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


Lydia vs. John of the Cross

  • Lydia (58%, 2,994 Votes)
  • John of the Cross (42%, 2,191 Votes)

Total Voters: 5,183

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

  1. Lydia is an exemplar, not just for her own day but for our day. Her devotion and her practical focus are really inspiring to me.

  2. "Lydia, oh Lydia! Have you met Lydia? ..."
    "While her muscles she's relaxin',
    up the hill comes Andrew Jackson..."
    Vote for the crusher of thousands of poor snails?
    I think not!
    Go Johnny!

  3. Easy. We know almost nothing about Lydia, another example of a character sainted just for being in the New Testament. St John of the Cross is one of the greatest exemplars of the contemplative way in world spirituality generally, and voters can verify this for themselves with his writings. Set out to pray like Lydia, and you will become a menace to snails. Set out to pray like St John and... see comments above. St John of the Cross.

  4. Working for a just society does not in itself require that one have faith -- some of the most passionate social justice activists I know are atheists. My vote goes to John, who has been a profound support for many people's faith in dark times.

  5. I have a fondness for mystics anyway, but one who has influenced both Thomas Merton and T. S. Eliot gets extra credit. I might claim to have suffered a "dark night of the soul" myself, but I imagine that is more spiritual than simply depression. (Spain had a few other mystics, e.g. Teresa of Ávila, and Tomas Luis de Victoria has been called a mystical composer. Wonder why.)

  6. Lydia, because she was willing to believe when almost no one else would, because she was willing to believe and work for the Gospel when it was dangerous, because she looked danger in the face and said, "I believe."

  7. It will bust my brackets, but today I vote for Lydia. JOTC means a lot to me, as does Teresa of Avila. But Lydia was a founder in the days of founders of the new Way. Joseph of Arimathea struck me the same way. Sometimes actions are so profound and so consequential that inference about an inner life is appropriate. Lydia!

    1. Barbara, you just swung my vote for Lydia. And that last statement you made is so true.

  8. Ended up voting for John, with a shout-out to Lydia.
    Now I'll have to look up Tomas Luis de Victoria, having sung some of his music long ago.

  9. loved the npr interview except for snarky tone from the interviewer. also love the comments every day-informative and entertaining!

    1. How was the interviewer's tone snarky? Sounded perfectly respectful to me! Maybe I don't know the definition of "snark". Please explain.

  10. Bowman I'm not a radical, but if we pray increasingly through our work social action is prayer.

    1. "...if we pray without ceasing through our work social action is prayer."

      Martie, are you suggesting that 'social' action-- unlike all other action-- needs no spiritual foundation prior to itself? Probably not, but let me explain my concern with 'bios' that are not 'hagios.'

      The relation between contemplation and action is quite clear in saints like St Basil, St John of the Cross (& St Teresa of Avila), Thomas Merton, Phillips Brooks, and J S Bach. In each of these cases, the growth from spirituality to its fruit is easily traced. And-- very importantly-- we honor them as saints for that growth despite the fact that none of them was wholly successful. That sanctity what we want to emulate, if we understand the Beatitudes, not the success itself, which is in God's hand and not ours.

      The link from spirituality to fruit should be equally clear in candidates whose sphere of action happens to be social justice (eg Martin Luther King Jr). When it is not clear, we encourage some unhealthy disconnects unworthy of Christ-- between inner life and outer action, between motivation and fame. In this sphere, a broken link tells socially active Christians that they can overcome obstacles entirely on their own, and that what matters is not following Christ but achieving spectacular and obvious Success. This is not only faithless, but discourages the Christ-driven determination that social ministries of all ministries particularly need to persevere in the darkness. Only the enemies of man rejoice at this.

      Finally, Christ's ministry is reconciliation in a very deep, actually cosmic, sense, and his reconciling work is what opens the way for social ministry.
      It is when-- and only when-- Christians are faithfully joined to Christ's reconciling work that they are being saints. One can't choose causes from a secular menu, and plunge into ordinary partisanship, and then see the result as the fruit of a connection to him. In saints, spirituality organically, not arbitrarily, grows into the right fruit.

      Some apparent failures are of high spiritual worth, and bigger success is not holier than smaller success. Apparent compromises can be holier than hardline positions. Struggles are valuable when they are in Christ no matter how they turn out in the short run. All this is counter-intuitive to many posting here, but the lives of saints have mattered to Christians as a way of detaching from worldly illusions, and learning the values of the Kingdom.

      1. Thank you Bowman for articulating this distinction between "bio" and "hagio". Discussions like these are one of the reasons I enjoy Lent Madness. I hope you stick with us.

  11. I discovered Lent Madness during it's second go-round. It was a lot of fun as readers/voters seemed to remember that the prime elements were #1-knowledge about people who could be considered as saints, #2-respect for readers/voters personal opinions and choices, and #3-the element of "madness", as in "it's all in fun folks so have a good time and try not to be judgemental about the choices other people make, especially when they don't jibe with yours. Remember, if it's not to your liking, there's an OFF button on your computer or whatever you're using to record your vote. It's really not worth getting in a snit about it! Ultimately, the SEC, whether you think they're a tad demented, quirky, "out there", or whatever, have the final say-so as they invented the whole kit and kaboodle...well, one did and the other brought it into the 21st least, that's the spiel they preach. They also decide who will be in the line-up...and don't get mad with me, Madeleine B about FR ! It's not my call as I clearly think Eddie Murphy's Mr. Robinson should count, too..."He-wo, boys and guls!" More caffeine needed ASAP !!

  12. Next time I'm reading comments before voting. It will help me have a better informed opinion.

    1. Exactly what I decided to do this round. I'm not sure it's helping too much. I'm leaning Lydia, having heard 3 different sermons (Including Bishop Susan Goff's) on her lectionary day. Mysticism has no appeal to me -- nor John's writings, but I may just relent -- perhaps against the gender tide -- perhaps because I'm sometimes persuaded to give John's writings another chance. -- Nope -- Lydia, because I've not seen anything in the comments to move me closer to that second chance for John. I remain unsold on the mystic path, though drawn to via negativa in the abstract.

      1. Here's a though I just had relating to some of the comments made about the female slant to the voting so far: One of the reasons there is so little mention of women in the Bible is because men were the authors and editors and had their own gender bias.

        To me that means fewer mentions of women in the Bible and, if they are mentioned, their roles are downplayed or not fully formed. Thus we tend to know much about the men, have quotes and samples of writings and reasoning while we tend to know very little about the women's thinking other than that which is painted with broad strokes or seen through the fog of time.

        1. Actually there are quite a few women mentioned in the Bible, many of them play key roles: Eve, Sarah (Abraham's wife), Lot's wife, the Egyptian princess who saved Moses, Ruth, Naomi, Esther, .... Elizabeth, Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Martha, Anna the prophetess, Lydia .... Just to name a few!

          1. Oh, and I left out the woman at the well! And that's only a few that I could think of off the top of my head without looking up additional ones in my Bible!

  13. My vote goes to Lydia. Lydia is a successful Greek (Lydia is a Greek not Jewish.) businesswoman and a part of the church’s counterculture. Her “place of prayer” is at the center of the church in Philippi with her as the center authority and support. I see Lydia as an important part of the early development of the church when both men and women have an equal part and value.

  14. Another male vs female matchup, another female victory, coincidences I suppose, every time

  15. Tough choice, because I voted for both of them in Round 1, but I think I will have to stay with John of the Cross this time. Great respect for both of them, though.

  16. Lydia wins my vote for inspiring the Philippians to grow spiritually.

    The debate over spirituality/faith vs. good works is fascinating. Several commenters have said that they're voting for those contenders who are social activists because they've done so much to improve society. Other commenters say that they're voting for the saints with the best inner spiritual life.

    I believe that I can understand a person's inner spiritual life only through their actions and words. The writings of John of the Cross are not only windows into his soul, but they are also his social activism. Meanwhile, Lydia's hospitality and church building are not only public service, but these works also reflect her inner spiritual life.

    Tough choice, but Lydia's faith inspires me more today.

  17. John had me at Dark Night of the Soul. But I imagine the outcome will be the same this time as in all the others.

    1. Anne, I agree that Lent Madness, which used to be great fun for me, is becoming something of an exercise in predictability -- though the two Harriet's, likely to come up, will be harder to forecast! Bowman's comment above is perceptive and sympathetic, much appreciated by those of us who respect social works, but who look also for some indication of spiritual depth.

  18. This one was killer-diller hard, but I had to go with JotC for his lesser-known story of compassion and identification with those who walk in the valleys of life. No greater Golden Halo than being included in the Scripture, so Lydia is set.

  19. John of the Cross. He wrote the masterpiece of Spanish poetry known as the Dark Night of the Soul. It would be a toss up if he was pitted against Theresa of Avila.

  20. Eesh, tough call. John of the Cross is one of my main spiritual beacons, but purple cloth and positive mention by Paul in Scripture? Lydia. Sorry, John, you know I still love you.

  21. Late as usual this am, I was happy I made itin to the car in time to hear the story on NPR about Lent Madness. Hard choice as usual today.

    1. I too heard the NPR story while in the car! It didn't make the choice any easier today.

      1. Agreed.
        I also rejoice in the Lent Madness madness of being able to vote e.g. in defense of the Snails of Thyatira, or because one likes the colour of a saint's fancy dress in their accompanying image. (Note that in historical/ecclesial circles this most certainly does NOT exclude men from the running!)
        : )

  22. Aarrggg! This is getting harder and harder...Love them both.sigh. I guess I decided based on the fact that although Lydia may have brought people into the church, I think JOTC has orobably jept a lot of us IN the church during those interminable "dark nights"...

  23. Oh my ... Birdbike's last comment almost has me changing my mind about my initial choice to go with Lydia. But I've recently learned to sew and am fascinated by all things fabric and stitching and the creative blessing this has been in my life due to a very spiritual friend who took me on as a student ... i do feel for the sticky snails and for those who had to create dye from them. Ick.