December 14 is the feast day of St. John of the Cross. As with the short biography I did of St. Teresa of Avila some time ago, this one is longer than the others.
Juan de Yepes, known to us as St. John of the Cross, was born around1542 in a small town in Old Castile. His father was Gonzalo de Yepes, orphaned at an early age. He was from a wealthy family of silk merchants whose Jewish ancestry had been hidden to gain legal privileges. John’s mother, Catalina, had been an orphan since infancy, and she was from a poor family thought possibly to have had Moorish ancestry. She had supported herself by weaving textiles in Toledo before she met Gonzalo and they fell in love. As a result of their marriage, in 1529, the Yepes family disinherited Gonzalo, leaving the two in poverty.
John was still a toddler when Gonzalo died in an epidemic. Gonzalo was buried in the parish church next to John’s brother Luis, who is thought to have died of malnutrition. Catalina was left with two sons, Francesco and John. She went to her late husband’s family seeking help and found little.
They moved, first to Arevalo for four years and then, in 1551, to Medina del Campo, where Catalina continued to obtain necessities with her weaving, aided by the children. During their time in Arevalo, Francesco was among the youth who roamed the streets late at night, playing a guitar and carousing, sometimes sleeping in a local church not from piety but rather because a local cleric would give him a place to sleep off his late night revelry. Around that time, Francesco underwent a profound conversion. Under the guidance of a priest in Arevalo, the eighteen year old Francesco developed the habit of going into the fields and vineyards at night, praying for long hours. He married and settled into a stable life, an uneducated laborer who worked to help the sick and the poor. John was six years old at the time of his brother’s conversion. He remained close to his brother all his life.
John was 9 years old when his family moved to Medina del Campo, where he remained for 13 years. There, he received an elementary education at the School of Doctrine, part of a program to educate poor children, expecting them to learn a trade and thus to be less prone to crime. He quickly learned to read and write, but never settled on a trade. Attempts at carpentry, tailoring, carving and painting all were unsuccessful, perhaps due to his greater interest in books. After trying various trades, he took a job as a servant at the Hospital of the Conception, a charitable center that treated the poor and patients with sexually transmitted diseases.
The Jesuits had recently established a school for pre-university studies in Medina, the kind of school where Jesuits educated their members, paying students, and a few students accepted in charity. The hospital administrator noticed his abilities, his dedication to his work, and his love for books, and gave him permission to take classes there while still working at the hospital. He took classes there from about 1559 to 1563, studying a little in the morning and more in the evening. His mother sometimes found him in the middle of the night studying in the hay stacks.
John’s teacher took particular interest in him, and he soon became a good Latinist and rhetorician. The hospital administrator had hoped that when John finished his schooling with the Jesuits, he would become the hospital’s chaplain and confessor to the poor.
Instead, he was attracted to Carmel’s Marian character. In 1563, he secretly went to the Carmelite Monastery of Santa Ana and asked for the habit, which they gave to him at once. He took the name of Fray John of St. Matthias (Juan de Santo Matia). During his one-year novitiate, others noticed his love for solitude, prayer and repentance, although some considered him overly zealous. After making his profession, he received permission to observe the order’s primitive European rule.
He then traveled to Salamanca for four years of study at the Carmelite College of San Andrés and the city’s celebrated university. The university had one of the most renowned theological faculties in Spain. He studied philosophy and theology, but he remained first and foremost a Carmelite contemplative, still spending long hours alone before the Blessed Sacrament. He was appointed prefect of students, a position in which he gave lectures and debated with the faculty. Although successful in that academic environment, he was not satisfied, perhaps feeling too much alone in living by the primitive European rule and in his zeal.
He was ordained in the fall of 1567 and went to his home monastery of Santa Ana in Medina to chant his first Mass. While there, he met Teresa of Avila. He confided that he was thinking of leaving the order for the Carthusians, who lived a life of greater solitude and contemplation. Teresa asked him to wait until the Lord would provide a monastery for friars of her Carmelite reform.
One year later, John and two other friars founded the first Discalced Carmelite house for friars, in a two-month novitiate in Valladolid. In the fall, he set out to found a new house in a secluded place called Duruelo. Teresa briefly visited that house, writing in her book The Foundations about a little cross made for the holy water fount there from sticks with a paper image of Christ. Although the happiness of the friars despite their environment impressed her, she asked them to be less severe in their penitential practices. The reform was still built on austerity, which appealed to the mentality of the time.
On November 28, 1568, in the presence of the provincial, John accepted the Discalced Carmelite life, changing his name to Fray Juan de la Cruz (John of the Cross). In May 1572, Teresa sought him out to be the confessor and spiritual director for the nuns at the Incarnation in Avila, where she had been made prioress in a controversial decision. The Incarnation was not a monastery of the reform, but rather one of the mitigated rule. Near collapse when Teresa arrived, the house began to transform. Teresa credited John with the change, calling him a saint and her spiritual father, and saying that there was “no one like him in all Castile.”
He could direct people with different temperaments differently, adapting what he did for each individual, secular people as well as religious. He taught children who lived nearby how to read from a primer, and helped them with their catechism and prayers.
When Teresa left the Incarnation, the nuncio ordered John to remain there, despite new political tension. He lived in a hermitage with one other Discalced friar, isolated from the Carmelites of the mitigated rule, some of whom believed that he was destroying the order. They arrested him for the first time in December 1575, releasing him in January 1576.
John offered to resign, but the nuns appealed for him to stay, and the papal nuncio Nicolas Ormaneto ordered him to remain there. Ormaneto died in June 1577, leaving John vulnerable. He was in his hermitage there on the night of December 2, 1577, when he and the other Discalced friar were both seized. John was this time taken to Toledo and imprisoned for 9 months. His imprisonment in the monastery was not uncommon for a friar accused of being rebellious and contumacious, as he was. He was subjected to physical mistreatment intended to force him to abandon his rebellion. However, he did not agree with the accusations. For the first six months, he had nothing but a tiny cell with an unsympathetic jailer who would not allow him to have a book, ink, paper, or change of clothing. The jailer’s successor took more interest in John, allowing him to have writing materials so that he could begin to write down some of the poetry already partly composed in his head. In a harsh prison cell, the beauty of God’s love enfolded him, and he wrote the first part of his poem Spiritual Canticle and his Romances on the Gospel.
By August, 1578, afraid he was dying, John made a plan of escape. Little by little, he loosened the bolts on the lock, in such a way that it was concealed from his jailers. One night, he broke it readily and tied linens together to a pre-measured length. He climbed out of a window and slid down the linens, jumping the last few feet to the top of a wall, and eventually found his way to a house of Discalced nuns. Finding him very weak and frail, they began to nurse him back to health.
The Discalced Carmelites then appointed John to be superior of the monastery of El Calvario in Andalusia, far to the south, where those seeking to re-arrest him would be unlikely to do so. He was still weak when he began his journey in late 1578. On June 13, 1579, he left El Calvario for Baeza, where he became the rector of a new house for Discalced Carmelite students. Baeza had a deeply spiritual city life. John was consulted by the clergy and also by ordinary people who wanted his instruction. He showed charity toward the sick, especially during a flu epidemic of 1580, when his mother died, and in another epidemic in 1582. On June 22, 1580, Pope Gregory XIII made the Discalced a separate province of the order, resolving much of the conflict that had led to John’s move south. However, the province was still under the direction of the same general as the Carmelites of the mitigated rule until after John’s death. John he did not return to live in Castile for another 8 years.
He began to write commentaries on his poetry and eventually wrote his great incomplete works, The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul. He completed his Spiritual Canticle and A Living Flame of Love. Other writings from those years have been lost. He carried his Bible with him regularly, analyzing and meditating on it. He continued to live an ascetic life rich in contemplation. Yet, while in Baeza, he drew careful distinctions between the mysticism of Baeza’s Alumbrados and that of the Discalced Carmelites. Applying what he knew of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Dominicans about the necessity of reason, he articulated the need to apply faith and reason to distinguish God’s true workings from false mysticism.
Teresa died in 1582. Meanwhile, John moved further south. He entered Granada in January 1582. There, in the country, there were no students. As superior, he first sought to build a relaxed and trusting atmosphere, observing that virtue cannot be fostered by harsh means. He spoke of contemplation, the virtues, and other spiritual things. One of the nuns in Granada kept a pile of notes from John’s talks and counsels about an inch high, but it was almost all lost or later destroyed for his protection in 1591.
In 1584, John became vicar provincial for Andalusia. He traveled extensively during those years, covering at least 15,812 miles in the course of his life, and sometimes 30 miles a day. He took his Bible, sometimes reading while on mule back on level ground. He walked much of the way. He sometimes had horses. He took shortcuts through rough terrain, and many of the roads were not suitable for wheels.
On June 27, 1587, Pope Sixtus V approved Doria’s Constitutions, and the Discalced became a congregation. While the conflict between the Discalced and the mitigated rule was ebbing, there was mounting conflict within the Discalced congregation. A scandalous power struggle erupted for control in the wake of Teresa’s death. Gracian, who had been her favorite, was seen as a threat by Doria, who took control. John, too, had enemies, including some other friars who believed that he had disciplined them too harshly when they were younger.
Despite John’s opposition to Doria’s mistreatment of Gracian, John was given high positions of authority. In 1588, he was elected third councilor to the vicar general for the discalced. Also superior of the central house of Segovia, he finally returned to Castile. The positions gave him great administrative duties and left no time for writing. His great books remained unfinished. He developed an enthusiasm for a building project for the monastery, and he built a garden for meditation. He spent long hours in prayer in a cave, or on his knees by the Blessed Sacrament at night, and working with directees. As before, both religious and secular people sought his guidance. Students came to him during the summer.
His time in a position of prominence did not last long. At the chapter of 1591, John was made provincial of Mexico. He had volunteered for the missionary journey, but there were some who had seen it as a convenient way to remove the threat he posed to the direction Doria wanted to take the order. John’s health began to deteriorate soon after the appointment, and he was moved instead to a small community at La Penuela, where he could again devote himself to prayer and spiritual direction. At the same time, he was subjected to a campaign seeking to destroy his reputation. One of those friars who held a grudge against him for a past rebuke assisted Doria in that effort. On July 6, 1591, John wrote in a letter not to let what had happened to him cause grief. Rather, “Think nothing else but that God ordains all, and where there is no love put love, and you will draw out love.” Many of his letters and other writings were then destroyed by correspondents who feared that John’s political enemies might use them against him.
On September 12, 1591, John began to suffer from a fever prompted by an infection in his leg. The infection spread, and he had to leave La Penuela to seek medical treatment. He chose to go to Ubeda, where no one knew him. The prior in Ubeda was reluctant to spend money on medical care and healthy food. Some of the friars disagreed. They complained to the provincial, who happened to be Anthony of Jesus, one of the other two friars who had lived with John in founding the first Discalced house for friars 23 years earlier. The young friars at Ubeda listened as John and Anthony spoke, mentioning the order’s earliest days. The prior, Crisostomo, became one of John’s admirers and later died with a reputation for holiness.
As doctors concluded that John’s decline was irreversible, he knew that death was approaching. He wanted the letters about the persecution burned to preserve the reputations of all concerned. In his last hour, he asked to hear a reading from the Song of Songs. He asked to have the bell rung for Matins, and said he would be chanting Matins in heaven. The bell rang at midnight. He died in the first minute after midnight on December 14, 1591, at the age of 49. People sought relics from his body. Litigation ensued over which city would keep it. Nine months after John’s death, his tomb was opened for the move to Segovia. His body was found to be fresh and was returned to the tomb. Again, on April 28, 1593, his body was found to be incorrupt and fragrant when finally moved to Segovia. His body was viewed for 8 days before being re-buried.
He was beatified in 1675, canonized in 1726, and declared a doctor of the church in 1926.
Dodd, Michael, O.C.D., “John of the Cross: The Person, His Times, His Writings” from Carmelite Studies VI: John of the Cross (available for free download online).
Kavanaugh, Kieran, O.C.D., Introduction to The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross.
Kavanaugh, Kieran, O.C.D., John of the Cross: Doctor of Light and Love
Ruiz, Federico, O.C.D., ed, God Speaks In the Night: The Life, Times and Teaching of St. John of the Cross (a collection of biographical and historical essays by various authors).