St. John of God
Patron of Booksellers
Have you ever encounutered someone who’s personal piety was not in question but who’s personal sanity was very much in doubt? I’m not talking about someone like, say, Mother Teresa. Sure, they all told her she was nuts for wanting to live in the slums and care for people who might very well have hated her. No, that’s different. That’s an example of someone living courageously her faith in spite of obstacles and proving naysayers wrong. No, I’m talking about someone who strips naked and runs around a field with a tin foil hat strapped to his head chanting the Star Spangled Banner in Korean. Not that there’s any evidence that John of God did this but work with me…
John (not yet of God, that came later) was born in Portugal in 1495. He grew up and became a shepherd and then went off to serve in the armies of Charles V of Spain fighting the French and later the Turks. Sure, he got to see the world but he also picked up some nasty habits and his piety quotient plummeted. In 1563 he returned to civilian life and once again tended sheep(s). When he was in his early 40’s he undertook a “reinvention”. In other words, he was moved to transform his life. He began to serve the poor (and not to the hungry). Settling in Granada in 1538 he came to hear the preaching of St. John of Avila (our most recent doctor of the Church). So moved was he that he had a pyschotic break.
OK, so that last sentence is not supported by any modern medical study. What happened was that he felt a strong need to exercise greater humility. It is the opposite of pride after all. Where you or I (or even that Le.Rheims chick) might simply fast or pray, John decided that wandering far off the reservation of sanity was the best course of action. He decided to “act as a madman”. He only stopped this act when ordered to by John of Avila himself.
He decided to “act as a madman”.
He rounded out his life by starting a religious order — the Brothers Hospitalers — and devoting himself to the care of the sick. That’s what most people do in their retirement, right? He suffered one final, terrible illness and then died at the foot of the altar.
Come on? Is this for real? Actually, yes. And that’s what makes him so interesting and that’s what makes hagiology so cool. All I can say is that it takes all kinds and perhaps next time your best friend decides to quack like a duck in the middle of a movie for no apparent reason you might just realize that you’re sitting next to a future saint.