Saint John of the Cross was born Juan de Yepes y Alvarez, in Fontiveros, Spain in 1542. His father was employed by wealthy family members as an accountant, but they disowned him when he married a poor woman from a lower class. As a result of his family's poverty, John's family suffered greatly. His father died when he was three, and his older brother, Luis died two years after that, likely because of malnutrition. John's mother eventually found work weaving which helped her to feed her family.
As a child, John was sent to a boarding school for poor and orphaned children. He was given a religious education from a young age and chose to follow a religious path, even as a child. As he grew older, he went to work in a hospital while attending a Jesuit school. In 1563, he was able to join the Carmelite Order and took the name, "John of St. Matthias." He made vows the following year, and was sent to the university in Salamanca to study theology and philosophy.
John became a priest in 1567 and considered joining the Carthusian Order where monks lived cloistered in individual cells. He was attracted by the simple and quiet life. However, he encountered Teresa of Avila, a charismatic Carmelite nun. John was attracted by the strict routine followed by Theresa, a routine she hoped to reintroduce to her order, as well as her devotion to prayer and simplicity. Her followers went barefoot, and were therefore known as the discalced Carmelites. On Nov. 28, 1568, Theresa founded a new monastery. The same day, John changed his name again to John of the Cross. Within a couple years, John and his fellow friars, relocated to a larger site for their monastery. He remained at this location until 1572.
In 1572, John travelled to Avila at the invitation of Teresa to become her confessor and spiritual guide. He remained in Avila until 1577. While there, he had a vision of Christ and made a drawing that remains to this day called, "Christ from Above." The little drawing shows Christ on the cross, looking down on him from above. The image has been preserved for centuries.
Around 1575, a rift within the Carmelite order began to grow and create controversy between various monastic houses. There was disagreement between the Discalced Carmelites and the ordinary Carmelites, over the issue of reform. The Carmelites had been undergoing reform since 1566, under the direction of two Canonical Visitors from the Dominican Order, sent by the Vatican. The intervention of the Holy See as well as the political intervention of King Phillip II and his court, led to dramatic, even violent disagreement between the Carmelites.
In late 1577, John was ordered to leave the monastery in Avila and to return to his original house. However, John's work to reform the order had already been approved by the Papal Nuncio, who was a higher authority. Based on that, John chose to ignore the lower order and stay. On December 2, 1577, a group of Carmelites broke into John's residence and kidnapped him. He was taken by force to the order's main house in Toledo. He was brought before a court and placed on trial for disobedience. He was punished by imprisonment.
A cell was made for him in the monastery that was so small he could barely lie on the floor. He was fed only bread and water, and occasional scraps of salt fish. His only luxuries were a prayer book and an oil lamp to read it by. To pass the time he wrote poems on paper that was smuggled to him by the friar charged with guarding his cell. John became known as a remarkable and influential poet, especially following his death. He has been cited as an influence to many poets, mystics, and artists, even Salvador Dali. After nine months, John managed to pry his cell door from its hinges and escape.
He then joined Teresa's nuns in Toledo, and spent six weeks in the hospital to recover from his imprisonment. In 1579, he was sent to the town of Baeza to be rector of a new college and to support the Discalced Carmelites in Andalusia.
In 1580, Pope Gregory formerly authorized the split between the Discalced Carmelites and the rest of the order. This ended the rift within the order. At that time, there were about 500 members in the order living in 22 houses. During the last few years of his life, John travelled and established new houses across Spain. In 1591, John became ill with a skin condition that resulted in an infection. He died on December 14, 1591. Saint John of the Cross was beatified by Pope Clement X in 1675, and canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726.
He is the patron of Contemplatives, mystics and Spanish poets.
Reflection on the life of St. John of the Cross
St. John's charism, together with his uncommon grasp of the interior life, readily explains his popularity as a spiritual director.
He believed that the holier the confessor, the gentler he is, and the less he is scandalised by other people’s faults, because he understands man’s weak condition better'.
John was much sought after in this capacity by all sorts of people — laymen and laywomen, nuns, university students and their professors. His insights into Scripture were so well known and appreciated. So much so that professors at universities consulted him to learn his understandings and explanations of the biblical word.
The central theme of his teaching, which has made him renowned both within and outside the Catholic Church, concerned the union of man with God through the grace of Jesus Christ. He described a spiritual journey from the very beginning up to the most sublime level. St. John said, in order to arrive at the all which is God, it is necessary that man should give all of himself, not like a slave but inspired by love. Optimism is found everywhere in John’s writings, even in the most stark sections on detachment and self-denial. He teaches us that God leads each and every soul to unity with himself through the ups and downs of an entire lifetime. These grace-filled experiences of coming to know and becoming ever more united with God manifest themselves not only in prayer or in the reading of scripture, but can include everything from experiencing the love in our families and friendships to even an experience of the awe and beauty found in creation along with countless other measures of God’s goodness revealed.
Quotes from St John of the Cross
"To reach satisfaction in all, desire satisfaction in nothing. To come to possess all, desire the possession of nothing. To arrive at being all, desire to be nothing. To come to the knowledge of all, desire the knowledge of nothing. To come to enjoy what you have not, you must go by a way in which you enjoy not. To come to the possession you have not, you must go by a way in which you possess not. To come to what you are not, you must go by a way in which you are not."
“Where there is no love, put love and you will draw out love”
"In the twilight of life, God will not judge us on our earthly possessions and human successes, but on how well we have loved"