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Saint John of the Cross

Saint John of the Cross
  • Century: 16th Century
  • Patronage: Contemplative Life, Contemplatives, Mystical Theology, Mystics
  • Feast Day: December 14th

St. John of the Cross was born Juan de Yepes y Alvarez, in Fontiveres, near Avila.  His town had about 2,000 people in it.  His father Gonzalo was an accountant to richer relatives who were silk merchants.  When John’s father married his mother Catalina in 1529, who was an orphan of a lower class, Gonzalo was rejected by his family and forced to work with his wife as a weaver.  His father died in 1545, while John was seven years old.  Two years later, John’s older brother Luis died.  Finally, his mother took John and his surviving brother Francisco moved to Arevalo, and then Medina del Campo, where she was able to find work weaving.  

In Medina, John entered a school for poor children, generally orphans receiving their basic education.  This school was mainly Christian doctrine, and provided some food, clothing and lodging.  John was so advanced; he was chosen to serve as an acolyte at a nearby monastery of Augustinian Nuns.  He worked at a hospital growing up and studied the humanities at a Jesuit school from 1559 – 1563.  The Society of Jesus was a new organization at the time, having been founded only a few years earlier by St. Ignatius Loyola.  In 1563, he entered the Carmelite Order, and took the name of John of St. Matthias.  In 1564, he professed his religious vows as a Carmelite and traveled to Salamanca, where he studied theology and philosophy at the university.  

John was ordained a Priest in 1567.  In Medina, he met the charismatic Carmelite Nun, Teresa of Jesus.  She was in Medina to found the second of her convents for women.  They immediately talked about her reformation project for the Order.  She was seeking to restore the purity of the Carmelite Order by restarting observance of its “primitive rule” of 1209.  Under this Rule, much of the day and night was spent in the recitation of the Choir Offices, study and devotional reading, the celebration of the Mass and times of solitude. For friars, time was spent evangelizing the population around the Monastery.   Total abstinence from all meat, and lengthy fasting was to be observed from the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14) until Easter.  There were to be long periods of silence, and coarser, shorter habits were to be worn.  They were to not wear shoes as part of this observance.  Teresa asked John to follow her.  John decided to travel with Teresa from Medina to Valladolid, where she intended to found another monastery of Nuns.  John left Valladolid to found a new monastery for friars, the first for men following Teresa’s principals.  On November 28, 1568, the monastery was established, and on that same day, John changed his name to John of the Cross.  

In June 1570, the friars found the house too small, and moved to the nearby town of Macera de Abajo.  After moving on from this community, John set up a new community at Pastrana, and a community at Alcala de Henares to house the studies for the academic training of the friars.  In 1572, he arrived in Avila at the invitation of Teresa, who had been appointed prioress of the Monastery of the Visitation there in 1571.  John became the spiritual director and confessor for Teresa and the other 130 Nuns.  He also ministered to the laypeople in the city.  In 1574, John accompanied Teresa in the foundation of a new monastery in Segovia.  

At some point between 1574 and 1577, while John was praying in the Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila, in a loft overlooking the sanctuary, John had a vision of the Crucified Christ, which led him to create his famoius drawing of Christ “from above”.  In 1641, this drawing was placed in a small monstrance, and kept in Avila.  This inspired the artist Salvador Dali’s 1951 Work, “Christ of St. John of the Cross”.  

On the night of December 2, 1577, a group of Carmelits opposed to reform, broke into John’s dwelling in Avila, and took him prisoner.  John received orders from his Superiors, opposed to reform, to leave Avila and return to his original house, but John had refused.  The Carmelites therefore, took John captive.  John was taken to Avila to the Carmelite monastery.  He was brought before a court of friars, accused of disobeying the ordinances given him.  Despite John’s argument that he had not disobeyed the ordinances, he received a punishment of imprisonment.  He was jailed in the monastery, where he was kept under a brutal regimen that included public lashing before the community at least weekly, and servere isolation in a tiny stifling cell measuring ten feet by six feet, barely large enough for his body.  He had to stand on a bench to read his breviary by the light through the hole into the adjoining room.  He had no change of clothing, and a penitential diet of water, bread, and scraps of salt fish.  During his imprisonment, he composed a great part of his most famous poem “Spiritual Canticle” as well as many others.  Paper was passed to him by the friar who guarded his cell.  He managed to escape, nine months into his imprisonment through a small window in a room adjoining his cell.  He managed to pry the cell door off its hinges.  

He was nursed back to health, first with Teresa’s nuns, and then during six weeks at the Hospital of Santa Cruz.  He continue with reform.  In October 1578, he joined a meeting at Almodovar del Campo of the supporters of reform, increasingly known as the “Discalced Carmelites”.  There, in part, as a result of the opposition faced from other Carmelites in recent years, they decided to demand from the Pope, their formal seperation from the rest of the Carmelite Order.  At this meeting, John was appointed Superior of El Calvario, an isolated monastery of around thirty friars iin the mountains, about 6 miles away, in Andalucia.  

In June of 1588, he was elected third Councillor to the Vicar General for the Discalced Caremlites, Fr. Nicolas Doria.  To fulfil this role, he had to return to Segovia in Castile, where in this capacity he was also prior of the monastery.  After disagreeing with some of Doria’s remodeling of the leadership of the Discalced Carmelite Order, John was removed from his post in Segovia, and sent by Doria in June 1591, to an isolated monastery in Andalusia.  There he fell ill, and traveled to the monastery at Ubeda for treatment.  His condition worsened, and he died there on December 14, 1591.  

Practical Take Away

St. John of the Cross was a spiritual man that was a friend of Teresa of Avila, and was ordained a Priest.  He joined the Carmelite Order, and helped St. Teresa to open more monasteries.  He was a reformer, and worked hard to bring his order back to it’s original Rule, which was much more rigid.  He was so disliked by some in his Order, that were rebelling the reform, that they tried him within his Order, and imprisoned him for life in a 10 foot by 6 foot cell in horrible conditions.  He escaped after 9 months, and after healing, went on to become Superior of the Discalced Carmelite Order.  He suffered severely at the hands of his own, but continued to pursue in faith.  He had a vision of the Crucified Chirst, that was the the theme for famous art.