Born: 1542, at Fontiveros, Ávila, Spain1
Died: December 14, 1591 (at the age of 49) in Úbeda, Jaén (Andalusia, Spain)
Beatified: January 25, 1675 by Pope Clement X
Canonized: December 27, 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII
Proclaimed Doctor of the Church: August 24, 1926 by Pope Pius XI
Feast day: December 14th
Patronage: Contemplative life, contemplatives, mystical theology, mystics, Spanish poets
I have always been fascinated by St. John of the Cross – by his spiritual life and by the writings of this great, mystical Doctor of the Church who shared his sufferings with us as he sought to draw closer to God in his experience of the Dark Night. St. John’s spiritual journey led him into deep union with the heart of God, and his life and works profoundly impacted not only succeeding generations of Carmelites, but religious and lay people alike. I wanted to not only read his works, but to get to know him better.
Juan de Yepes y Álvarez – better known as St. John of the Cross – was born in 1542 in the village of Fontiveros, about 48 kilometers northwest of Ávila, Spain. The youngest of three children born to Gonzalo de Yepes and Catalina Álvarez, his father was born into a noble family of wealthy silk merchants. But the family disapproved of Gonzalo’s relationship with Catalina; she was an orphan, a poor weaver, and her station in life was far beneath their own. So when the couple decided to marry, his family refused to accept her and completely disowned him.
Gonzalo was forced to take up silk weaving in order to support his family, but though he worked hard, he was never very successful at it. The years took their toll on Gonzalo and, exhausted by the demands of trying to support his family, he died soon after Juan’s birth. His family was left completely destitute and homeless, and the children never had enough to eat. The constant lack of food would leave a permanent mark on Juan, whose physical growth was stunted as a result. “St. Teresa [of Ávila], in one of her flashes of humor, speaks of him in one place as ‘half a man’.”2
Two years after Gonzalo’s death, Juan’s older brother, Luis, also died – possibly due to malnutrition – and in 1548, Catalina took Juan and his surviving brother, Francisco, to Arévalo. Although they lived in the most abject poverty, both Juan and his brother felt secure in the devoted love of their mother. When Juan was 9 years old (in 1551), the family settled in Medina del Campo (about 45 kilometers southwest of Valladolid), and Catalina was able to find work there as a weaver.
In Medina, Juan entered a school for poor children, many of them orphans. There he received a basic education – mainly in Christian doctrine – as well as food, clothing, and lodging. He was an attentive and hardworking student, but once he turned 14, it was time for him to earn his own living. Juan found an apprenticeship position, but he had absolutely no aptitude for learning a trade. Fortunately, he was able to find a job as an assistant in a hospital in Medina, and for the next seven years he cared for patients who suffered from incurable diseases and madness. From 1559 to 1563, he also attended classes at a Jesuit school.3
It was at the Jesuit school that Juan’s genius finally came to light. “He was a born artist, and every form of art appealed to him. Music was his delight; not only the music of song and instrument, but also the ‘silent music’, as he later called it, of the woods, and the waters, and the stars. He had a relish for sculpture; he could paint and design; but most of all he reveled in poetry, and found in it the medium for the expression of his soul. Of all things else Juan de Yepes was a poet born; with a poet’s vision, a poet’s ambition, a poet’s restlessness and dissatisfaction, a poet’s special held of delight, last of all a poet’s need to find expression in rhythm and verse.”4
Always drawn to asceticism, Juan disciplined his body with the utmost rigour even at this early age. In prayer, he had been told that “he was to serve God in an order the ancient perfection of which he was to help bring back again.”5 This prophecy was fulfilled when Juan found his way to the Carmelite house at Medina where, on February 24, 1563, he received the habit and took the name, John of St. Matthias. In 1564, he professed his religious vows as a Carmelite and was sent to Salamanca where he studied theology and philosophy.6 There he was surrounded by many other young Castilian poets who were exploring their art in new and creative ways. St. John’s poem, Canticle of Christ to the Soul, was written during his time there.7
A little shepherd alone, in pain,
His soul no joy can move;
His thought is all for his shepherdess,
His heart is lost in love.
But he weeps not because of love’s deep wound,
Laments not at his lot;
Though the wound has cloven his heart in two–
He weeps that he is forgot.
John was ordained a priest in 1567, but by that time he had decided that he wanted to leave the Carmelites. The Order had undergone many changes since Pope Eugene IV had relaxed the demands of the ‘Primitive Rule’ (dating from 1209) in 1432. St. John was attracted to the more rigorous life of the Carthusians, a strict Order whose members lived a life characterized by solitary and silent contemplation. He traveled to his mother house at Medina del Campo to tell them of his intention, but God had other plans. Before he could act, St. John met someone who would completely change the course of his life: a charismatic Carmelite nun almost 30 years his senior, Teresa of Jesus – also known as St. Teresa of Ávila.
The Carmelite Reform
St. Teresa was in Medina to found the second of her convents for women. Her desire was to reform the Carmelite Order by returning to the observance of the Carmelite ‘Primitive Rule’. This rule was much more demanding than the mitigated rule approved by Pope Eugene IV. It required that much of the day and night be spent in reciting the choir offices, in study and devotional reading, and in the celebration of the Mass and times of solitude. In addition, from September 14th – the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross – until Easter, everyone would be required to fast and to totally abstain from meat. They would also be required to observe long periods of silence, especially between the liturgical hours of Compline (evening prayers said before retiring for the night) and Prime (prayers said in the morning at the first hour of daylight). Coarser, shorter habits – more simple than those worn since 1432 – were to be worn, and the friars and nuns were to follow the injunction against wearing shoes. For this reason, St. Teresa’s Order came to be known as ‘discalced’ (barefoot), which distinguished them from the ‘non-reformed’ nuns and friars.8
St. Teresa’s vision resonated with St. John, and he allowed himself to be persuaded to help her establish a monastery of friars who would carry out the Primitive Rule. After returning to Salamanca for a final year of study, he travelled with Teresa from Medina to Valladolid (in August 1568) where she planned to found another convent. St. John stayed there for several months, learning all he could about this new form of Carmelite life.
A few months later, in October 1568, he and Friar Antonio de Jesús de Heredia left Valladolid together to found a new monastery for friars – the first for men who would follow St. Teresa’s principles. A house at Duruelo (half way between Ávila and Salamanca) had been donated to St. Teresa, but when she and another nun had gone to inspect it, it was so rundown and filthy that the nun said, “Certainly, Mother, there is nobody, however great his spirituality, who can bear this; do not speak of it.”9 But though St. Teresa was certain that no provincial would ever give them permission to live there, John was undeterred. He answered that “he would live not only there but even in a pigstye.”10 And so it came to be that it was here – on November 28, 1568 – that the new monastery was established. That same day, he changed his name to John of the Cross.
St. John of the Cross
The necessary permissions – by the grace of God – were obtained, and it wasn’t long before the friars outgrew their new home. In June 1570, they moved to the nearby town of Mancero de Abajo, and a few months later, St. John set up new communities at Pastrana (October 1570) and Alcalá de Henares (a house dedicated to the academic training of friars).
In 1572, St. Teresa invited St. John to come to Ávila where she had been appointed prioress of the Monastery of the Incarnation. He would remain there until 1577, serving as spiritual director and confessor to St. Teresa and the 130 nuns there, as well as many laypeople who lived in the city. It was while he was praying in a loft above the sanctuary in the Monastery that he had a vision of the crucified Christ which led him to draw his famous image of Christ ‘from above’.
This drawing would later become the inspiration for Salvador Dali’s famous 1951 painting, “Christ of St. John of the Cross.”
Despite the enthusiasm of the Discalced Carmelites, not everyone was happy about the reforms instituted by St. Teresa and St. John. Between 1575 and 1577, tensions rose between the Discalced Carmelites and those who wanted to live by the mitigated rule. Concerned that events might be getting out of hand, the Carmelites gathered to discuss the situation at a General Chapter in Piacenza, Italy in May 1576. At that meeting, it was decided that the Discalced houses should be completely suppressed.
This order was not immediately enforced, though, as both the Spanish King, Philip II, and his papal nuncio, Nicolò Ormaneto were supportive of some of Teresa’s reforms. Nevertheless, St. John was ordered by some of his superiors (who were opposed to reform) to return to Medina. He refused, insisting that his reform work had been approved by the Spanish nuncio, a higher authority than his superiors. Despite Ormaneto’s support, St. John was arrested by some Carmelite friars in Medina del Campo in January, 1576. The papal nuncio intervened on his behalf and he was released soon after, but when Ormaneto died in June of the following year, St. John was left with no one to protect him.
The Dark Night
Things finally came to a head on the night of December 2, 1577 when a group of Carmelites opposed to the reform broke into St. John’s house in Ávila and took him prisoner. They scourged him for his insubordination, gave him putrid food and nothing to drink, and then took him to the Carmelite monastery in Toledo (the Order’s most important monastery in Castile at that time). There, St. John was tried before a court of friars and accused of disobeying the Piacenza ordinances. John argued that he had not disobeyed, but he was found guilty and imprisoned in a dark, damp cell in the monastery that measured only ten feet by six feet. He had no change of clothing, and except for the rare occasions when he was permitted to use an oil lamp, he was forced to read his breviary by the sliver of light that shone through a hole from the next room.
Fr. Goodier writes that his cell was “little better than a hole in a wall, narrow, dark, without ventilation; fed on crusts and remnants of fish, and every Friday brought out to do penance, ending with a discipline on his naked shoulders, before the community in their refectory. Juan kept the marks of those scourgings on his body to the last day of his life. Nor did his sufferings stop there. He was bullied by superiors, he was deprived of the sacraments; false reports were told outside his door, but carefully loud enough for him to hear, that Teresa’s reform had been condemned, that the Pope himself had declared against it, that those who refused to accept the decision would be severely punished. Juan heard it all, and had no reason to believe that what he heard was not true; nevertheless, within him his heart cried out that the dream he had before him came from God, that one day, if he persevered, it would be fulfilled. He fell back on his lonely prayer, and saw how all this persecution did but make it the more real, he expressed the fruit of his prayer in verse, and the result was the Canticle which has made his name immortal, and the poem of the Obscure Night, which places him at once in the front rank, both of poets and of mystics. He had lived it all, and while he had lived it he had written, not only the story of his suffering, but the meaning of that suffering in the light of the new vision that he had once dreamed and now had learnt. He had been deprived of all and the deprivation had given him everything. He had tasted all bitterness, and it had turned into sweetness. What had been difficult had become easy; what had been repugnant was now a joy; affliction was his consolation, effort his rest, the meanest and lowest things brought him new vistas of glory and of beauty. When later he taught the same to others he taught them as one who knew; not as a hardened ascetic, but as a lover of life who had discovered a new world.”11
“God has to work in the soul in secret and in darkness because if we fully knew what was happening, and what Mystery, transformation, God and Grace will eventually ask of us, we would either try to take charge or stop the whole process.” – St. John of the Cross
Nine months later, on August 15 1578, St. John managed to escape his cell by unscrewing the lock on his door and sneaking past his guard. Taking the poetry he had written during the months of his imprisonment, he managed to let himself down from a window by making a rope out of bed linens and fled.
St. Teresa’s nuns in Toledo nursed St. John back to health, and by October of 1578, he was well enough to continue his work with the reform. He joined a meeting of the Discalced Carmelites at Almodóvar del Campo, who were now demanding that the Pope allow them to formally separate from the rest of the Carmelite Order. At this meeting, St. John was appointed superior of El Calvario, an isolated monastery in the mountains about 9 ½ kilometers away. He subsequently served as rector of the Colegio de San Basilio from June, 1579 to 1582.
Separation of the Carmelites and Discalced Carmelites
On June 22, 1580, Pope Gregory XIII signed the decree authorizing the separation of the Carmelites and the Discalced Carmelites. St. John was elected one of the ‘Definitors’ of the Discalced Carmelites and wrote a set of constitutions for their First General Chapter. By 1581, the Order boasted 22 houses and counted about 300 friars and 200 nuns amongst its number.
St. John continued to help St. Teresa of Ávila, founding a convent in Granada in 1582 at her request. (She died in October of that same year.) In February, 1585, he went on to establish a convent in Málaga, and in May of that year he was elected Provincial Vicar of Andalusia, a position that required him to travel a great deal. (During his life, he travelled about 25,000 kilometers, most of it on foot.) In June 1588, after being elected third Councillor to Fr. Nicolas Doria, the Vicar General for the Discalced Carmelites, St. John moved to Segovia.
It was here that his sufferings would begin again in earnest. When, in 1590-1591, “Doria changed the government of the order, concentrating all power in the hands of a permanent committee, St. John resisted and, supporting the nuns in their endeavor to secure the papal approbation of their constitutions, drew upon himself the displeasure of the superior, who deprived him of his offices and relegated him to one of the poorest monasteries [an isolated monastery in Andalusia called La Peñuela], where he fell seriously ill. One of his opponents went so far as to go from monastery to monastery gathering materials in order to bring grave charges against him, hoping for his expulsion from the order which he had helped to found. As his illness increased he was removed to the monastery of Úbeda, where he at first was treated very unkindly, his constant prayer, ‘to suffer and to be despised’, being thus literally fulfilled almost to the end of his life. But at last even his adversaries came to acknowledge his sanctity, and his funeral was the occasion of a great outburst of enthusiasm.”12
“Have a great love for those who contradict and fail to love you, for in this way love is begotten in a heart that has no love.” – St. John of the Cross
On December 14, 1591, St. John of the Cross died of erysipelas.13 After his death, his body (which is still incorrupt) was taken to Segovia, with the exception of a small part of his body that remained in Úbeda. Since that time, “A strange phenomenon, for which no satisfactory explanation has been given, has frequently been observed in connection with the relics of St. John of the Cross: Francis de Yepes, the brother of the saint, and after him many other persons have noticed the appearance in his relics of images of Christ on the Cross, the Blessed Virgin, St. Elias, St. Francis Xavier, or other saints, according to the devotion of the beholder.”14
Works of St. John of the Cross
St. John left a legacy of written works that give us an intimate glimpse into his interior life. Writing from an overflow of his own love for God and his desire to come to mystical union with Him, his writings also sprang from a desire to help others advance in the life of prayer, especially those he met daily in confession and spiritual direction. These works were not meant for beginners of prayer, but for those who were ready to enter into the life of contemplation.
The first 31 stanzas of the Spiritual Canticle, a poem about the bride (the soul) searching for the bridegroom (Jesus), were written during St. John’s imprisonment in Toledo. Later works would follow, including the Dark Night (1578-1579), a poem that describes the soul’s journey from its bodily home to union with God. The journey happens during the night, and the poem describes the painful experiences, difficulties, and hardships that the soul encounters as it seeks to detach itself from the world in order to grow in spiritual maturity and arrive at union with God.
“To reach satisfaction in all, desire satisfaction in nothing. To come to possess all, desire the possession of nothing. To arrive at being all, desire to be nothing. To come to the knowledge of all, desire the knowledge of nothing. To come to enjoy what you have not, you must go by a way in which you enjoy not. To come to the possession you have not, you must go by a way in which you possess not. To come to what you are not, you must go by a way in which you are not.” – St. John of the Cross
The Ascent of Mount Carmel, a treatise on the ascetical endeavor of a soul seeking perfect union, God, and mystical events that might happen along the way, was written sometime between 1581 and 1585. Other important works include Living Flame of Love (1585-6 and 1591 – a four-stanza poem that describes a greater intimacy as the soul responds to God’s love) and Sayings of Light and Love. St. John was beatified on January 25, 1675, and his canonization took place on December 27, 1726.
- Sharon van der Sloot
“At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.” – St. John of the Cross
Prayer of Peace
by St. John of the Cross
O blessed Jesus,
Give me stillness of soul in You.
Let Your mighty calmness reign in me.
Rule me, O King of Gentleness,
King of Peace.
The Litany of St. John of the Cross15
For private use only.
Lord, have mercy on us.
Christ, have mercy on us.
Lord, have mercy on us.
Christ, hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.
God, the Father of Heaven,
Have mercy on us.
God the Son, Redeemer of the world,
Have mercy on us.
God the Holy Ghost,
Have mercy on us.
Holy Trinity, One God,
Have mercy on us.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Queen and Beauty of Carmel,
pray for us.
Saint John of the Cross,
pray for us.
St. John, our glorious father, etc.
Beloved child of Mary, the Queen of Carmel,
Fragrant flower of the garden of Carmel,
Admirable possessor of the spirit of Elias,
Foundation stone of the Carmelite reform,
Spiritual son, and beloved father of St. Teresa,
Most vigilant in the practice of virtue,
Treasure of charity,
Abyss of humility,
Most perfect in obedience,
Invincible in patience,
Constant lover of poverty,
Dove of simplicity,
Thirsting for mortification,
Prodigy of holiness,
Model of contemplation,
Zealous preacher of the Word of God,
Worker of miracles,
Bringing joy and peace to souls,
Terror of devils,
Model of penance,
Faithful guardian of Christ’s vineyard,
Ornament and glory of Carmel,
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world,
Spare us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world,
Graciously hear us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world,
Have mercy on us.
Holy father Saint John of the Cross, pray for us,
That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Let Us Pray.
O God, Who didst instill into the heart of Saint John of the Cross,
Thy confessor and our father, a perfect spirit of self-abnegation and a
surpassing love of Thy Cross, grant that assiduously following in his footsteps,
we may attain to eternal glory. Through Christ Our Lord. R. Amen.
1 We don’t know the exact day that St. John of the Cross was born because the parish registers that recorded his birth were destroyed in a fire in 1544. A plaque on the font of the church at Fontiveros, dated 1689, suggests that he may have been born on the feast day of St. John the Baptist (June 24th), but there is no other evidence to support this.
2 Alban Goodier, S.J., “The Self-Portrait of St. John of the Cross – 1542-1591” from Saints for Sinners (New York: Image Books, 1959); quoted at EWTN, available from https://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/JCROSS.HTM; Internet; accessed 13 November 2016.
3 The Society of Jesus was a relatively new Order at the time; it was founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1540.
4 Goodier, “The Self-Portrait of St. John of the Cross – 1542-1591” from Saints for Sinners.
5 Benedict Zimmerman, “St. John of the Cross,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 8 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910). Available from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08480a.htm; Internet; accessed 14 November 2016.
6 The University at Salamanca was very prestigious, one of the four biggest in Europe along with Paris, Oxford and Bologna. One of Juan’s teachers was Fray Luis de León, who was one of the most renowned experts in Biblical Studies at the time.
7 Goodier, “The Self-Portrait of St. John of the Cross – 1542-1591” from Saints for Sinners.
8 Cf. “John of the Cross,” Wikipedia; available from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_of_the_Cross; Internet; accessed 17 November 2016.
9 St. Teresa of Ávila, Book of Foundations; available from http://carmelite-book-studies–foundations.blogspot.com/2011/08/book-of-foundations-chapter-13-st.html; Internet; accessed 15 November 2016.
10 St. Teresa of Ávila, Book of Foundations; available from http://carmelite-book-studies–foundations.blogspot.com/2011/08/book-of-foundations-chapter-13-st.html; Internet; accessed 15 November 2016.
11 Goodier, “The Self-Portrait of St. John of the Cross – 1542-1591” from Saints for Sinners.
12 Zimmerman, “St. John of the Cross,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 8.
13 Erypsipelas is an acute infection caused by the Streptococcus bacteria.
14 Zimmerman, “St. John of the Cross,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 8.
15 “Litanies,” Catholic Tradition; available from http://www.catholictradition.org/Litanies/litany52.htm; Internet; accessed 17 November 2016.