I've been writing for several days about my favorite saint, the 16th-century Spanish Carmelite, Saint John of the Cross. Today is his feast day. Below is the best brief biography I've found. I have interspersed a few of my own comments in italic. The source of this bio is here.
There is also an excellent chronology of John's life and times here.
Born Juan de Yepes y Alvarez in Fontiveros, Spain, in 1542, John was the son of a wealthy silk merchant, Gonzalo de Yepes, and a poor weaver girl, Catalina Alvarez. The Yepes family disowned John's father for marrying beneath his station, and the young couple lived in hardship, following the trade of silk weaving. John was the youngest of three sons. Shortly after his birth, Gonzalo died after a long illness, and Catalina struggled heroically to provide for her sons, settling in Medina del Campo.
Other sources indicate that Catalina and her three sons trekked to seek help from Gonzalo's family after his death. One of John's uncles, a canon of a prominent Spanish cathedral turned them away. Another uncle took in John's oldest brother, Francisco, but treated him so badly that Catalina had to go and rescue him. John's brother Luis died just two years after his father.
Young John attended a school for poor children there, gaining a basic education and the opportunity to learn skills from local craftsmen. When he was 17, he began to work at the Plague Hospital de la Concepcion, and its founder offered to let him attend the Jesuit College, so long as he did not neglect his hospital duties. From 1559 to 1563, John studied with the Jesuits, learning Latin, Greek, and other subjects. He was offered the chance to study for the secular priesthood, which would have given him material security, but he felt God was calling him to Religious life. At age 20, he entered the Carmelite Order, being clothed with the habit on February 24, 1563, and taking the name Juan de Santo Matia (John of Saint Matthias). John did continue his studies, however, notably at the University of Salamanca, which was noted for its excellent professors of Thomist philosophy--an influence which is apparent throughout his writings. An outstanding scholar, John taught classes while still a student. He was ordained in 1597, and said his first Mass in Medina del Campo. During that trip, he first met Teresa of Avila, and she encouraged him to promote her reform among the men's Order.
In November, 1568, John and three other friars took up the observance of the primitive Carmelite Rule in a farmhouse near Duruelo. At that time, he changed his name in religion to Juan de la Cruz (John of the Cross). The small band soon came to be known as *Discalced* (shoeless) Carmelites, because they went barefoot as a sign of their commitment to poverty. Their poverty was very real: the first house was barely more than one room, and the young community suffered many privations. When St. Teresa was ordered to return to the Convent of the Incarnation as its superior, she called upon John to assist her in renewing the large community, which had grown quite lax. Arriving there in 1572, he became the spiritual director of the nuns, including Teresa herself. For unknown reasons, the attitude of the original ("Calced") Carmelites began to change toward the reformers. Whereas they had initially acquiesced and even encouraged the movement, the Chapter of 1575 placed severe restrictions on it, they now forbade any further foundations and ordered Teresa to choose one monastery as her permanent residence and remain there.
Around this time, John drew a sketch of a vision he had of the crucified Christ. The sketch is not well-known, these days, but it inspired a famous painting by Dail, The Christ of Saint John of the Cross.
When in 1576 the Discalced Friars convened their own Chapter, the Calced moved to carry out the prohibitions of 1575. They arrested John and another friar and imprisoned him in a Calced monastery in Toledo in a windowless 6' x 10' room. Scourged and humiliated, he nonetheless refused to renounce the Reform. He passed the time in his cell composing the sublime lyric poems which form the basis of his mystical treatises. After some months, he managed to escape to the south of Spain, where he had been elected Prior of the monastery at El Calvario and appointed director of the nuns at Beas. In 1579, he became Rector of the new Discalced Carmelite college near the University of Baeza.
The story of John's escape rivals the Count of Monte Cristo. He asked for thread to mend his cloak and with the help of a jailer who was willing to look the other way, he was able to measure the distance from a nearby window to the cloister yard below. I am blanking on the details of how he made himself a rope (more likely garments tied together) to lower himself into the cloister yard, from where he climbed to safety.)
The Spiritual Canticle, which he composed in his head during his imprisonment is reproduced beneath the "continue reading" button.
In 1580, the Holy See granted the Discalced the right to erect their own Province, although complete independence from the Calced did not come until 1593.
During these "middle years" of John's life, he filled a variety of offices within the reformed Order, wrote the commentaries on his poems elucidating the mystical life, gave spiritual direction, and lived a life of deep union with God. Toward the end of his life, he disagreed with the new General, Nicholas Doria, about some changes in the Order. He was sent to the solitude of La Penuela in August, 1591 --in truth overjoyed to be relieved of administrative duties for the first time in years. But his peace was disturbed by news that a move was afoot to expel him from the Reform he had founded. His detractors tried to gather evidence against him to defame his character.
John fell ill after only a month at La Penuela, however. When urged to seek medical attention, he went to the monastery at Ubeda, where the Prior received him coldly, placed him in the worst cell in the house, and complained bitterly about the expense of caring for him. John grew worse, and, realizing his time was short, he called for the Prior to beg forgiveness for all the trouble he had caused him. Instead, the Prior, realizing John's holiness and his own hardheartedness, wept. John died as he had prayed to: without honors, without material comforts, and with great suffering.
He was 49. He was beatified in 1675, canonized in 1726, and declared a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church in 1926.
My own devotion to John is rooted in my perception that he understood interior desolation--depression, if you will, but brought beauty out of his darkness; that he plumbed his interior landscape while remaining a vital public ministry, both as a reformer and spiritual director; and that he managed, with seemingly effortless grace, the treacherous intellectual task of maintaining a deep and rigorous commitment to Christianity while not making an idol of his own necessarily limited understanding of the infinite mystery that is God.
To learn more about John of the Cross, try this volume of Carmelite Studies from the Discalced Carmelites.
Other dailyepiscopalian entries on John are here, here and here.
Click "continue reading" to read The Spiritual Canticle.
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