Saint John of the Cross, Doctor of the Church (1542-1591)

Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591)

John De Yepes was born in 1542 at Fontiveros in Old Castile, to a good but poor Catholic family. At twenty-one years of age he took the religious habit among the Carmelite friars at Medina, receiving the name John of St Matthias. After his profession he asked for and was granted permission to follow the original Carmelite rule, without the mitigations approved by various popes and then accepted in all the friaries. In 1567 he was promoted to the priesthood.

At that same time, St Teresa of Avila was establishing her reformation of the Carmelites and she heard of Brother John. She admired his spirit, and told him that God had called him to sanctify himself in the Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. St Teresa had received authority to found two reformed houses of men. Soon after the first monastery of discalced (i.e. barefooted) Carmelite friars was established in Duruelo. St John entered this new "Bethlehem" in a perfect spirit of sacrifice. On Advent Sunday, 1568, St John took his new religious name of John of the Cross. The fame of the sanctity of this obscure house spread.


However, St John, after tasting the first joys of contemplation, found himself deprived of all sensible devotion. This spiritual dryness was followed by interior trouble of mind, scruples and a disrelish of spiritual exercises, and, while the Devil assaulted him with violent temptations, men persecuted him by calumnies. The most terrible of all these pains was that of scrupulosity and interior desolation, which he described in his book called The Dark Night of the Soul.


In 1571 St Teresa undertook, under obedience, the office of prioress of the unreformed convent of the Incarnation at Avila, and she sent for St John to be its spiritual director and confessor. He was sought out by seculars as well as religious, and God confirmed his ministry by evident miracles. But grave troubles were arising within the Carmelite Order. At length, in 1577, St John was ordered to return to his original friary at Medina. He refused, whereupon armed men were sent to carry him off to prison in Toledo. His imprisonment was a time of suffering, but also a time of thanksgiving. After nine months, he managed to escape.


St John fled to the reformed friary of Beas de Sugura. Though the male founder and spiritual leader of the Discalced friars, he took little part during these years. Instead he began those writings which have made him a doctor of the Church in mystical theology. After St Teresa's death in 1582, St John was reduced from all offices to the status of a simple friar and sent to the remote friary of La Penuela. There he spent some months, passing his days in meditation and prayer among the mountains.


But there were those who would not leave St John alone. A consultant of the congregation, Father Diego, boasted that he had sufficient proofs to have him expelled from the order. In the midst of this, St John was taken ill, and the provincial ordered him to leave out-of-the-way Penuela. St John chose to be transferred to the house of Ubeda. The fatigue of his journey make him worse, he suffered great pain, and submitted cheerfully to several operations. After suffering acutely for nearly three months, St John died on December 14, 1591.



Adapted from Butler's LIVES OF THE SAINTS, HarperOne, 1956, pp. 416-419 (originally published in 1756-9)