In the year 1542, at Fontiberos in Old Castile, Spain, John Yepez, who could become known to the Church and the world as St. John of the Cross was born. From a very early age, Saint John had a great devotion and love for the Blessed Virgin Mary. As a young boy, he studied at a poor school in Medina del Campo and was trained as a weaver, but really didn’t have the skills for the trade. The governor of the hospital took him on as a servant for seven years. By this time, he had begun his austere practices of the body and started his studies at the Jesuit College.
St. John entered the Carmelite Order at the age of 21 years old and took the name, John of St. Matthias. He asked to follow the original rule of the Carmelite order and hoped only to be a lay brother, however, this request was denied by his superiors. Since he had advanced studies in theology, St. John was ordained to the priesthood in 1567.
It wasn’t long after his ordination to the priesthood that he met another great saint and Doctor of the Church, Saint Teresa of Avila. By this time, St. Teresa had begun her reform
of the Carmelite Order. When she reached Medina del Campo, she already knew of St. John and wanted to meet him. She told him that he would play a major role in establishing a monastery for men in the new reformed order – the Discalced Carmelites. The first monastery in Duruelo was a very poor monastery and St. John sacrificed to build it. After establishing this new place for Carmelite men, he changed his name to John of the Cross.
Although he was not looking for it, word spread of the great sanctity that was being built in Duruelo. St. Teresa decided to build a second monastery in Pastrana, a third in Mancera, and a fourth in Alcala. At Alcala, St. John was made rector since it was a university.
St. John of the Cross loved the contemplative life. Being a rector was a challenge for him because he suffered greatly with spiritual dryness, which in turn, brought many trials, sufferings, and interior conflicts on the human side, but also dealt with severe and violent temptations on the spiritual side from the Devil.
After enduing years of scrupulosity and inner desolation, he wrote his greatest work, The Dark Night of the Soul. St. John continued to suffer with spiritual darkness and spiritual pains. At one point in his life, St. John felt that God had left him on his own to suffer. He writes in the book,
“There is, therefore, a great difference between dryness and lukewarmness, for the latter consists in great remissness and weakness of will and spirit, in the want of all solicitude about serving God. The true purgative aridity is accompanied in general by a painful anxiety, because the soul thinks that it is not serving God…the cause of this dryness is that God is transferring to the spirit the goods and energies of the senses, which, having no natural fitness for them, become dry, parched up, and empty…” (Book I, Chapter IX).
Even though St. John endured these many trials, religious and non-religious individuals sought his spiritual wisdom. He became the spiritual director to St. Teresa after she became prioress at her original priory in Avila, a role that was extremely difficult and spiritually draining.
As persecutions began to the reformed Carmelite order, St. Teresa and St. John found themselves in the center of these trials and were both punished to a degree. Refusing to go back to his original monastery, since he was under the direction of the Papal Nuncio, John was arrested, brought to Toledo, and asked to abandon the order. When he said no, they locked him up in a cell. He was not brought to Avila because the people of that city loved him. Until the day of his death, he carried the marks of his beatings at the hands of his captives.
After nine months of captivity, St. John escaped from prison and traveled to a couple of the reformed monasteries. From 1578-1582, he remained relatively quiet and watched from a distance the struggles the reformed order would undergo. It was during this time that he wrote much of his mystical theology, the writings that would elevate him to a Doctor of the Church.
At the death of St. Teresa, the struggles continued for the Discalced Carmelites, but they stood with fortitude and would remain true to the reforms established by her. St. John would fill the posts of superior, superior-general, prior, and definitor of the Discalced Carmelites. Although he served well in all these positions, he was reduced to a meek friar by the superior-general of the time and was exiled to a monastery. He spent most of this time in prayer, study, and contemplation.
At the end of his life and succumbed by a great illness, his last illness, St. John had the choice between two monasteries: one was a joyful place and he knew the prior well, the second place, was a desolate location where the prior did not like him. St. John chose the second monastery. He suffered immensely for three months. On December 14, 1591, Saint John of the Cross entered Heavenly Glory.
In 1675, Pope Clement X beatified him. In 1726, Pope Benedict XIII canonized him. Pope Pius XI declared him a Doctor of the Church in 1926. He is considered one of the great mystics of the Catholic Church and known as the Doctor of Mystical Theology. Along with The Dark Night of the Soul, St. John has given us the Ascent of Mount Carmel, A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom of Christ, and countless writings on prayer and spiritual wisdom.
Saint John of the Cross…Pray for Us.
Hoever, Rev. Hugo. Lives of the Saints. Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1989.
Walsh, Michael. Butler’s Lives of the Saints. HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.