St. John of the Cross
St. John of the Cross (along with St. Teresa of Avila) is one of the founders of the Discalced Carmelites and today is one of their principal feast days. I wish all my Discalced Carmelite friends a very happy feast day!
Among the Church’s contemplatives, St. John is one of the acknowledged masters of mystical theology. Indeed, perhaps no other writer has had greater influence on Catholic spirituality.
Gonzalo de Yepes, John’s father, was disowned by his wealthy family of silk merchants for marrying a humble silk weaver, Catalina Alvarez. When forced to adapt to surroundings of poverty and hard work, Gonzalo died young, shortly after the birth of John, his third son.
John received his elementary education in Medina del Campo at an institution for the children of the poor, in which he was also fed and clothed. At 17 he found work at a hospital in Medina and was able to enroll in the Jesuit College, where he received solid training in the humanities.
In 1563, he entered the Carmelite Order in Medina and changed his name to Fray Juan de Santo Matia. He enrolled at the university in Salamanca in the school of arts for the years 1564 to 1567 and in the theological course, 1567-68. In the school of arts, he attended classes in philosophy; in theology, he probably heard the lectures of Mancio de Corpus Christi, OP, on the Summa of St. Thomas. An indication of St. John’s talents is evident in his appointment, while still a student, as prefect of studies. This office obliged him to teach class daily, defend public theses, and assist the regent master in resolving objections.
He was ordained in 1567, and while in Medina to sing his first Mass, he met Teresa of Avila, who had begun a reform within the order. She spoke to him of her plan to restore the Carmelite Primitive Rule for the friars as well as the nuns. St. John, who had been longing for a life of deeper solitude and was thinking about transferring to the Carthusians, promised to adopt this life. With two others, at Duruelo, Nov. 28, 1568, he made profession of the Carmelite Primitive Rule, and changed his name to Father John of the Cross. The new life in keeping with the Primitive Rule was austere and predominantly contemplative. But the active apostolate was not excluded; it consisted mainly of preaching and hearing confessions. The friars of this new reform wore sandals and were soon referred to as Discalced Carmelites.
At Duruelo Father John was appointed subprior and novice master. Later he was named rector of a newly established house of studies in Alcala. In the spring of 1571, Teresa was ordered to govern the Convent of the Incarnation and to reform its 130 nuns. Realizing the need of a prudent, learned, and holy confessor at the Incarnation, she obtained permission from the apostolic visitor to have Father John as confessor. While he was confessor there, the reform grew rapidly. But the attitude of the Carmelite Order toward the reform, for reasons due mainly to a conflict of jurisdiction, began to change. In 1575, in a chapter at Piacenza, it was determined to stop the expansion of the reform of the order.
On the night of Dec. 2, 1577, some Carmelites seized Father John, took him to Toledo, and demanded a renunciation of the reform. He refused to renounce it, maintaining that he had remained at the Incarnation by order of the nuncio. They declared him a rebel and imprisoned him. He lived 9 months in a cell 6 feet wide and 10 feet long, with no light other than what came through a slit high up in the wall. During this imprisonment he composed some of his great poems. In August 1578, in a perhaps miraculous way, he escaped; eventually he journeyed to a monastery of Discalced in southern Spain.
The following years were given to administration: he was prior on several occasions, rector of the Carmelite College in Baeza, and vicar provincial of the southern province. in 1588 he was elected major definitor, becoming a member of the reform’s new governing body, headed by Father Doria.
During these years as superior he did most of his writing. He also, besides giving spiritual direction to the Carmelite friars and nuns, devoted much time to the guidance of lay people.
His deep life of prayer is evident in the splendid descriptions of The Spiritual Canticle and The Living Flame of Love. He once admitted: “God communicates the mystery of the Trinity to this sinner in such a way that if His Majesty did not strengthen my weakness by a special help, it would be impossible for me to live.”
Toward the end of his life, a controversy arose within the reform. Father Doria desired to abandon jurisdiction over the nuns founded by St. Teresa and also the expulsion of Father Gratian, a favorite confessor of Teresa, from the reform. As a member of the governing body, Father John of the Cross opposed Doria in both matters. For obvious reasons John was not elected to any office in the chapter of 1591. He was instead sent to a solitary monastery in southern Spain. While there, he heard news of the efforts being made to expel him also from the reform.
In mid-September, he noted a slight fever caused by an ulcerous inflammation of the leg. Since the sickness grew worse, he was obliged to leave the solitude he so loved for the sake of medical attention. He chose to go to Ubeda rather than Baeza because “in Ubeda, nobody knows me.”
The prior of Ubeda received him unwillingly and complained of the added expense. On the night of December 13, John of the Cross died, repeating the words of the psalmist: “Into your hands, 0 Lord, I commend my spirit.”
In 1592 his body was transferred to Segovia. He was beatified by Clement X in 1675, canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726, and declared a Doctor of the Church by Pius XI in 1926.
~ Adapted from Welcome to Carmel, Teresian Charism Press
To learn more about the Carmelites, click here.
To learn more about St. John of the Cross, click here.
Favorite Quotes from St. John of the Cross
If you do not learn to deny yourself, you can make no progress in perfection.
Where there is no love, pour love in and you will draw love out.
In detachment, the spirit finds quiet and repose for coveting nothing.
To be taken with love for a soul, God does not look on its greatness, but the greatness of its humility.
The Lord measures our perfection neither by the multitude nor the magnitude of our deeds, but by the manner in which we perform them.
I wish I could persuade spiritual persons that the way of perfection does not consist in many devices, nor in much cogitation, but in denying themselves completely and yielding themselves to suffer everything for the love of Christ.
Live in the world as if only God and your soul were in it; then your heart will never be made captive by any earthly thing.
O you souls who wish to go on with so much safety and consolation, if you knew how pleasing to God is suffering, and how much it helps in acquiring other good things, you would never seek consolation in anything; but you would rather look upon it as a great happiness to bear the Cross of the Lord.
In giving us His Son, His only Word, He spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word — and He has no more to say … because what he spoke before to the prophets in parts, he has now spoken all at once by giving us the All Who is His Son.
God desires the smallest degree of purity of conscience in you more than all the works you can perform.
With what procrastinations do you wait, since from this very moment you can love God in your heart?