Juan de Ypes y Álvarez, who took as his reformed religious name Juan de la Cruz, or John of the Cross, wrote his Dark Night of the Soul near the end of his life as a fourth part of a previous book, La subida del Monte Carmelo (1578-1579; The Ascent of Mount Carmel, 1864, 1922). Much of what is obscure in Dark Night of the Soul is clarified by reading The Ascent of Mount Carmel, though the metaphysical nature of the subject matter makes understanding inevitably difficult. Nevertheless, Dark Night of the Soul is a systematic description of John’s actual experience, not a theoretical work.
The general religious-historical context for all of John’s work is Saint Teresa of Avila’s reform of the Carmelite order. John’s participation in Saint Teresa’s reform contributed to his spiritual and theological development, though it led to political dangers within the Carmelite order. By representing a higher ideal, a stricter observance of the rule of the Carmelite order established three hundred years earlier, John and others like him posed a threat to the rest of the order, who seemed lax by comparison. Even within the reform movement (known as the Discalced, or “without shoes,” a reference to the ideal of poverty), disagreements arose. The Discalced reformers called for a more active missionary role in the community for Carmelite priests, and John defended the exclusively contemplative life.
These disagreements were not just academic: They led to John’s brief imprisonment in 1576 and again for some nine months in 1577. It was in this period of crisis that John wrote some of his most powerful poetry, especially “The Spiritual Canticle.” One key to understanding the thought of John is that all of his theological works began as poetry, and only later, at the request of nuns and priests attempting to understand the thought and experience behind them, did he work out a systematic theology as prose commentaries to these poems.