Saint John of the Cross

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

0111204983-John.jpg Saint John of the Cross (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Other Literary Forms

The following prose works by Saint John of the Cross explicate themes in his poetry, using methodologies of Scholastic criticism: La subida del Monte Carmelo (1578-1579; The Ascent of Mount Carmel, 1864, 1922), Cántico espiritual (c. 1577-1586; A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul, 1864, 1909), and Llama de amor viva (c. 1582; Living Flame of Love, 1864, 1912). Discussion of them in the text is parallel with that of the poems.


With Saint Teresa de Jesús of Ávila, Saint John of the Cross carried out the reform of the Carmelite Order and defended the Descalced Carmelites’ rights to self-determination within obedience. In addition to becoming rector of the Carmelite College at Alcaláde Henares and founder of the Descalced Carmelite College in Baeza, John of the Cross was vicar of the El Calvario Convent in Andalusia and prior of Los Mártires in Granada and of the Descalced Carmelite Monastery in Segovia. Moreover, he participated in the foundation of at least eight Descalced Carmelite houses throughout Spain. John of the Cross was beatified in 1675 by Pope Clement X, canonized in 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII, and declared Doctor of the Church in 1926 by Pope Pius XI.

In Spain, John is considered to be the most successful lyric poet of the sixteenth century because of his harmonious resolution of popular and medieval traditions with the new learning and literary forms of the Renaissance. Beyond Spain, perhaps because of his singular dedication to one ideal and the strength of his vision, his poetry continues to rank among the finest love poetry written in any language.


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 beaten by an enraged countryman—all of which he welcomed.

Suddenly, the reformed Order began to encounter difficulty on every level. In 1570, Philip II appointed visitors to examine the houses, an action which angered the Vicar General. Father Rubeo retaliated by appointing various defenders, who were sent to each of the provinces. Teresa left the Convent of the Incarnation and met Father Gracián, who persuaded her to disregard Father Rubeo’s orders not to establish houses in Andalusia simply because the Vicar General felt that the vitality of southern Spain was incongruent with the contemplative way. With Gracián’s assurance that Philip II would support her, Teresa, then sixty-three years old, went ahead and established houses in Seville, Peñuela, and Granada. Rubeo accordingly declared the Descalced Order disobedient and ordered the immediate evacuation of the Andalusian convents in 1575. Gracián and Teresa refused; he was excommunicated, and she was ordered by the Council of Trent to pick a convent where she would spend the remainder of her days. She refused and decided to spend another year in Seville.

Meanwhile, John of the Cross was still serving as confessor at La Incarnación in Ávila, until Gracián called him and other Descalced Carmelites to Almodóvar in 1576. Father Gracián proposed that the reformed Order name its own definitors and provincials, in effect making themselves independent of the Unmitigated Carmelites under Father Rubeo. At this meeting, John of the Cross wished, as usual, to avoid conflict. In fact, he opposed the election of officers from among the reformed Order, since the Calced brothers already fulfilled these duties, leaving the followers of the reformed Order to their meditations. John’s voice went unheard, and Gracián succeeded.

Rubeo reacted by sending Father Jerónimo Tostado to visit the Spanish Descalced houses in order to discourage their expansion. Supposedly, had Teresa and Gracián taken their case to Rome, the Pope could have settled their differences with Rubeo. Philip II, however, was anxious to maintain the traditional Spanish monarchical sovereignty over the Church Militant and impeded Gracián and Teresa’s move in that direction.

In 1577, Teresa attempted to return to La Incarnación in Ávila, but Tostado excommunicated all the nuns who voted for her reinstatement as prioress. He evicted them from the convent and denied them access to their confessors. He then tried to persuade John to abandon Teresa and reenter the unreformed Order, promising him a priorship. John refused.

While visiting Teresa, who was living in secrecy in Toledo, John was arrested by the secular arm of the Church, beaten, and locked in isolation. When he was led out for interrogation, he succeeded in escaping back to his cell to destroy letters, only to be recaptured and imprisoned within the Carmelite monastery in a closet at water level on the River Tajo. There he remained from December, 1576, until his escape in August, 1577. Teresa repeatedly wrote Philip II regarding the situation, but her letters went unanswered. Rubeo and Tostado considered Teresa’s work finished and John of the Cross to be a rebel who had disobeyed by serving as confessor to the Convent of the Incarnation in Ávila without Rubeo’s express permission.

While he was imprisoned, John composed, among others, his poems “The Spiritual Canticle” and “The Living Flame of Love,” which, according to nineteenth century Spanish critic Menéndez y Pelayo in his Historia de los heterodoxos españoles (1887), “surpass all that has ever been written in Spanish.” John was fed bread and water only three times a week on the floor of the refectory, after which he was beaten by each of the friars, who verbally insulted his kneeling form. Occasionally, so that he would not collapse from hunger, he was given rancid sardines.

After loosening the bolts of his cell door during his jailer’s absences, John of the Cross lowered himself down a rope made of bedclothes to the monastery garden. There, a stray dog showed him a route of escape. Believing that the Virgin Mary was lifting him, he succeeded in scaling two walls to reach the street. By hiding in doorways of various houses, he made his way in full daylight to the Carmelite Convent of San José, where he found refuge for several days until the nobleman Don Pedro González de Mendoza arranged for his recuperation at the Hospital of Santa Cruz. During John’s stay with the nuns of San José, he spoke of his captors in glowing terms as his benefactors who had brought him to an understanding of grace, to which he referred as “the dark light.” He recited to the nuns the poems he had composed while in captivity, and one of the nuns wrote them down.

Because Tostado’s persecution of the Order had abated, John was soon appointed vicar of the El Calvario monastery in Andalusia. John customarily led the thirty monks into the mountains for evening meditations. According to tradition, they ate only salads made from wild herbs that were carefully chosen by an expert, the cook’s mule. On feast days, they dined upon migajas, bread fried in oil. At El Calvario, John of the Cross wrote The Ascent of Mount Carmel.

One year later, in 1579, John was ordered by Father Ángel de Salazar to take three friars to the university town of Baeza and set up a monastery in an old house; this was to become the College of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The college quickly became an object of intense curiosity among the faculty at the university, who, believing that John of the Cross enjoyed infused wisdom, respected his insight into the mysteries of the faith and attended his lectures on morals and religious questions. John, however, prudently sent his charges to the university to study theology.

In 1581, John and his companion, Brother Jerome, established a convent of four nuns in Granada. The following year, John was elected prior of the Carmelite monastery there, Los Mártires. The revolt of the Alpujarras, in which Moorish converts to Christianity had elected a king and rejected their new religion, had been suppressed by Philip II ten years prior to John’s arrival. Consequently, many of the children born to apostate families now served as slaves or protected servants in the homes of wealthy Old Christian families. Moreover, during those years there lived in Granada a ninety-year-old woman...

(The entire section is 6617 words.)