Celebrating our Saint of the Month
Saint John of the Cross
Feast Day: 14th December
Patron of contemplatives, mystical theology and Spanish poets
Saint John of the Cross was born Juan de Yepes y Alvarez, in Fontiveros, Avila, Spain, in 1542. His father was employed by wealthy family members as an accountant, but they disowned him when he married a poor woman from the lower class. His father died when he was three, and his older brother, Luis died two years after that, likely because of malnutrition. John's mother eventually found work weaving which helped her to feed her family.
As a child, John was sent to a boarding school for poor and orphaned children. He was given a religious education from a young age and chose to follow a religious path. He served as an acolyte at an Augustinian monastery. As he grew older, he went to work in a hospital while attending a Jesuit school.
In 1563, he was able to join the Carmelite Order and took the name, 'John of St. Matthias'. He made vows the following year, and was sent to the university in Salamanca to study theology and philosophy. He became an expert in the Bible and translated the Song of Songs into Spanish, a controversial act since the Church forbade the translation of the Bible from Latin (in an attempt to protect the original meanings in the scripture).
John became a priest in 1567 and considered joining the Carthusian Order where monks lived cloistered in individual cells. He was attracted by the simple and quiet life. However, he encountered Theresa of Avila, a charismatic Carmelite nun. Theresa asked John to follow her.
John was attracted by the strict routine followed by Theresa, a routine she hoped to reintroduce to her order, as well as her devotion to prayer and simplicity. Her followers went barefoot, and were therefore known as the Discalced Carmelites.
On 28th November, 1568, Theresa founded a new monastery. The same day, John changed his name again to John of the Cross. Within a couple years, John and his fellow friars relocated to a larger site for their monastery. He remained at this location until 1572.
In 1572, John travelled to Avila at the invitation of Theresa to become her confessor and spiritual guide. He remained in Avila until 1577. While there, he had a vision of Christ and made a drawing that remains to this day called, 'Christ from Above.' The little drawing shows Christ on the cross, looking down on him from above. The image has been preserved for centuries.
Around 1575, a rift within the Carmelite order began to grow and create controversy between various monastic houses. There was disagreement between the Discalced Carmelites and the ordinary Carmelites, over reform.
The Discalced Carmelites sought to restore the original, strict routine and regimen that the order had when it was founded. In 1432, the strict rules of the order were mitigated, relieving the Carmelites of some of their most strict rules. Some Carmelites, such as Theresa of Avila, felt this liberalisation of their rule had interfered with their order and practice. Theresa, along with John, sought to restore the original rule.
The Carmelites had been undergoing reform since 1566, under the direction of two Canonical Visitors from the Dominican Order, sent by the Vatican. The intervention of the Holy See as well as the political machinations of King Phillip II and his court, led to dramatic, even violent disagreement between the 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 2nd December, 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.
A cell was made for him in the monastery that was so small he could barely lie on the floor. He was fed only bread and water and occasional scraps of salt fish. Each week he was taken into public and lashed, then returned to his cell. 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.
After nine months, John managed to pry his cell door from its hinges and escape.
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 formerly 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 travelled and established new houses across Spain.
In 1591, John became ill with a skin condition that resulted in an infection. He died on 14th December, 1591.
Shortly following his burial, there was a dispute over where he should be buried. The dispute was resolved by removing his legs and arms. Over the years, parts of his body were placed on display or buried across several places.
Saint John of the Cross was beatified by Pope Clement X in 1675, and Canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726. In 1926, he was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI. The Church of England venerates him as a teacher of the faith.
Saint John of the Cross is considered one of the foremost poets in the Spanish language. Although his complete poems add up to fewer than 2500 verses, two of them—the Spiritual Canticle and the Dark Night of the Soul—are widely considered masterpieces of Spanish poetry, both for their formal stylistic point of view and their rich symbolism and imagery. His theological works often consist of commentaries on these poems. All the works were written between 1578 and his death in 1591, meaning there is great consistency in the views presented in them.
The Spiritual Canticle is an eclogue in which the bride (representing the soul) searches for the bridegroom (representing Jesus Christ) and is anxious at having lost him; both are filled with joy upon reuniting. It can be seen as a free-form Spanish version of the Song of Songs at a time when translations of the Bible into the vernacular were forbidden. The first 31 stanzas of the poem were composed in 1578 while John was imprisoned in Toledo. It was read after his escape by the nuns at Beas, who made copies of these stanzas. Over the following years, John added some extra stanzas. Today, two versions exist: one with 39 stanzas and one with 40, although with some of the stanzas ordered differently. The first redaction of the commentary on the poem was written in 1584, at the request of Madre Ana de Jesus, when she was prioress of the Discalced Carmelite nuns in Granada. A second redaction, which contains more detail, was written in 1585–6.
The Dark Night (from which the spiritual term takes its name) narrates the journey of the soul from its bodily home to union with God. It happens during the night, which represents the hardships and difficulties met in detachment from the world and reaching the light of the union with the Creator. There are several steps in this night, which are related in successive stanzas. The main idea of the poem can be seen as the painful experience that people endure as they seek to grow in spiritual maturity and union with God. The poem of this title was likely written in 1578 or 1579. In 1584-5, John wrote a commentary on the first two stanzas and first line of the third stanza of the poem.
The Ascent of Mount Carmel is a more systematic study of the ascetical endeavour of a soul looking for perfect union, God and the mystical events happening along the way. Although it begins as a commentary on the poem the Dark Night, it rapidly drops this format, having commented on the first two stanzas of the poem, and becomes a treatise. It was composed sometime between 1581 and 1585.
A four-stanza work, Living Flame of Love, describes a greater intimacy, as the soul responds to God's love. It was written in a first redaction at Granada between 1585-6, apparently in two weeks and in a mostly identical second redaction at La Peñuela in 1591.
These, together with his Dichos de Luz y Amor (or 'Sayings of Light and Love') and Saint Teresa's writings, are the most important mystical works in Spanish, and have deeply influenced later spiritual writers all around the world. Among these are T. S. Eliot, Thérèse de Lisieux, Edith Stein (Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) and Thomas Merton. John has also influenced philosophers (Jacques Maritain), theologians (Hans Urs von Balthasar), pacifists (Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan and Philip Berrigan) and artists (Salvador Dalí). Pope John Paul II wrote his theological dissertation on the mystical theology of Saint John of the Cross.