September 20, 2018

VSU Professor Challenges Popular Narrative on Catholic Saint

Dr. Cristóbal Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes

VALDOSTA — Valdosta State University’s Dr. Cristóbal Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes has unearthed new truths about one of the most popular Catholic saints of all time in his recently published book, “Saint John of the Cross: His Prophetic Mysticism in the Historical Context of Sixteenth-Century Spain.”

Serrán-Pagán, associate professor of philosophy and religious studies, pulls from his more than two decades of exhaustive research to challenge many popular narratives surrounding St. John of the Cross, a Spanish priest, poet, and writer who lived in the 1500s. St. John of the Cross was named a Catholic saint in 1726 and is one of only 36 “Doctors of the Church” — saints deemed to be especially important to the Catholic church for their contribution to theology and doctrine.

“For too long, for centuries after his death, St. John of the Cross was portrayed as a very austere man who withdrew from the world in order to find God, and that’s not true,” Serrán-Pagán said. “We know that he was a man of action. He walked through Spain and Portugal on foot in those days. He became a reformer, a counter-reformer. He was a contemplative man fully in love with God who also displayed a great love for humanity and for creation.

“In this book, what I did was to clarify, hopefully once and for all, that St. John of the Cross was not a mystic who was escaping from reality or escaping from the world but rather a man deeply in contact with the world and deeply engaged with the social, religious, and political issues of the time.”

The book reveals little-known information about St. John of the Cross’s family lineage, which most likely included Jewish and Moorish ancestry. Those origins are significant because they place him in the center of one of the biggest social crises of his time — the Spanish Inquisition, a Catholic initiative supported by the government that was originally created to ensure new Christians remained Catholics. If people were caught practicing their old faith, they were arrested, persecuted, or even killed. Even devoted Catholics whose families converted from other religions were subject to persecution and social rejection, and St. John of the Cross himself endured much discrimination for lacking the “purity of blood” that was so prized in that time.

“We tend to portray Catholic saints as holy people, and sometimes we want to ignore some of the human aspects and the historical context in which they lived because we are trying to elevate them to a divine position,” Serrán-Pagán said. “I think it’s very important to tell the story more accurately and portray these great religious figures and contemplatives as also contemplatives in action.”

He added that the legacy of St. John of the Cross and the times he lived in offer valuable lessons for today’s world, especially regarding the struggle for multiple religions and ideologies to coexist peacefully. 

“If we learn from the past and we keep these lessons in our memory, we can avoid the same problems in the future,” he said. “That’s why I believe this story is so important right now in the United States and in Europe, where the problem of identity is giving rise to white nationalism, black nationalism, separatism, and fundamentalism — and we saw some of that in 16th century Spain.” 

Serrán-Pagán, who is a native of Spain and who has studied St. John of the Cross his entire academic career, said writing the book was a “labor of love.”

“I want to open the field to the public so that anyone who has an interest in these types of mystics will be able to grasp their historical context and make connections to their contemplative ways of life,” he said.

“Saint John of the Cross: His Prophetic Mysticism in the Historical Context of Sixteenth-Century Spain” is Serrán-Pagán’s first solo book. He was also the sole editor for “Merton and the Tao,” a 2013 book that explores the writings of Thomas Merton, a 20th century American Catholic monk.

Serrán-Pagán joined the VSU faculty in 2007. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy in religious studies from Boston University and specializes in world religions and the history of philosophy.

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