Saint John of the Cross
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...
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