Saint John of the Cross, Priest and Doctor


St John of the Cross, Priest and Doctor (Memorial)

John (Juan de Yepes Alvarez) was born in 1542 of a noble but impoverished family in a small community near Avila. His father gave up wealth and status when he married a weaver’s daughter and was disowned by his family. Following the death of his father at an early age, John’s widowed mother kept the poor family together as they went from place to place until they reached Medina del Campo in 1551. There John worked in a hospital for people with incurable diseases, and studied humanities at a Jesuit school from 1559-1563.

On 24 February, 1563, he joined the Carmelite Order and took the name Juan de Santo Matia (John of St Mathias). In the following year, he made his first profession as a Carmelite, and went on to study philosophy and theology at the Colegio de San Andres in Salamanca. He had as one of his teachers, Fray Luis de Leon, who was an expert in biblical studies and who would influence John’s own later writing. John was ordained priest in 1567, but then felt drawn to the solitary and contemplative life of the Carthusians.

In the meantime, he met Teresa of Avila in Medina del Campo, and was persuaded by her to join the reform of the Order, which she had initiated for the Carmelite Sisters, and for which she had been authorised to include two houses of friars. John strongly supported her belief that the order should return to its life of prayer.

The following year, on 28 November, 1568, he started this reformation at Duruelo together with Fr. Antonio de Jesús de Heredia. John, still in his 20s, continued to work as a helper of Teresa until 1577, founding monasteries around Spain and taking an active part in their government.

In 1571, he became rector of a Carmelite study house attached to the university in Alcala. From 1572 to 1577, he was confessor to the Carmel at Avila, the mother house of Teresa’s reform.

The followers of John and Teresa differentiated themselves from the non-reformed communities by calling themselves the “Discalced”, i.e., barefoot, while the non-reformed were “calced” Carmelites. (Today the Discalced carry the letters ‘OCD’ after their name while the Calced use ‘O. Carm.’)

Many traditional Carmelites felt threatened by the reform, and on the night of 3-4 December, 1577, John was taken and put in prison by the unreformed Carmelites, following a general chapter in Piacenza, which rejected the reform and refused to allow houses to follow it.

John was detained in Toledo under appalling conditions, which included a lashing in the presence of the community at least once a week, and being locked in a cell six feet by 10 feet. There was only one tiny window high up near the ceiling. Yet in that unbearable dark, cold and desolation, his love and faith burnt like a bright flame. It was here that he composed the bulk of his most famous poem, Spiritual Canticle.

After nine months, on 15 August, 1578, John escaped by unscrewing the lock on his door and slipping past the guard. Taking with him the poetry he had written in prison, he got out through a window using a rope made of bed blankets. Having no idea where he was, he let a dog lead him to where there were people. He hid from his pursuers in a convent infirmary where he read his poetry to the sisters. From that time onward, his life was devoted to sharing and explaining his experience of God’s love. Soon after his escape, the Discalced friars were separated from the Calced.

Back to a normal life, he continued the task of reformation and the founding of new Discalced friaries, in partnership with Teresa. In 1579, John set up a college at Baeza of which he was rector for three years. From 1582, the year of Teresa’s death, he was prior at Granada, and from 1588, at Segovia. In the last years of his life, he was the object of harsh treatment from Nicolas Doria, the Discalced Carmelites’ vicar-general. He was removed from all his responsibilities and banished to Ubeda, in the province of Andalusia, in the south of Spain, where he died on 14 December, 1591.

His writings were first published in 1618, and he was canonised by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726. In 1926, he was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI. Pope Paul VI moved his feast from 24 November to 14 December, the anniversary of his death.

Although physically a small man, John, as poet and mystic, was in every other way a giant. He combined in one person, poetic sensitivity and eloquence, with the disciplined thinking of a philosopher and theologian. He left books on prayer and the spiritual life that are enduring classics. They include: Ascent of Mount Carmel, Dark Night of the Soul, A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul, and The Bridegroom Christ.

He is considered one of the leading poets in Spanish literature. Although his complete poems add up to less than 2,500 verses, two of them – the Spiritual Canticle and Dark Night of the Soul are considered by many to be among the best poetry ever written in Spanish.

John’s life of poverty and persecution could have produced an embittered person. Instead it gave birth to a mystic full of warmth and compassion. He would ask:

Who has ever seen people persuaded to love God by harshness?
and
Where there is no love, put love – and you will find love.

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