desire came from God. Wherefore he journeyed to Naples, that he might impart to the fathers of the order his inclination; and they, having prudently considered his vocation, admitted him to the novitiate. He manifested so much ardor, that the superiors deemed it fitting to clothe him with the habit before the usual time had expired. This happy consummation of his wishes took place before he had completed his sixteenth year. He adopted the name of John Joseph of the Cross, and on the feast of St. John the Baptist, in the year of our Lord 1671, he completed his edifying novitiate, and took the solemn vows of his order; whose holy founder, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Peter of Alcantara, he proposed to himself as models.
In obedience to the express desire of his superior, our saint submitted to receive the dignity of the priesthood, and was appointed to hear confessions; in which task he displayed a profound theological learning, which he had acquired solely at the foot of the cross. But, carried onward by an ardent love of the cross, whose treasures he more and more discovered as he advanced in the dignity and functions of the sacred ministry, he resolved to establish in the wood adjoining his convent a kind of solitude, where, after the manner of the ancient Fathers of the Desert, he might devote himself entirely to prayer and penitential austerities, and give to the Church an illustrious and profitable example of the sacerdotal spirit exercised in a perfect degree. There was found in the wood a pleasant fountain, whose waters healed the sick; and hard by he erected a little church, and round about it, at intervals, five small hermitages, wherein, with his companions, he renewed the austere and exalted life of the old anchorites, and advanced greatly in spirituality. And in order that no care or worldly thought might ruffle the sublime tranquillity of this contemplative life, the convent had charge of daily supplying the holy solitary with food.
But the superiors, who knew the rich treasure they possessed in our saint, when he had attained the age of twenty-four, chose him for master of the novices; in which new office, so far from allowing himself the smallest dispensation, he was foremost in setting the example of a scrupulous observance of every rule; assiduous in his attendance in choir, constant in silence, in prayer, and recollection. He was careful to instil into the hearts of those under his charge an ardent love of Our Lord Jesus, and a desire of imitating him; as also a special veneration for, and tender attachment to His blessed mother.
From Naples, where he was employed as master of the novices, our saint was transferred to Piedimonte, and invested with the office of guardian. The zeal which this new and more responsible charge called for, was surpassed only by the profound humility its exercise demanded. Ever a rigid enforce. of the rule, he was careful to make his enactments agreeable to others, by being the first to observe them himself. The beneficial result of such conduct was soon made manifest, for he thereby won the hearts of all the religious, who under him advanced with rapid strides towards the most heroic perfection. Still his humble and gentle spirit sighed to be disburdened of so heavy a charge, and having, after two years, obtained the de" sired release, turned its charitable energies to the direction of souls, the assistance and alleviation of the dying and distressed, and the conversion of sinners.
When he was released from his post of guardian, it was only to reassume that of master of the novices, which he held for four successive years, and exercised partly in Naples, and partly in Piedimonte. But now succeeded the accustomed visitation of crosses, to be afterwards followed by an increase of grace and supernatural favors, an alternation which checkered the whole course of his life. He was summoned to his native country, Ischia, in order to discharge the painful duty of filial affection, and receive the last sighs of his dying mother. Her death ensued, full of hope, and calm, in the presence of her beloved; and, stifling the swelling emotions of sensible grief, this incomparable son followed her remains to the church, and offered up for her soul the sacrifice of propitiation. Who shall adequately conceive his feelings during the celebration of that mass? Was his grief less filial, less poignant, because it was reasonable and Christian? and because, instead of breaking into wild laments and barren demonstrations, it remained pent up in the recesses of his strong heart, and left free play and exercise to calm judgment and the salutary measures of Christian charity? Christian fortitude requires that we should bear up against the stroke of death not despondingly, because inevitable, but firmly and cheerfully, because it is the season of better hope, whereby we plant the ensign of salvation upon the grave. 'This will be no unnatural check to those emotions, which it is so great and yet so painful a consolation to indulge. They will flow no less freely, and far more profitably, when the calls of religion have first been satisfied. Was St. Bernard a violator of the sentiments of humanity, when he followed with tearless eyes and calm countenance the body of his brother to the grave, assisting at all the offices of religion, and officiating thereat himself? Was that great heart insensible, when its uncontrollable grief burst out in the midst of a discourse on other topics, into an impassioned address to his departed brother, and a magnificent tribute to the virtues of this partner of his soul and affections? Or does not such an instance of Christian fortitude and magnanimity favorably contrast with the pusillanimous and almost heathen despondency and desolation which overwhelm many at the sight or news of death, even as the Catholic faith-warm, generous, and confident cheers beyond that cold and gloomy creed, that bids farewell to hope at the brink of the grave?
In the provincial chapter of 1690, he was appointed to the office of definitor, in addition to that which he already held. The difficulties of these two functions, requiring a union of the virtues of the active and contemplative life, our saint marvellously and happily surmounted. But now an event happened which well-nigh extinguished the institute to which he belonged, in Italy, and which gave occasion to an illustrious evidence of his exceeding utility to the order. The Spanish Alcantarines, having some differences with the Italian, procured from the apostolic see their dismemberment from the latter, who, being thus abandoned, recurred to our saint for succor. Suffering himself to be overcome by their entreaties he undertook the advocacy of their cause with the pontiff, and succeeded, in a congregation held in 1702, in changing the sentiments of the cardinals and bishops. previously disposed to their suppression; so that on the day after the feast of St. 'Thomas the Apostle, a decree was issued by which the order was established in Italy under the form of a province. A chapter was convoked, "in which the arduous task of government was, by the unanimous voice of all, forced upon the humility of our saint, who, surmounting incredible hardships and obstacles, had at length the satisfaction of seeing the necessary means provided, and the order firmly established. Before the chapter-general of the order met, he was named definitor by the provincial chapter; but on his remonstrances at being thus so often compelled to assume offices, in spite of his repugnance, he at length obtained a papal brief, exempting him from all charges, and annulling even his active and passive vote in the chapter. During the course of the year 1722, another brief made over to the Alcantarines the convent of St. Lucy, in Naples, and thither our saint retired, never afterwards to be brought out into the public light, which he so much shunned, but left to edify his brethren during the remainder of his life, and to build up the fabric of those extraordinary virtues, of which we shall now proceed to give a sketch.
Faith, like the keystone of the arch, is that which gives the fabric of Christian virtue solidity and stability. Of the attachment of our saint to this necessary virtue, it would be superfluous to say any thing, as his whole life was a speaking evidence of that attachment, as well as of the eminent degree in which it pleased God to enable him to appreciate its consoling mysteries. But he was content to thank God for having admitted him to the truth, without rashly or profanely lifting the veil of the sanctuary, and scrutinizing that which is within. He was persuaded that the attempt to fathom the secrets of God, or to measure his designs, would prove as hopeless as it would be impious, and therefore he bowed to the truths of faith with implicit submission. From this attachment of our saint to the virtue of faith, proceeded his zeal to instruct the ignorant in the mysteries of religion, as well as the force. fervor, and clearness, with which he expounded the sublime dogmas of the Trinity and Incarnation, and even of predestination and grace; the gift he possessed of quieting doubts respecting faith; and finally, that constant exercise of the presence of God which he practiced uninterruptedly, and constantly recommended, saying: "whoever walks always in God's presence, will never commit sin, but will preserve his innocence and become a great saint."
Hope in God rendered our saint of even temper in the midst of the various contradictions he experienced in establishing his order in Italy. He used to say to his companions, when they were dismayed by the persecutions they suffered, "Let us hope in God, and doubtless we shall be comforted: "and to the distressed who flocked to him, "God is a tender father, who loves and succors all;" or, "Doubt not; trust in God, He will provide." Hence his heart enjoyed a peace which no sufferings could molest, and which did not desert him even when he lay under the stroke of apoplexy that terminated in his death. For his hope was based upon the Catholic principle, that God, who destined him for an eternal kingdom, would not refuse the succors necessary to attain it. Still, though his hopes, through the merits of our Lord's blessed passion, knew no bounds, yet was he tremblingly sensible of the guilt of sin, and the awful character of God's judgments; whence were derived that intense grief with which sin inspired him, and that astonishing humility which led him to bewail unceasingly his want of correspondence to divine grace, to proclaim himself everywhere a sinner, and implore the prayers of others.
To complete the crown of theological virtues, charity in both its branches preeminently characterized our saint. This divine virtue burned so warmly in his heart, as to be transfused through his features, over which it spread a superhuman and celestial glow, and gays to his discourse a melting tenderness. "Were there neither heaven nor hell," he would say, "still would I ever wish to love God, who is a father so deserving of our love." Or "Let us love our Lord, love him verily and indeed, for the love of God is a great treasure. Blessed is he that loveth God."
Our saint, who so ardently loved God, whom he saw not, was not without bowels of tenderness for his neighbor, whom he beheld. It was the constant practice of his life to feed the poor; and when he was superior, he ordered that no beggar should be dismissed from the convent gate without relief: in time of scarcity he devoted to their necessities his own portion, and even that of the community, relying upon Providence to supply their wants, and when he was only a private monk, he earnestly recommended this charity to the superiors.
But it was towards the sick that his charity displayed itself. He used to attend the infirm in his convent with unwearied assiduity; nor was he less anxious to serve those who were without, but generously sought them out, and visited them, even during the most inclement seasons. And as God maketh his sun to shine upon the wicked as well as the good, so our saint would not exclude even his enemies from the boundless range of his charity. For one who had insulted him he once labored strenuously to procure some advantageous post; and being warned that the man was his enemy, he replied, "that therefore he was under the greater obligation of serving him." Besides these general virtues, he possessed in the highest degree those which belonged to his religious state, especially a prompt and implicit obedience to all commands, however painful or difficult. That obedience which he practiced himself, he was careful to enforce upon others, which his office of superior made it his duty, for he justly regarded this virtue as essential to a religious. Nor was his love of poverty less remarkable. A rough seat and a table, a bed, consisting of two narrow planks, with two sheep-skins and a wretched woollen coverlet, a stool to rest his wounded legs upon, these, with his breviary, formed the whole furniture of his cell. And although the order allowed each one to possess two habits, yet during the forty-six years that he was a member of it, he never had any other than that which he put on in the novitiate. But it was in his vigilant guard over chastity, that our saint was most remarkable. His unremitting mortifications, his extreme modesty, and perpetual watchfulness over all his senses, preserved him from the slightest breath of contamination. Never during the sixty years of his life was he known to look any one not of his own sex in the face. His every word and action bespoke purity, and inspired the love thereof. Our saint, so solidly grounded in this virtue, was not without its only sure foundation—humility. He delighted in performing menial offices in the convent, and when the task allotted to him was finished, he was anxious to fulfil that of others. Hence he also avoided all posts and honor, as much as was consistent with his vow of obedience. When he journeyed through Italy as provincial, he would not make himself known at the inns, where he lodged, lest any distinction should be paid him. To the same cause may be ascribed his unwillingness to revisit his native country, his aversion to being in company with the great, when their spiritual affairs did not require it, his not accepting the invitations of the viceroy and his consort to the palace, his calling himself, as he was wont, the greatest sinner in the whole world, ungrateful to God for his benefits, a worm on the face of the earth; his custom of frequently kissing the hands of priests; his unwillingness to declare his opinion in council; his care to break off every discourse touching upon his birch or connections, his gratitude to God for enlightening those who disparaged him; his never being scandalized at the sins of others, how great soever; and finally, his never evincing the smallest resentment at any insult or injury. He was studious to conceal and dissemble the great gifts of miracles and prophecy with which God favored him; ascribing the miracles he performed to the faith of those in whose be. half they were wrought, or to the intercession of the saints. Not unfrequently he desired those whom he restored to health, to take some certain medicine, that the cure might be attributed to a mere natural remedy and with regard to his prophecies, which were numerous, he affected to judge from analogy and experience. To the numerous penitential austerities enjoined by his order, he added as many more as an ingenious self-denial could devise. Silent as long as possible, when he spoke, it was in a low voice. Bareheaded in all seasons, he wore under his rough and heavy habit divers hair-shirts and chains, which he was careful to vary to keep the sense of torment ever fresh. Besides, he used the discipline to a severe degree; and when, at the age of forty, his superior obliged him to wear sandals, he placed between them and his feet a quantity of small nails; but the most tremendous instrument of torture, which he devised against himself, was a cross about a foot in length, set with rows of sharp nails, which he fastened tight over his shoulders, so as to open there a wound which never afterwards closed. In sooth, these things would appear incredible, did we not remember that St. John Joseph of the Cross had taken up the instrument of our Lord Jesus' blessed passing, and was miraculously supported under its weight. If we are not blessed with equal strength, still we are all capable of enduring much more than is demanded of us for gaining heaven. Is not the life of a worldling more irksome and more painful than that of a mortified religious man? How many heart-burnings, and aching heads, and palled appetites, and disordered faculties, and diseased frames could bear out this assertion—that the way to heaven would be easy on the score of mortification, if men could consent to sacrifice to virtue but one half what they sacrifice to feed their passions?
It was usual for our saint to be absorbed and rapt in heavenly ecstasies and visions. In this state he was lost to all that passed around him, seeing hearing, and feeling nothing, he stood like a statue of marble, and when he was awakened, his countenance glowed like a burning coal. In a condition so closely resembling that of the blessed, he was, from time to time, made a partaker of their glories. Thus, during prayer a halo of light often encircled his head; and, during mass, a supernatural brightness overspread his countenance. In the practice of every virtue, and in the enjoyment of sublime graces, our saint passed the days of his pilgrimage, glorifying God and giving alms and doing good, until it pleased the Lord to close his career on earth, not without a previous forewarning as to the time and circumstances of his death. In the year when it occurred, his nephew writing to him from Vienna, that he would return home in May, he sent back answer that he would not then find him living. And only a week before his departure discoursing with his brother Francis, he said, "I have never asked a boon of you till now; do me the charity to pray to Almighty God for me, next Friday, do you hear? mind, do not forget." It was the very day he died. Two days before his last mortal attack, accosting Vincent of Laines, "We shall never," said he, "meet on earth again." Now, upon the last day of February, after hearing mass, and receiving communion with extraordinary fervor, he betook himself to his room, to deliver to the crowds that resorted to him his last paternal admonitions. He continued without interruption till mid-day, and at that hour precisely, turning to the lay-brother that assisted him, said, "Shortly a thunderclap will lay me prostrate on the ground, you will have to raise me thence, but this is the last I shall experience." Accordingly, at two hours and a half after sunset, an apoplectic stroke threw him on the ground. At first the nature of his disease was mistaken. It was thought that over-fatigue had brought on giddiness but the next day the symptoms manifested themselves alarmingly, and spread in defiance of remedies. Yet though he was thus, to all appearances, senseless during the five days that ho survived, doubtless his soul was occupied in interior ecstasies and profound contemplation; as indeed his countenance, his lips. and gestures, expressive of the tenderest devotion, indicated. His eyes, generally shut, opened frequently to rest upon the mild image of Our Lady, whose picture was opposite him: Sometimes, too, he turned them towards his confessor, as if demanding absolution, according to what had been previously concerted between them. A pressure of the eyes and an inclination of the head were also perceptible, and he was seen to strike his breast when he received, for the last time, the sacramental absolution from the hands of the superior. At length the morning dawned, which was to witness the passage of our saint from this vale of tears and land of sorrow to a better life. It was Friday, the 5th of March, a day yet unoccupied in the calendar, as if purposely left for him. He had spent the previous night in unceasing fervent acts of contrition, resignation, love, and gratitude, as his frequent beating of his breast, lifting his hands towards heaven, and blessing himself, testified. Before the morning was far advanced, turning to the lay-brother that attended him, as if awoke out of an ecstasy, he said, "I have but a few moments to live." Hereupon the lay-brother ran in all speed to give notice to the superior, who, with the whole community, at that moment in choir, hastened to the cell of the dying man. The recommendation of a departing soul was recited with an abundance of tears. The father-guardian perceiving he was in his agony, imparted to him the last sacramental absolution; which he, bowing his head to receive, instantly raised it again; opened, for the last time, his eyes, now swimming in joy, and inebriated with heavenly delight; fixed them, just as they were closing, with a look of ineffable tenderness, upon the image of Our blessed Lady, and composing his lips to a sweet smile, without farther movement or demonstration, ceased to breathe.
Thus expired, without a struggle, John Joseph of the Cross, the mirror of religious life, the father of the poor, the comforter of the distressed, and the unconquerable Christian hero: but when death came to pluck him from the tree he dropped like a ripe fruit, smiling, into his hands; or, even as a gentle stream steals unperceived into the ocean, so calmly that its surface is not fretted with a ripple, his soul glided into eternity. To die upon the field of battle, amidst the shouts of victory, in presence of an admiring throng, surrounded by the badges of honor and respect, bequeathing to history a celebrated name, may merit the ambition of the world, or to perish in some noble cause, buoyed up by enthusiasm, conscious worth, and the certainty of having the sympathy and applause of all from whom meed is valuable, may make even selfishness generous, and cowardice heroic: but to suffer during life the lingering martyrdom of the cross; and then to expire, not suddenly, but like a taper, burnt out; to fall like a flower, not in its prime and beauty but gradually shedding its leaves and perfume, and bearing its fibres to the last, till it droops and lies exhaled and prostrate in the dust; is a death too pure, too self-devoted, too sublime, for any but the annals of Christian heroism to supply. And assuredly a day will come when the conqueror's crown shall not be brighter than the Christian's halo, nor the patriot's laurel-branch bear richer foliage than the palms of Paradise, which the humblest denizen of heaven shall carry. A day will come that will give to all their proper measure and dimensions; yet even before that day shall God glorify those who have died the peaceful death of the just, by embalming their memory and rendering their tombs and relics illustrious, so that, for the one who shall have heard of the hero, thousands shall bless and invoke the saint.
He alone is a perfect Christian who is crucified to the world, and to whom the world is crucified, and who glorieth in nothing save the cross of our Lord Jesus. Nor without embracing the cross at least in heart and affection, can any one belong to the religion of Christ. Upon entering life we are marked with the cross; through the various vicissitudes thereof our every step is encountered by it—go whithersoever thou wilt and thou shalt find it impossible to escape the cross—and it accompanies us even unto death and the grave. For a Christian dieth pressing the cross to his lips; and the cross is engraver upon his tomb that it may bear witness of his faith and hope. But if Our Lord has said, in general terms, "Whosoever will be my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me;" and if it be true that through many tribulations it is necessary to enter into the kingdom of heaven, then are all without exception called upon to assume this burden. It is not strange, then, that saints should have delighted to blend their names with the cross wherewith their hearts were so closely entwined; or that men, after their departure to glory, should have designated them by the title of that whereof they were so deeply enamored.
(Taken from Vol. I of "The Lives or the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints" by the Rev. Alban Butler, the 1864 edition published by D. & J. Sadlier, & Company)