As Old as John of the Cross When He Died

Here’s a bit of useless information. Today, to the day, I am as old as John of the Cross was when he died.

I figured this out earlier this week. I was thinking about John, and realized he was 49 when he died, and I’m 49 now. So I looked at his dates, and figured his age at death (49 years, 5 months, 20 days) and compared it to me (today I’m 49 years, 5 months, 22 days, but the slight discrepancy is because I have a February in there). So to the day, I’m as old as he was when he died.

Aside from the fact that this proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that I have an obsessive-compulsive streak, I find this oddly humbling. Of course, John is one of my heroes, and I cannot in any meaningful way compare myself to him except to say that we are both writers concerned with questions concerned with faith and mystery. He had the good fortune of having Teresa of Avila for a mentor; he was a gifted poet and a profound theologian; and he suffered terribly for his beliefs, enduring imprisonment and regular beatings for some nine months, at the hands of his own Carmelite brothers. But of course, out of that affliction came some of the most psychologically astute mystical writing that the Christian tradition has yet to produce.

As for me? Well, let’s just say that I enjoy affluence and comfort that would have been unthinkable to John; as a writer and an amateur theologian, I mainly hope that my by comparison feeble talent might help others to find treasures such as the writings of John.

I suppose I am reminded that life, for so many of our ancestors, was nasty, brutish and short. John of the Cross was by no means the only great contemplative to have died relatively young. Thomas Aquinas and Richard Rolle both may have been only in their late 40s when they died; Catherine of Siena was 33; Simone Weil 34; and dear Thomas Merton only 53 when he was electrocuted in a freak accident.

Now, lest you think that mysticism is a hazardous line of work, we can point to Bede Griffiths, who lived to be 87; Matta el-Maskeen (also 87), George Macleod (96), or Raimon Panikkar, who as of this writing is 91 and still breathing. Historically, there was John Ruusbroec (88), Hildegard of Bingen (81), Thomas à Kempis (90), and St. Anthony of the Desert, reputed to live to be 105!

Christians of old used to talk about always remaining aware of one’s mortality. In our day, when the average life expectancy is perhaps double what it was 200 years ago, this seems like a less useful endeavor. It strikes us as morbid, or psychologically twisted. But I don’t think pretending death doesn’t exist help either. What does it mean to have a balanced and healthy friendship with one’s own mortality? I suspect that it means living life to the fullest each and every day (which probably includes not bothering to compare one’s length of life to those whom we admire but who died young). It also means finding, and living, the “peace that passes understanding,” so that when the day comes in which we do draw our final breath, we can do it with serenity — whether we are 49, 79 or 109 years old.

  • Shadwynn

    Carl,

    Your comments on death got me to thinking. Our culture in the virtual world is obsessed with games (or movies) of death and violence, but in the real world most Westerners are in a state of denial when it comes to the inevitability of the Grim Reaper. Such irony, eh?

    As far as an earthy (remember: “dust to dust”) biblical perspective, I think we encounter a realistic approach. In James 4:14, the writer reminds us that our lives are only a passing vapour, and that as a result we should not presume about the time we have, rather being thankful and using each day given us as an opportunity to fulfill God’s will. And Ecclesiastes 7:2 encourages us to pass up the parties for a little time of contemplation in the “house of mourning.” Thinking about death can be a good thing, as long as it is not obsessive. It can give balance to our perspective of life as a temporary trust given into our care. The question is, what will we do with it?

  • brazenbird

    Really interesting the way you write about things that I’m either experiencing or have been thinking about. Last week I found enough gray hairs (three) to not make plucking them worthwhile. I thought, “I’m 34 and going gray. Oh my gosh, I’m probably middle age. I’m probably going to be lucky if I make it to 75.” I started an internal inventory of health, mental acuity, ancestral deaths. And then I thought, why am I doing this? I normally am not concerned about death and in fact, would welcome it as the passage to the next as I believe it is. But I realized that in my daily work, I hadn’t been acknowledging my humanness, my dependency on the grace of each breath which is a gift, not of my own making or my own determinism.

    I have been very thankful in my work. But I hadn’t coupled that with the acknowledgment that at any time any of this could be taken from me and there would be a lesson in that as there has been a lesson in having and this includes the breaths I take.

    Serenity now!!! :)

  • Gary

    It has been my experience that as I breathe, if the time spent in expiration is about twice the time for each inspiration, I relax. The more I expire, the more relaxed I am. Here’s to liberation by dying to self.


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