From his twenty-first year, Saint John of the Cross dedicated his life and writing to the singular goal of making the adventure of the contemplative life of the anchorite an actuality in sixteenth century Spain. His accomplishment, particularly in literature, far surpassed his expectations.
Saint John of the Cross was born Juan de Yepes y Álvarez in 1542 in the town of Fontiveros in the kingdom of Old Castile. His father, Gonzalo de Yepes, and his mother, Catalina Álvarez, had worked in that small village for thirteen years as silk weavers and merchants, aided by John’s older brother, Francisco. Gonzalo de Yepes’ great-grandfather had been a favorite of King Juan II; one uncle was an Inquisitor in Toledo; three others were canons; and one was the chaplain of the Mozarabic Chapel in Toledo.
Because of her lower social status, Catalina Álvarez was hated by her husband’s family, so much so that upon Gonzalo’s death they refused to help her support his three children, forcing them to live in poverty. In 1548, they moved to Arévalo, where Francisco was apprenticed as a weaver and Juan, without success, attempted a variety of trades.
From Arévalo, the Yepes family moved to the town of Medina del Campo, famous since the Middle Ages for its annual three-month-long international trade fair. There, John learned his letters and learned to beg for his Jesuit school. His brother married, and his mother, Catalina, in spite of their difficulties, took in a foundling. In 1556, when Emperor Charles V stopped at Medina on his way to his retirement at the monastery at Yuste, John saw the hero of European spiritual unity. The great moment did not, however, contribute to John’s learning a trade. In 1563, he was taken to the Hospital de la Concepción by Don Alonso Álvarez de Toledo, where he became a nurse, working in that profession until he was twenty-one years old.
In 1563, having rejected the offer to become the hospital’s chief warder, John left it to profess in the Order of Mount Carmel. The young Spaniard followed the rule of the Order in perfect obedience, according to contemporary accounts, but he spent hours searching for the spirit of the primitive rule in A Book of the Institutions of the First Monks (reprinted in 1507). In this fourteenth century work, Juan de Yepes discovered the tradition of the eremitical way, which leads through austerity and isolation to the experience of the Divine Presence. John of the Cross received permission to follow the old rule when he made his final profession before Ángel de Salazar, who had recently allowed Teresa de Jesús to found the Order of Descalced Carmelites in Ávila.
After professing in 1564, the young friar traveled to the University of Salamanca, to which the Spanish then referred as Roma la chica because of its large international student body and its superb reputation in theology. The first three years he spent at Salamanca as an artista, and the fourth as a theologian studying, not with the famous Francisco Vitoria, father of international law, nor with Luis de León, who taught there between 1565 and 1573, but with the more traditional Father Guevara and Father Gallo, who taught Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologica (c. 1265-1274) and Aristotle’s Ethica nicomachea (c. fourth century b.c.e.). The effect of this study appears in Saint John’s later writing. Rather than posing a threat to his mystic contemplation, Scholasticism served to keep his mystic effusions within the confines of reality, fostering a clarity of language and logical development, a lyricism of thought, and a psychology of common sense that made his work accessible to all readers.
The faculty during those years at Salamanca longed for intellectual emancipation, and many, such as Luis de León, were cautioned and often jailed for years by the Inquisition. The debate was between the Scholastics, who authorized only the Latin Vulgate, and the Renaissance-inspired Scripturalists, who wished to translate the Hebrew and Koine Greek into modern languages. Typically, John of the Cross did not involve himself in this intellectual turmoil but continued to seek the solitary spirit of Mount Carmel. His zeal was so great that in 1566, those Carmelite students who were entrusted to his tutelage by the vicar general of the Order, Juan Bautista Rubeo, complained of John’s rigor, self-discipline, and near-constant state of contemplation. John’s course was not the outward one. Instead of finishing his university career, he left Salamanca in 1567 for Medina del Campo, where he said his first Mass at the Church of Saint Anne in the presence of his brother, the latter’s family, and his mother, Catalina Álvarez.
Because it was permissible to do so among the Carmelites, John immediately decided to enter the Carthusian Order for a life of total silence, solitude, and contemplation. His decision was delayed, however, by his meeting Teresa de Jesús, who had come to Medina del Campo, with Juan Bautista Rubeo’s blessing, to establish a convent for Descalced Carmelite nuns. Teresa convinced John to follow the contemplative way within his own Order so that her nuns would have a confessor. Moreover, at the time of Teresa’s visit, King Philip II wrote to Father Antonio Heredia, the prior of Saint Anne’s, giving him permission to reform the Carmelite Order of Monks as well, telling him that a wealthy gentleman had donated a house in the hamlet of Duruelo for that very purpose.
In August, 1568, Teresa, three nuns, one Julián de Ávila, and John of the Cross left Medina del Campo for the city of Valladolid and for Duruelo. Teresa taught John the old rule through example as she commanded his aid in establishing the Convent of El Río de los Olmos outside Valladolid. She then changed his name from Juan de San Matías to John of the Cross. She also persuaded him that recreation in the form of music, song, and dance were necessary (as well as taking long walks, which prevented the Carmelites from becoming surly) and sent him with one workman to prepare the house at Duruelo for the eventual arrival of Father Heredia from Saint Anne’s.
During their five weeks of rigorous labor, John revived the mode of desert life of the original Carmelites, going barefoot, wearing serge vestments, fasting, praying, and doing penance. When Father Heredia arrived to take charge, John was careful to observe Vicar General Rubeo’s dictates not to depart in principle from the Unmitigated Carmelite Order as already defined, so as to avoid antagonizing them. While Teresa’s letters to Heredia reveal her concern regarding the severity of the brothers’ penances and flagellations, John’s mother Catalina Álvarez came to be their cook, his brother Francisco came to sweep their cells, and Ana Isquierda came to wash and mend their clothes.
From Duruelo, John went to establish religious houses in the towns of Mancera and Pastrana, and in 1570 he went to the University of Alcaláde Henares to found a college for the Order. At Alcalá John tutored his charges in Thomist philosophy, heard their confessions and those of the nuns at the Imagen Convent, and directed the friars in their contemplative life.
In 1571, Teresa de Jesús called John of the Cross to be the confessor at the Convent of the Incarnation in Ávila. She relates that, during the months of December and January, she began to have access to the ineffable experience of matrimonio and that John was of immense help to her: “One cannot speak of God to Father John of the Cross because he at once goes into ecstasy and causes others to do the same,” she writes. The practical-minded Teresa complained that John’s desire to bring everyone to spiritual perfection was a source of constant annoyance. Moreover, testimony from his living companions, Father Germaine and Brother Franciso, claimed that John was tormented with frightful night apparitions and on one occasion was severely...
(The entire section is 3267 words.)