St. John of the Cross, Our Holy Father (1542-1591)

Mystic, poet, teacher and ardent lover of God, St. John of the Cross stands out among the great of the Church. Set apart as a Doctor of the Church, specifically acknowledged as the “Doctor of Mystical Theology,” his message is for all. St. John of the Cross is a sure guide for us from our first steps in the spiritual life to its summit: Union with God.

Juan de Yepes began his life in 1542 in a small town of Fontiveros, Spain. His father Gonzalo de Yepes married Catalina Alvarez who came from a much lower social class than Catalina. Thus he was disinherited by his family. Gonzalo died when Juan was only 2 years old. Poverty was the lot of this small family of only 3 children. One of John’s brothers died when he was 2 years of old, which left his widowed mother (a weaver by trade) to care for her two boys. Moving to Medina del Campo, hoping to meet with a better financial situation, John entered a school of elementary education and later attended a Jesuit school at the age of 17. Juan was known for his intelligence, his piety and love for the poor, whom he cared for while working at a local hospital.

At the age of 21, Juan de Yepes entered the Carmelites of Medina of the mitigated observance, probably attracted to the contemplative dimension and also because it was Our Lady’s Order. After his studies and ordination to the priesthood, John became dissatisfied. He was thinking of transferring to the purely contemplative Order of Carthusians when the providential meeting between St. Teresa of Jesus and himself took place. Madre Teresa convinced him that he did not have to leave “Our Lady’s Order” to find what he was seeking. She had been planning to introduce friars to her newly founded Discalced Carmelite movement. John agreed, but only on the condition that he would not have to wait long. Click here for more on the Carmelite Friars in the Reform of St. Teresa.

St. John of the Cross set out with new zeal and contemplative ardor to aid St. Teresa in the Reform of the Friars.. Quickly they began to increase in numbers. Throughout his life John served as prior, novice master, rector and confessor, especially to the nuns of the Discalced Monasteries. Spiritual direction was his greatest gift. “This holy and heavenly man,” as St. Teresa called him, was a sure guide along the way of love and union with God.

Because of misunderstandings and tension between the newly formed Discalced and the “Calced” Carmelite friars, John was captured and imprisoned in a monastery in Toledo for nine months. There in the dark of his prison cell and amid much suffering, he composed some of his greatest poems, such as the Spiritual Canticle. Knowing that he might soon face death, John escaped and took refuge in one of Teresa’s monasteries and then was cared for secretly in a nearby hospital. He held no bitterness against his captors, nor did he care to talk about what he endured.

Towards the end of his life he met with yet another Cross. Nicholas Doria, the General of the Discalced Carmelites, convened a chapter wishing to push two controversial maneuvers: to change some points of the Constitutions of Teresa’s nuns and abandon jurisdiction over them; he also proposed expulsion from the Order of St. Teresa’s close collaborator, Fr. Jerome Gracian. John spoke openly, opposing both moves. Because of this he was “exiled” to an isolated monastery of La Penuela, but only in preparation for a mission to Mexico where he was to lead a group of twelve friars. However, God had other plans.

John soon became sick and was forced to go to another monastery, where he could be cared for during the remaining time before his death. Given a choice between Baeza and Ubeda, he chose Ubeda “because I am not known there.” The prior of the monastery of Ubeda at the time did not welcome the sick man, seeing him as a burden and expense. When John knew his time left on this earth was running short he called for this prior and begged pardon for all the trouble he had caused him. Moved to tears the prior left totally transformed. In a letter dated July 6, 1591 John wrote: “Do not let what is happening to me, daughter, cause you any grief, for it does not cause me any. Men do not do these things, but God, who knows what is suitable for us and arranges things for our own good. Think nothing but that God ordains all, and where there is no love, put love, and you will draw out love.” These words portray a man of deep faith; this was a rule of life for him which he lived to the fullest.

One would think that the many trials and difficulties he encountered throughout his life would have brought forth a bitter spirit; instead it resulted in a man purified and enlightened, a man of deep humility and charity. In his many writings we see a man on fire with the love of God. He directs his readers to this same height, the grace of union with God through love. Along this way John leaves no place for half measures. However strict an ascetic he may seem to be at first glance, he is rather a man in love with Christ and one who will allow nothing to come between him and his goal. He wants to guide each of us along this same path, a path of complete and fulfilled love. His feast is celebrated on December 14th.

*Some of the writings of St. John of the Cross are The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, The Dark Night, The Spiritual Canticle and The Living Flame of Love. His writings can be found in the Collected Works of St. John of the Cross (I.C.S. publications, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez).

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