Saint John of the Cross (June 24, 1542 – December 14, 1591) is the patron of Contemplatives, Mystics and Spanish poets. His feast day is on December 14th.
He was born Juan de Yepes Alvarez into a Jewish family in a small community near Ávila. His father died when he was young, and so John, his two older brothers and his widowed mother struggled with poverty, moving around and living in various Castilian villages. Jews living in Spain were forced to either convert to Christianity, or die. Those who converted were called, “Conversos”
A major figure of the Counter-Reformation, a Mystic, a Carmelite friar and priest
Entering the priesthood was a way out of poverty for many people. On February 24, 1563, he entered the Carmelite order, adopting the name Fr. Juan de Santo Matía. In 1564 he professed as a Carmelite, and moved to Salamanca, where he studied theology and philosophy at the University and at the Colegio de San Andrés. These studies influenced his later writings, as his teacher, Fray Luis de León who taught Exegesis, Hebrew and Aramaic at the University, was one of the foremost experts in Biblical Studies and had written an important and controversial translations of the Song of Songs of Solomon, in Spanish.
Priesthood and association with Saint Teresa of Avila
Ordained as a priest in 1567, Saint John of the Cross
indicated his intent to join the strict Carthusian order, which appealed to him because of its encouragement of solitary and silent contemplation. Before this, however, he traveled to Medina del Campo, where he met the charismatic Saint Teresa of Avila. She immediately talked to him about her reformation projects for the Carmelite order, and asked him to delay his entry into the Carthusians. The following year, on November 28, he started this reformation at Duruelo together with Fr. Antonio de Jesús de Heredia, and the originally small and impoverished town of Duruelo became a center of religious activity.
John, still in his 20s, continued to work as a helper of Saint Teresa until 1577, founding monasteries around Spain and taking active part in their government. These foundations and the reformation process were resisted by a great number of Carmelite friars, some of whom felt that Teresa’s version of the order was too strict. Some of these opponents would even try to bar Teresa from entering their convents.
Imprisonment, writings, torture, death and recognition
The followers of St. John and St. Teresa differentiated themselves from the non-reformed communities by calling themselves the “discalced,” i.e., barefoot, and the others the “calced” Carmelites.
In late 1577, John was ordered to leave the monastery in Avila and to return to his original house. However, John’s work to reform the order had already been approved by the Papal Nuncio, who was a higher authority. Based on that, John chose to ignore the lower order and stay.
On December 2, 1577, a group of Carmelites broke into John’s residence and kidnapped him. He was taken by force to the order’s main house in Toledo. He was brought before a court and placed on trial for disobedience. He was punished by imprisonment.
He was kept under a brutal regimen that included public lashing before the community at least weekly, and severe isolation in a tiny stifling cell barely large enough for his body.
His only luxuries were a prayer book and an oil lamp to read it by. To pass the time he wrote poems on paper that was smuggled to him by the friar charged with guarding his cell.
He managed to escape nine months later, on August 15, 1578, by prying off his cell door. In the meantime, he had composed a great part of his most famous poem Spiritual Canticle during this imprisonment; his harsh sufferings and spiritual endeavors are then reflected in all of his subsequent writings.
He joined Teresa’s nuns in Toledo, and spent six weeks in the hospital to recover. In 1579, he was sent to the town of Baeza to be rector of a new college and to support the Discalced Carmelites in Andalusia.
In 1580, Pope Gregory formally authorized the split between the Discalced Carmelites and the rest of the order. This ended the rift within the order. At that time, there were about 500 members in the order living in 22 houses.
During the last few years of his life, John traveled and established new Carmelite houses across Spain.
His death, dismemberment, burial
In 1591, John became ill with a skin condition that resulted in an infection. He died on December 14, 1591.
Shortly following his death, there was a dispute over where he should be buried. The dispute was resolved by removing his legs and arms. Over several years, these parts of his body were placed on display and buried across several places.
Beatification, Doctor of the church
Saint John of the Cross was beatified by Pope Clement X in 1675, and Canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726.
His writings were first published in 1618, and he was canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726. In 1926, he was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI. When inserted into the Roman Catholic calendar of saints in 1738, his feast day was assigned to November 24. Pope Paul VI moved it to the dies natalis (birthday to heaven) of the saint, December 14. The Church of England commemorates him as a “Teacher of the Faith” on the same date.
It took until the 27 September 1970, for St. Teresa of Avila, St. John’s mentor, to also be named a Doctor of the Church, by Pope Paul VI.
St. John of the Cross is best known for his introspective poetry and writings on the growth of the soul, his works are considered a peak in the literary landscape of Spanish writing and the summit of Spanish mystical literature. In particular, he is the renowned author of the “Dark Night of the Soul,” a term that is still widely used in Christian spiritual practice today.