John of the Cross

(1542—1591) Spanish mystic and poet

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Carmelite friar and virtual founder of the Discalced Carmelite friars. He was also one of Spain's foremost poets, mystics, and mystical theologians. Born of a noble but impoverished Toledan family, Juan de Yepes was brought up by his widowed mother, went to a poor-school at Medina del Campo, and was apprenticed to a silk-weaver. But he showed no aptitude for this trade, went to a Jesuit college, and joined the Carmelite Order in 1563; he studied theology at Salamanca and was ordained priest in 1567. At this time he thought of becoming a monk of the Carthusian Order, then flourishing. Instead he was persuaded by Theresa of Avila to join the Discalced Reform, which she had initiated for the nuns and which she had been authorized to make available for two houses of friars. One of these was the poverty-stricken house of Duruelo, where John began the reformed way of life. In 1571 he became rector of Alcala, a study house attached to the University, and from 1572 to 1577 confessor to the nuns of Avila, the mother-house of Theresa's reform.

But in 1575 he had been seized and imprisoned by the Calced Carmelite friars following a General Chapter in Piacenza, which both rejected the reform and refused to give its houses independence. The place of his confinement was Toledo, its conditions appalling, yet it was there that he wrote some of his finest poetry. He escaped after nine months; a little later the Discalced were separated from the Calced and in 1579 John founded a college at Baeza and was rector for three years. Prior at Granada from 1582 (the year of Theresa's death) and at Segovia from 1588, he suffered at the end of his life harsh treatment from Nicholas Doria, the Discalced Carmelites' vicar-general. He was deprived of his offices and banished to Ubeda, in the province of Andalusia, where he died in 1591. This bare recital of the external events of John's life gives no idea of the warmth of this wonderful mystic, so much admired by his disciples and by Theresa, yet also the victim of jealousy and power-politics during one of the most repressive periods of the Church's history.

A man of very small physical stature, John, as poet and mystic, is among the giants. What was rare about him was the combination of deep poetic sensitivity and articulateness with the rigorous thought-training of Thomist philosophy and theology. Written as commentaries on his poems, his spiritual works stress the need for active asceticism as well as the far deeper purification of the soul by divine grace and by the unsought humiliations of external agents. Through a life of pure faith and love of God, the soul eventually attains the deepest mystical union. John's writings are theologically substantial and that is why he is regarded not only as a mystic but also as a supreme Doctor of Mystical Theology. He was beatified in 1675, canonized in 1726, and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1926. The cult of John was not confined to his own Order, whose persecution reflects little credit on either branch of it, but has spread not only throughout the R.C. Church but also wherever the contemplative life is valued. Feast: 14 December.


Subjects: Christianity.

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