Soldier Saints: St. John of God
Resurrection is counting down to Veteran's Day by featuring Soldier Saints. Logan Isaac created this countdown as a way for churches to support and welcome veterans. The excerpt below is reposted by permission from Logan's book For God and Country [in that order], © 2013 Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Va.
Today's featured Soldier Saint is St. John of God.
John was a Portuguese soldier who served Charles V of Spain in arms against the French and later in Austria against the Turks under the Count of Oropesa, Fernando Alvarez. In all, he spent about eighteen years in martial service, during which, by all accounts, he left the faith of his youth behind, taking up gambling and drinking in its stead.
By the time he tired of his martial exploits, he had come near to absolute poverty and is known to some as a “waif” -- abandoned, alone and without a home. John’s fate was not unlike many soldiers of our day who are disproportionately homeless, substance addicted, and suffering from broken homes, broken relationships broken hearts.
Filled with the desire to mend his ways, John went about employing himself in all manner of charitable works. In Grenada, Spain, he served a family exiled near Gibraltar. At a hospital in Grenada, he rescued many patients caught in a massive fire, without him being burned. Well acquainted with bravery from his time on the battlefield, John felt at home serving those in need and in danger, even while he himself might be put in need and find himself in harm’s way.
Finding only sporadic outlets for his penitential stress, he continued to feel tormented by guilt and constantly sought absolution. That is, until the feast day of another soldier saint, Sebastian, on January 20, 1538. Hearing a sermon from John of Avila (the native town Sebastian), he began to wail uncontrollably before throwing himself onto the street, beating his breast, tearing his hair, and crying to God for mercy. So boisterous was his penance that he was committed to an insane asylum.
In the asylum, he witnessed the utterly depraved treatment of people who were mentally ill and disabled. By the time he would otherwise have been released, he had begun to serve his fellow inmates. John became convinced that his life was to be lived in service to the sick and poor, just as he had once been.
He prayed, “May Jesus Christ give me the grace to run a hospital where the abandoned poor and those who suffer mental illness may have refuge, so that I may be able serve them as I wish.”
This proved to be the foundation for an order he went on to found in 1572, known as the Brothers Hospitallers. To this day the Hospitallers are entrusted with the medical and dental care of the pope himself.(1) In Italian, they are known as the Fatebenefratelli, the “Do Good Brothers,” for their founding and continued operation of the busiest pharmacy in the world, located on the grounds of Vatican City in Rome.
John’s final act of heroism was a failed attempt to save a young man from drowning, which led to an undisclosed and fatal illness (perhaps pneumonia). He died on his fifty-fifth birthday in 1550.
Like many soldiers today, John was thought to be mad, perhaps as a result of his time on the battlefield. (2) The connection between mental health in the hospitals of Grenada in the sixteenth century and the veterans’ hospitals today is not hard to make.
John knew what it was to be abandoned, poor, and alone. His prayer to God was almost certainly a petition for himself as well as for other “abandoned poor” and homeless people such as veterans who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder and moral injuries. He was able to turn the passion and dedication he learned while in the military into protecting and caring for those who, like himself, were not seen as mentally stable.
God of order and love, Prince of Peace and Justice, bear me against your breast in my darkest moments, shield me from invasive thoughts and the harrowing of a conscience crystallized too late. Take a towel to dry my night sweats, a damp cloth to moisten my dried lips. Guard my mind from painful memories and deliver my dreams from the evil I’ve seen and done and failed to prevent. Protect me from my own past, dear Lord, and comfort me in my grief. Overcome my fear with your perfect love. Grant me your peace in wakefulness and sleep, through the mercy of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. His order (http://www.hospitallers.org) must not be confused with the Knights Hospitaller, who (beside the Knights Templar) were a major military order that undertook the Crusades. In fact, Charles V, under whom John served, was partially responsible for reviving the militaristic order. Not to be confused with Crusaders, the Order of Knights of Saint John of God, formed only in 2005, protect the saint’s relics in Grenada. They carry no weapons and their motto is simply “God is love.”
2. Learn more about posttraumatic stress at http://www.ptsd.va.gov. Also see Beyond the Yellow Ribbon: Ministering to Returning Combat Veterans, by D. A. Thompson and D. Wetterstrom (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press; 2009), and MennoMedia’s pamphlet Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (Harrisonburg, VA: 2012).