Theology of the Heart- Life of the Saints- St. John of the Cross


Doctor of the Church

Feast: December 14


See also:

"If a Man Has Great Love Within...He Endures Life's Problems More Easily"- General Audience of Pope Benedict XVI


St. John of the Cross was born on June 24, 1542 in Fontiveros, Spain. His father, Gonzalo de Yepes, was from a wealthy family and married Catalina Alvarez, who was a silk weaver. Upon marrying Catalina, Gonzalo was disowned by his noble family and forced to move out of his home in Toldeo. He left everything and gave up his wealth, status, and comfort. The couple then moved to a small village in Fontiveros and had very little. As a result, John grew up very poor.

His father died when he was nine years old. John was left to live with his mother and brother, Francsico and they wandered homeless in search of work. They ended up moving to Medina del Campo and John attended school at “Colegio de los Doctrinos”. It was here where he helped out the nuns of the church-convent of Magdalen. John was very skilled and became a nurse in the Hospital of the Conception. He took care of patients who suffered from incurable diseases and madness. John saw how much they suffered and because of this and his own poverty, he learned to search for beauty and happiness, not in the world, but in God.

At the age of 18, he entered the College of Jesuits and studied social sciences, rhetoric, and classical languages for three years. At the end of his studies, his vocation was very clear to him. He felt called to the religious life and he entered the Carmel. He began his novitiate in the summer of 1563 and he took the religious name of Matthew. He was later sent to the University of Salamanca where he studied philosophy and arts for three years.

He was ordained a priest in 1567 and returned to Medina del Campo to celebrate his first mass surrounded by his family. It was here where he met St. Theresa of Avila. During this encounter, St. Theresa of Avila talked with John about the Carmelite reform and asked for his help, especially in the masculine branch. John was very fascinated by Theresa’s ideas and he became a supporter of the project. They ended up working together for several months, sharing ideas and creating a plan to open the first house of Discalced Carmelites. It was on December 28, 1568, in which they were able to open their first convent in Duruelo, a solitary place in the province of Avila.

With the help of John and three other companions, the first masculine community was formed. Together they renewed their religious profession, and John took the name “of the Cross”.  At the end of 1572, he became confessor and vicar of the Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila, where Theresa was prioress. It was during this time where they became very close and formed a spiritual friendship, helping one another grow closer to God. John also began to write during this time.

Adhering to the Carmelite reform was not easy, and as a result John suffered tremendously. Many Carmelites felt threatened by the changes and some members of John’s own order kidnapped him. John was locked in a tiny cell, six feet by ten feet in the Convent of the Carmelites of the Ancient Observance of Toledo in 1577. He was beaten three times a week by the monks. During this time of darkness and desolation, John’s love and faith grew. He realized he had nothing left but God and God brought John his greatest joys while he was in the tiny cell. It was during this time, where he wrote his famous poem, “Spiritual Canticle”. In this poem, John presents the path of the purification of the soul, which is the joyful possession of God, in which the soul feels that it loves God with the same love that it is loved by him.

On the night of August 16-17, 1578, John was able to escape his cell and took refuge in the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites of the city. John was here for a brief time to regain his strength and St. Theresa and his companions were filled with great joy at his return. John was later sent to Andalucia where he spent ten years in several convents. He took on many important roles in the order and eventually became provincial vicar and completed his writing of his spiritual treatises. He later lived in the Carmel of Segovia and was the office of superior for the community.

In 1591, he was relieved of his responsibilities and was preparing to head out to the new religious province of Mexico. During his preparation for the journey, he retired to a solitary convent in Jaen, where he became seriously ill. He died on the night of December 13-14, 1591. His brothers were reciting the Morning Office and he said, “Today, I am going to sing the Office in Heaven”.

John is considered one of the most important lyric poets of Spanish literature. He left us with many books of practical advice on spiritual growth and prayer. His most important works include “Ascent of Mount Carmel”, “Dark Night of the Soul”, “Spiritual Canticle”, and “Living Flame of Love”. In these works, John insists on the need for purification, in order to be transformed in God, which is the sole end of perfection.  He was beatified by Clement X in 1675 and canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726.




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