Feast day: 14 December
St John of the Cross was born Juan de Yepes y Alvarez into a converso family (descended from Jewish converts to Christianity) in Fontivernos near Avila. His father, Gonzalo, had been an accountant to rich relatives who disowned him on his marriage to Catalina, who was an orphan of a lower class. The couple were forced to work as weavers till Gonzalo’s death in 1545, which was followed in 1547 by John’s older brother Luis, probably from malnutrition. Catalina eventually found work as a weaver in Medina el Campo in 1551. Here John entered a school for poor children where he received a basic education, especially in Christian doctrine as well as having food, clothing and lodging. He became an acolyte to Augustinian nuns and then worked in a hospital. He studied humanities in a school of the recently-founded Jesuit Order from 1559 until 1563. Here his gifts as poet, sculptor, craftsman and musician began to emerge. He entered the Carmelite order in 1563, taking the name of John of St Matthias. He was sent for further studies to the University at Salamanca. Since he feared the responsibilities of the priesthood, he considered joining the austere Carthusian order; however, a chance meeting with Teresa of Avila led to his staying with the Carmelites. She had been offered a farmhouse, and John and a few companions settled there in a hut adapted for their needs. He was appointed sub prior and novice master, and later he was named rector of the newly-established house at Alcala. The friars led a life of extreme austerity which made even Teresa shudder. In 1568 he took the name of John of the Cross. They soon became known as the discalced friars, discalced meaning barefoot as they wore only sandals. Teresa’s nuns were also described as discalced. A deep friendship developed between John of the Cross and Tersesa, though there was nearly thirty years difference in their ages. They were both ardently dedicated to reform though they had their disagreements. Teresa called him half a friar for he was under five foot in height. She also said that "he had reached the greatest height of sanctity that human creature can attain to in this life.”
Teresa was asked to govern the Convent of the Incarnation and he became confessor and spiritual directorboth to her and to the 130 nuns living there, as well as to lay people in the city. She, for her part, became a guiding influence in his life. In 1574 John accompanied Teresa in the foundation of a new monastery near Segovia. At this time while praying in the monastery at Avila he had a vision of the crucified Christ, which inspired his famous drawing From above. The drawing was placed in a small monstrance and kept in Avila. It later inspired Salvador Dali’s painting Christ of St John of the Cross.
Teresa and John wanted to return their order to the original ideals of the early Carmelites, the desert fathers who led an eremetical life. Over the centuries the order had become more mendicant than contemplative. Discipline had become laxer. They began to reform houses of friars and nuns. Tensions began to arise between the reformed and unreformed friars. At first John received support, particularly as King Philip II was in favour of some of Teresa’s reforms, as were some of the church authorities. However the opposition grew and on the night of 2 December 1577 a group of Carmelites, hostile to John, broke into John’s house at Avila and took him prisoner. He was taken to the Carmelite monastery in Toledo, the order’s most important in Castile, and was brought before a court of friars and accused of disobedience. He was jailed in the monastery, subjected to a harsh regime which included a weekly public flogging before the community. He was isolated and cramped in a small, stifling cell, was given no change of clothing and had to live on a diet of bread and water and scraps of salt fish. When he wanted to read his breviary, he had to stand on a bench to get light from the hole in the adjoining room. During his confinement he composed a great part of his most famous poem The Spiritual Canticle as well as a few shorter poems. The paper was passed to him by the friar who guarded his cell. He managed to escape nine months later through a small window in a room adjoining his cell, having managed to prise the door off its hinges.
He was nursed back to health by Teresa’s nuns in Toledo and then at the hospital in Santa Cruz. He then continued with his reform. A a meeting of the supporters of reform it was decided to ask the Pope for a formal separation from the Carmelite Order. At the meeting John was appointed superior of El Calvario, an isolated monastery of thirty friars in the mountains six miles from Beas in Andulasia. Here he befriended Ana of Jesus and wrote a commentary on his Spiritual Canticle.
In 1579 he moved to Baeza to serve as rector of a new college, the Colegio de San Basilio to support the studies of the discalced friars in Andulasia. He remained there till 1582 acting as spiritual director for the friars and the townspeople. In 1580 Pope Gregory XIII signed a decree which authorised a separation between the Calced and Discalced Carmelites. At the first General Chapter of the Discalced Carmelites in 1581 John was appointed one of the “Definitors” and wrote a set of constitutions for them. by 1581 there were 22 houses with three hundred friars and two hundred nuns.
In November 1581, John was sent by Teresa to help Ana of Jesus found a monastery of nuns. John stayed in the monastery at Los Martires beside the Alhambra, becoming its prior in 1582. It was then he heard of the death of Teresa. In 1585 he travelled to Malaga and established a monastery of discalced nuns there. In 1585 the General Chapter of the Discalced friars elected him Provincial Vicar of Andulasia, which required him to travel frequently, visiting the houses of the friars and nuns. He founded seven monasteries in the region and was estimated to have travelled around 25,000 km. In 1588 he was elected as third Councillor to the Vicar General of the Discalced Carmelites, returning to Segovia to fulfil this office; however, after a disagreement with the Vicar General, he was sent to an isolated monastery in Andulasia, while opponents tried to gather charges against him. He fell ill there and travelled for treatment to Ubeda where was ostracised by the prior and shamefully neglected. He died on 14 December 1591 of erysipelas. He was canonised by Benedict XIII in 1726 and in 1926 he was declared a doctor of the church.
It would be impossible in a short article to do justice to writings of this multi-gifted man. He is one of the foremost poets in the Spanish language. There has been a great deal of discussion about the influences on his writing, but it is clear that he drew inspiration from the bible and also from the tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius, who lived in the late fifth and early sixth centuries.
His Spiritual Canticle, written while he was imprisoned and added to later describes the bride (the soul) searching for the bridegroom (Jesus) and is a free-form version of the Song of Songs.
Perhaps his most famous work was The Dark Night. This is a poetic description of the journey of a soul through purgation, illumination and eventual union with God. It is an experience where the mystic feels a loss of God and desolation and despair are the usual emotions. John was very conscious of the destructive quality of self love and the dark night is God’s way of bringing the soul to desire only his will.
The Ascent of Mount Carmel begins as a commentary on the Dark Night and describes the mortification of inordinate appetites which are contrary to the perfect love of God and the use of the senses only for God’s honour and glory.
The Living Flame of Love is the song of a soul that has reached a highly perfect love within the state of transformation. It is a union with God, a spiritual marriage
Apart from his great spiritual gifts John shone as a thinker, poet and artist as well as an administrator. He was courageous, ascetic, humble, gentle and sweet natured.
St John of the Cross, pray for us.