Saint John of the Cross
Article abstract: Saint John of the Cross contributed to the renewal of monastic life and to the development of mystical theology during the golden age of the Catholic Reformation. His most lasting contribution has been to Western mysticism.
Juan de Yepes y Álvarez (Saint John of the Cross) was born on June 24, 1542, in Fontiveros, Spain, a town of five thousand inhabitants situated on the Castilian tableland. His father, Gonzalo de Yepes, was the son of a prosperous local silk merchant. Gonzalo was disinherited for marrying Catalina Álvarez, an impoverished and orphaned Toledan, apprenticed to a weaver in Fontiveros. John was the third son born to this union. The death of his father following a prolonged illness when John was only two left John, his mother, and his siblings in dire poverty. Seeking help, Catalina left Fontiveros, going initially to the province of Toledo but later settling in Medina del Campo, a city of thirty thousand. In Medina, there was a doctrine, or catechism, school. As much an orphanage as an educational institution for the poor, this school received John as a student. Children were fed, clothed, catechized, and given a rudimentary education. Apprenticeship in various trades was also part of the program of the doctrine school. Little is known of the four trades that John tried, except that his efforts were unsuccessful. Since in later life John was fond of painting and carving, his failure, perhaps, was one of premature exposure rather than of aptitude. John was next attached to the Hospital de la Concepción, where he worked as a male nurse, begged alms for the poor, and continued his studies. Academic success caused him to be enrolled at the Jesuit College, situated barely two hundred yards from the hospital. Founded in 1551, this school enrolled forty students at the time John was in attendance, probably from 1559 to 1563. John’s teachers recalled his passionate enthusiasm for books. With a good education in the humanities, John in 1563 found his life’s vocation, taking the dark brown habit and white cloak of the Carmelites.
At the age of twenty-one, John entered the small community of the Carmelite brothers in Medina, then a fellowship of perhaps six members. The Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel had been founded four centuries earlier, in 1156, in Palestine by Saint Berthold as one of extreme asceticism and of great devotion to Mary. By the sixteenth century, it admitted female as well as male members. The so-called Original or Primitive Rule of 1209 had been relaxed, the order following a Mitigated Observance. Why John selected this order is not known. Perhaps it was his love of contemplation, his devotion to the Virgin, or his practice of extreme asceticism that attracted him to the Carmelites. John of Yepes now took the name Fray Juan de Santo Matia (Brother John of Saint Mathias), though, five years later, when, on November 28, 1568, he professed the Carmelite Primitive Rule, he would change his name to Fray Juan de la Cruz (Brother John of the Cross). As a monastic reformer, John was to make a lasting contribution to Christianity.
Following his profession as a Carmelite, John continued his education at the College of San Andres, a school for sixteen years attached to the famed University of Salamanca. A good Latinist and an excellent grammarian, John took classes in the college of arts at Salamanca from 1564 to 1567. Perhaps seven thousand students were matriculated at the University of Salamanca at that time. Taught by a faculty known throughout Spain and the Habsburg lands, the young monk next turned his attention to theology, attending lectures in divinity in 1567-1568. At Salamanca, John was taught a clear-cut Thomism and was deeply immersed in the philosophy of Aristotle and the theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Concurrently, John was a master of students at San Andres.
Following his ordination as a priest in 1567, John met Saint Teresa de Jesús of Ávila. Daughter of a noble Spanish family, Teresa had entered the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation (Mitigated Observance) at Ávila in 1535. Teresa had become persuaded that discipline was too relaxed and that there ought to be a return to the Primitive Rule of the Carmelites. Her followers were called Discalced Carmelites, in opposition to the Calced Carmelites, who continued to follow the Mitigated rather than the Primitive Rule. Within a year of his meeting with the remarkable Mother Teresa, John was committed to the so-called Teresian Reforms of the Carmelite Order. For that reason, in November, 1568, John was made professor of the Primitive Rule of the Carmelites at Duruelo. Resolving “to separate himself from the world and hide himself in God,” John sought a strictly contemplative life. That wish was never granted, for John was often sought as a counselor and confessor (for the laity and the religious) and as a popular and persuasive preacher.
Soon John became subprior, then novice master, and finally rector of a new house of studies founded at Alcalá. This was a creative time for John, who was able to integrate the intellectual and the spiritual life and who could combine contemplation with active service, including becoming Teresa’s confessor after 1571. John found “the delights which God lets souls taste in contemplation,” but he was advised by Teresa that “a great storm of trials” was on the horizon.
Disputes between the Carmelites who followed the Primitive Rule and those who held to the Mitigated Observance caused John to become a focus of attention. Following an initial imprisonment in 1576, John was seized on December 2, 1577, by some of the Calced Carmelites and taken to Toledo, where he was commanded by superiors to repent of his reforms. This was yet another step in the antireformist policies that had prevailed in the Carmelite Order since a general chapter meeting in 1575. Because John refused to renounce the reforms, he was imprisoned for some nine months in a small cell. There was only one small opening for light...
(The entire section is 2488 words.)