Lydia vs. John of the Cross

It's hard to believe but we are now officially halfway through the Round of the Saintly Sixteen. Four more battles and we're on to the Elate Eight. But let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet. To savor each day and immerse ourselves in the match-up at hand is part of the Lent Madness discipline. Speaking of which, we really do need to update the Ash Wednesday liturgy's "Invitation to a Holy Lent" to read:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; by reading and meditating on God's holy Word; and by participating in Lent Madness.

But we digress. Today it's the Biblical vs. the Mystical as Lydia takes on John of the Cross.

Yesterday Anna Cooper shocked the G-clef off J.S. Bach 54% to 46% to advance to the Elate Eight. She'll face the winner of Thomas Merton vs. Charles Wesley. We also learned of the impending cross-marketing deal between McDonald's and Lent Madness that perhaps fell under the "Fool for Christ" heading.

And finally, you may have been rudely roused from your dreams this morning by a story about Lent Madness on National Public Radio. We apologize.


St. Lydia Thyatira appears only twice in the Biblical text, but her impact is much larger.  

As the first European convert to Christianity, she was baptized by Paul right after he came to Philippi, and there, she started a church in her own household. Early church planter, that's Lydia! She starts the community that will grow into the church at Philippi, and receive the famous letter from Paul. 

This is a big deal, scholars opine, not only because it indicates that Lydia was clearly calling all the shots for her household, and established one of the first Christian communities in Europe, but also because of what it means for gender roles in the early church: men and women were called, men and women were baptized, and men and women led in ministry. And after his release from prison, Paul and Silas headed right back to Lydia's house. It served as a de facto home base the entire time they were in Philippi.

It also indicates that Lydia, who had amassed quite a fortune as a dyer, had decided to dedicate her considerable financial resources to Paul and his work. This would be why she is now invoked as the patron saint of dyers, and all fabric workers, and a good thing, too. Obtaining the purple dye for which the city of Thytira was known required the patience of a saint all by itself. 

Purple dye came from a particular secretion from the spiny dye-murex, a sort of carnivorous sea snail. (Yes, such a thing exists). You obtained it in one of two ways: either you 'milked' the sea snail and poked the thing until it spat purple goo at you, or you gathered a lot of them together and crushed them into a mass of purple goo. And even then, twelve thousand snails yields only enough dye for the hem of a single garment, which is why purple was reserved for the very rich, for emperors. (This is also why the Church adopted purple for the Lenten array -- to emphasize the kingship of Christ. Sorry, snails).

To this day, no one has managed to recreate the special sort of Thyatiran purple exactly as it was back then. The exact recipe is lost to history. But Lydia's legacy of leadership, ministry, and giving nothing less than her best to Christ endures.

-- Megan Castellan

 unnamedJohn of the Cross

If you’ve ever endured debilitating periods of loneliness and despair in your life of faith, you have a loving companion in Saint John of the Cross. John of the Cross, a sixteenth-century Spanish mystic, wrote about such experiences in his popular and well-regarded books, The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul, both of which he wrote while being imprisoned by his fellow friars. John explained that the journey toward union with God necessitated detaching from self and the world. Noting that often times this process felt excruciating and ripe with loss, dejection, and uncertainty, John encouraged believers to remember that God had not abandoned them. As he said,

Faith is a dark night for man, but in this very way it gives him light...God sustains every soul and dwells in it substantially, even though it be that of the greatest sinner in the world, and this union is natural. The supernatural union exists when God’s will and the soul’s will are in conformity. Therefore the soul rests transformed in God through love.

Although John wrote most of his works in his mid-thirties, he had long been a person of deep compassion and faith. When he was 14, he served as a caregiver to hospital patients suffering from mental or terminal illnesses. Doing so helped him realize the richness of life with God and the futility of finding happiness in worldly possessions. For John, happiness was circumstantial, but joy was eternal and rooted in God’s love. He likened someone who settled for happiness alone to a “famished person who opens his mouth to satisfy himself with air.”

John’s works and humble life have influenced people for generations, including fellow Lent Madness competitor Thomas Merton, who wrote about John’s influence in his well-regarded Seven Story Mountain. John’s Dark Night also found voice in the work of T.S. Eliot, who expressed the sentiment of John’s works through poetry:

To arrive where you are, to get from you are not,
You must go by a way in which there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are no
You must go through the way in which you are not.

John’s life of love, poverty, and selflessness reminds us of the joy of seeking Christ and the eternal love of God that always enfolds us –- no matter what we feel or endure.

-- Maria Kane


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150 comments on “Lydia vs. John of the Cross”

  1. It's John for me from the get-go. As someone who has had an interesting life recently(divorce), I am grateful and relieved that he was walking hand in hand with God and myself. John, you rock!!
    Peace out

    1. I felt the same way in choosing John. This was a hard one, because the woman in me was fighting the contemplative, but John won out simply because we know so much more about him from his writings, and she is more shadowy.

  2. Magnificent poet, exemplar of faith bringing mystical visions in the midst of darkness when he was imprisoned, beaten, starved in his 16th century monastery. Through God's providence and his own strong life force and will, he survived to join Teresa of Avila in reforming the Carmelites. A humble yet exalted person who is widely read even today by Protestants as well as Catholics.

  3. Tough call today. I decided that we had Mary Magdalene in 2012 for to represent women in the early church, and Frances Perkins in 2013 to demonstrate witness in the political world and justice, so I'm going with John of the Cross all the way for 2014, it's time for us to uplift the witness of mystics and those who pray for us!

  4. Another tough pair to deal with: as a female clergy, veteran of serving two parishes who had had only male pastors before, I am drawn to Lydia. As a mystic, often plagued with depression, John of the Cross has been one of my valued companions. I have to go with John, who has helped me in the past and been such a blessing.

  5. And teach us how to pray, therefore bringing our awareness to our relationship to God.

  6. As much as I admire John, I had to vote for Lydia - not only was she a strong woman in the early church, but as a knitter and crocheter, I am drawn to the patron saint of fabric workers. I am sorry for all those snails, though.

  7. I had a tough time deciding on this one. However, given where I am in my own spiritual journey at the moment, John of the Cross (and T.S. Eliot) really spoke to my soul.

  8. Love both these saints. Must choose...sigh. John OTC has been there for me in my dark nights. Lydia - what an inspiration for her day and ours! Okay, my vote goes to Lydia today for her willingness to be part of something new and to use all her gifts to help this newborn along.

  9. Yesterday I should have commented about how much Bach helps those, like me who have trouble talking - music speaks where the mouth can't. Today being a working stiff, I am inspired by someone who was successful in business, AND had a heart for God and passing on the message of God's love.

  10. As important as Lydia was, it's John of the Cross whose work has helped many people over the centuries. Another tough choice, but John wins this one by a hair.

  11. Yes, very tough choice today (again), but I had to go with St. John, for reasons clearly articulated above. One comment about the Lydia's "bio"--this did not affect my choice (or should I say, "set the dye"), but I am not sure "crushing" millions of snails to get some exotic dye is a Godly choice.

    1. I also think there's something really mean about crushing poor defenseless snails simply for esoteric purposes(hey, I have a little bit of St. Francis in my dna)!

  12. Shocked outta my gourd that Anna Cooper bested the venerable JSB! I'm voting for Lydia who financed Paul's ministry in spite of his having been the most sexist "disciple", as he liked to describe himself, walking the face of the earth. It's fascinating that no one has ever been able to duplicate Lydia's recipe for the purple dye. A whole lotta snails gave up the ghost for that dye. Guess some of the grumps will have a field day complaining about Bach's loss. It seems hard for many people to realize and then admit that women got short shrift during the days of Christ's ministry and the early church before that because men dominated life...just the way it was. That included writing everything that exists and women were largely omitted, thus the need for secretaries to take minutes notating exactly who was there and who did what.
    Oh well, no use beating that dead horse! Coffee time is long overdue...caffeine jitters.

    1. I know Aleathia, I can't believe it either!!!! But as you pointed out, that train already left the station.

    2. Bach's loss seems to me a bad omen for music in the church. Bring on the bouncy ball on the screen up front, hiding the cross. But we got lost in the gender wars, how many children he had, and so on. Very sad, people.

      1. I'm still wincing after Schereschewsky's loss...however I voted FOR Anna, not against Bach. Subtle but strong difference.

  13. Just heard the piece on NPR about Lent Madness. Glad for the exposure it provides.
    John for me today although will probably have the opportunity to go with Lydia in another round.

    1. It was a great story--well reported and good contributions from the interviewees. It moved me to the sin of pride. It also took some of the sting out of yesterday's de-Bach-cle. P.S. Vote for John, and thereby avoid Kitsche Round links to "One-Eyed, One-Horned Flying Purple People Eater."

      1. Oh, Another Peg, don't give Tim any ideas! I think Scott might be a little too dignified for that old song.

  14. I also can identify with caffeine jitters, I am not addicted to coffee, I just drink it so I won't get headaches.....uh huh....

  15. I'm sticking with Lydia. We don't hear about many women in the ancient world who were independent, heads of households. And she heard Paul preach and became a disciple. This was a tough pairing, John of the Cross is an amazing guide as well.

  16. Without Lydia, would the newborn faith have continued to spread while St. Paul was in Prision? She not only received his letters, but she was courageous to hold meetings in her home and spread his word. She was the true Mother of our first church. Thank God for her faithful strenght and belief in Jesus Chris and what St. Peter had to say. Go Lydia!

  17. I've been really surprised by some of the outcomes…clearly there's more going on in the minds of the voters other than lives lived in glory to God. Still can't get over the advancement of Harriet Beecher Stowe…really????? Anyway, just because I'm a woman involved in ministry doesn't mean that I have to vote for a woman. John of the Cross clearly deserves a shot at the Golden Halo. Lydia deserves a Purple Heart medal for putting up with Paul. JOTC all the way!

    1. I agree with the surprises! Based on the results of the polls, I am worried that our "Church of Reason" is turning into a "Church of Political Correctness".

      1. Church of Reason? Church of Political Correctness?
        I thought this was Lent Madness...

    2. Some of the outcomes and comments do seem narcissistic, but even traditional devotion to saints was somewhat like that. Germans like German saints, Russians like Slavic saints, etc. Women who care about social justice vote for women who care about social justice and they happen to outnumber everyone else here. This would also happen if LM were in Greek and Greek voters picked Greek saints over obscure Northern Europeans and Americans who were nothing like them. Better informed Greek voters would grimace to see some obscure saint from a big island picked over J S Bach, just as better informed voters here grimace at the same thing.

      The difficulty is not that social justice candidates are advancing but that-- if their LM bios do them justice (which I doubt)-- they are not saints at all in any sense for anyone because they do not set a heroic example of personal holiness in Christ. Harriet Beecher Stowe plainly had a principled inner life of some kind, but her bios just tell us what she accomplished as though she were a candidate for the Board of Overseers at Harvard. It propagates a bad way of life encourage a disconnect between spirituality and spiritual fruit, as though doing great works of philanthropy (eg The Godfather) were the same as sanctity in Christ.

      My votes are all easy, because with few exceptions, a simple rule settles it-- no soul, no vote. But rather than see social justice candidates, I'd rather see some that actually look like saints.

      1. Sorry-- the last sentence should read: "But rather than see social justice candidates LOSE, I'd rather see some that actually look like saints WIN."

      2. Judging by yesterday's comments, there were some obvious very poorly informed votes against JS Bach. This contest has essentially become Female Social Justice Madness, which is fine, but not something in which I wish to participate.

        1. Wait, Mark, hang in there. There's no way of knowing who is voting or why, unless the voter posts a comment. There are good points made here about what might motivate some voters, but there are many other unknown fingers clicking circles for unknown reasons. If you have six car crashes, and in each one both drivers were carrying umbrellas, that doesn't mean umbrellas cause car crashes. Please stay around, because the blend of voices and the sharing of facts, factoids, and opinions has value. Comments help inform the uninformed, even if they don't always change the results. Think of the minds and hearts sharing in this communication, please consider remaining one of them.

      3. And how does a saint look? I think there is a hymn in the 1982 Hymnal that addresses and this---

        1. well then since i am a saint of God i should be on the bracket-therefore mr. rogers is also a saint of God, and if we go by the 1982 hymnal then he should be on the bracket. besides, i'm not dead!

        2. Kim, I voted for mystical, poetic, pastoral St John rather than the silent slayer of snails for wicked imperialists 😉 but I like your succinct statement of the preferences involved. And as you have seen, the discussion itself is not about voters' choices, but about the bios on which they are based. Our beloved social activists may all have had deep lives of prayer and insight in Christ that guided their every move; we just have little reason from their bios to see anything more than praiseworthy secular reformism. Some like the Lenten and some like the Madness, and to the former, the bios' odd silence about the spirituality of our social witnesses could matter.

          Postscript-- St Lydia reminds me that there is a largely forgotten category of saint in which women have long excelled--- benefactors. Like her, they were rich, if not super-rich, but there are some examples of deep spirituality among them. One Roman woman of the fourth century-- was it St Melania the Younger?; her grandmother St Melania the Elder?-- became a monastic herself, endowed several monasteries, freed 100,000 slaves, and gave the rest of her wealth to the poor. With staggeringly immense wealth, she quite literally did what the Rich Young Ruler was afraid to do.

          1. Bowman, I see… your concern is with the bios (written by the poor celebrity bloggers, toiling away without recompense or thanks), not with the subjects of the bios. Might I suggest that you write bios yourself next year? 😉

            Thank you for the link to the dissertation that discusses Melania the Elder and Melania the Younger. I haven't had a chance to read all of it yet because I've been reading a chapter on Lydia in "The Lord Opened Her Heart: Women, Work, and Leadership in Acts of the Apostles" by Teresa Jeanne Calpino.

          2. Kim, double thanks!

            (1) Thank you for even sarcastically suggesting that I write for this. I am neither a celebrity nor a blogger, but I suspect I would write a 'hagio' about a known or knowable saint du jour. (BTW neglect of the spirituality of the modern American women seems to me to be a template flaw, not a mistake of the individual writers. I have thanked one of the writers for quoting her saint directly.)

            (2) And thanks so much for the dissertation link. I studied women in Roman law an age ago, and this looks like a worthwhile update.

            Postscript-- If you like somewhat feminist NT scholarship, you may enjoy Marie Noonan Sabin's 'Reopening the Word' on the second gospel. In contextualizing St Mark in Jewish context, she relates Jesus to Wisdom and the wisdom literature, and opens the way to a hermeneutics of midrash.

  18. Not really a contest. I voted for Lydia before took on John. She is a wonderful model fro Christian women in the Church. But John 's writings transcends every Christian's model. Got any women who wrote like him?

    1. My guess is that many who voted for St John of the Cross would have voted for his contemporary St Teresa of Avila. Her writings are equally valuable, and her life of cultivating prayer, fighting off enemies of reform, building a new monastic order, and guiding souls was closely comparable to his.

        1. And hit "send" too soon, sorry. If she hasn't been a contender before, she certainly merits consideration for Lent 2015.

          1. Tessa, I could not agree more.

            St Teresa is as close as LM could likely come to a consensus saint.

        2. The Church of Reason did not give people with high ethical sensitivity an ideal of life to follow. Something had to fill the vacuum. For many, the Church of Political Correctness fills that vacuum with an ideal that would be fine if it were... better grounded in Christ, less socially polarized, and more spiritually mature.

  19. This was a tough choice, not because I like them both but because in the first round I didn't vote for either.

  20. Another coin tosser. John OTC gets my vote today because of his caregiving at age 14 and his distinction between happiness and joy. The latter reminds me of C. S. Lewis's writings on this subject.
    All honor to Lydia, but I can't help thinking about those snails.

  21. The author of Prozac Monologues would have to go for John of the Cross. BTW, did you realize that Dark Night tells you how to make a differential diagnosis between clinical depression and the Dark Night?

    1. Fascinating! I will have to pick that up ASAP! I have always been interested in the distinctions and connection of mental health/psychology and spiritual health.

  22. It seems to me that women do much better in these male/female contests....I voted for John of the Cross today. Lots more time for him to pull out this win!

  23. Sorry, John. You were a courageous saint to persevere even while seriously depressed (He did have a valid reason to be down.). I'm still hanging in there with Lydia, a woman who faced death if caught preaching the Good News. It didn't help that she harbored Paul and company, all fugitives from Roman law. Besides, she's the patron saint of dyers, a clan I'm a member of. I don't know how to make purple dye from snails either.