I’ve been writing for several days about my favorite saint, the 16th-century Spanish Carmelite, Saint John of the Cross. Today is his feast day. Below is the best brief biography I’ve found. I have interspersed a few of my own comments in italic. The source of this bio is here.
There is also an excellent chronology of John’s life and times here.
Born Juan de Yepes y Alvarez in Fontiveros, Spain, in 1542, John was the son of a wealthy silk merchant, Gonzalo de Yepes, and a poor weaver girl, Catalina Alvarez. The Yepes family disowned John’s father for marrying beneath his station, and the young couple lived in hardship, following the trade of silk weaving. John was the youngest of three sons. Shortly after his birth, Gonzalo died after a long illness, and Catalina struggled heroically to provide for her sons, settling in Medina del Campo.
Other sources indicate that Catalina and her three sons trekked to seek help from Gonzalo’s family after his death. One of John’s uncles, a canon of a prominent Spanish cathedral turned them away. Another uncle took in John’s oldest brother, Francisco, but treated him so badly that Catalina had to go and rescue him. John’s brother Luis died just two years after his father.
Young John attended a school for poor children there, gaining a basic education and the opportunity to learn skills from local craftsmen. When he was 17, he began to work at the Plague Hospital de la Concepcion, and its founder offered to let him attend the Jesuit College, so long as he did not neglect his hospital duties. From 1559 to 1563, John studied with the Jesuits, learning Latin, Greek, and other subjects. He was offered the chance to study for the secular priesthood, which would have given him material security, but he felt God was calling him to Religious life. At age 20, he entered the Carmelite Order, being clothed with the habit on February 24, 1563, and taking the name Juan de Santo Matia (John of Saint Matthias). John did continue his studies, however, notably at the University of Salamanca, which was noted for its excellent professors of Thomist philosophy–an influence which is apparent throughout his writings. An outstanding scholar, John taught classes while still a student. He was ordained in 1597, and said his first Mass in Medina del Campo. During that trip, he first met Teresa of Avila, and she encouraged him to promote her reform among the men’s Order.
In November, 1568, John and three other friars took up the observance of the primitive Carmelite Rule in a farmhouse near Duruelo. At that time, he changed his name in religion to Juan de la Cruz (John of the Cross). The small band soon came to be known as *Discalced* (shoeless) Carmelites, because they went barefoot as a sign of their commitment to poverty. Their poverty was very real: the first house was barely more than one room, and the young community suffered many privations. When St. Teresa was ordered to return to the Convent of the Incarnation as its superior, she called upon John to assist her in renewing the large community, which had grown quite lax. Arriving there in 1572, he became the spiritual director of the nuns, including Teresa herself. For unknown reasons, the attitude of the original (“Calced”) Carmelites began to change toward the reformers. Whereas they had initially acquiesced and even encouraged the movement, the Chapter of 1575 placed severe restrictions on it, they now forbade any further foundations and ordered Teresa to choose one monastery as her permanent residence and remain there.
Around this time, John drew a sketch of a vision he had of the crucified Christ. The sketch is not well-known, these days, but it inspired a famous painting by Dail, The Christ of Saint John of the Cross.
When in 1576 the Discalced Friars convened their own Chapter, the Calced moved to carry out the prohibitions of 1575. They arrested John and another friar and imprisoned him in a Calced monastery in Toledo in a windowless 6′ x 10′ room. Scourged and humiliated, he nonetheless refused to renounce the Reform. He passed the time in his cell composing the sublime lyric poems which form the basis of his mystical treatises. After some months, he managed to escape to the south of Spain, where he had been elected Prior of the monastery at El Calvario and appointed director of the nuns at Beas. In 1579, he became Rector of the new Discalced Carmelite college near the University of Baeza.
The story of John’s escape rivals the Count of Monte Cristo. He asked for thread to mend his cloak and with the help of a jailer who was willing to look the other way, he was able to measure the distance from a nearby window to the cloister yard below. I am blanking on the details of how he made himself a rope (more likely garments tied together) to lower himself into the cloister yard, from where he climbed to safety.)
The Spiritual Canticle, which he composed in his head during his imprisonment is reproduced beneath the “continue reading” button.
In 1580, the Holy See granted the Discalced the right to erect their own Province, although complete independence from the Calced did not come until 1593.
During these “middle years” of John’s life, he filled a variety of offices within the reformed Order, wrote the commentaries on his poems elucidating the mystical life, gave spiritual direction, and lived a life of deep union with God. Toward the end of his life, he disagreed with the new General, Nicholas Doria, about some changes in the Order. He was sent to the solitude of La Penuela in August, 1591 –in truth overjoyed to be relieved of administrative duties for the first time in years. But his peace was disturbed by news that a move was afoot to expel him from the Reform he had founded. His detractors tried to gather evidence against him to defame his character.
John fell ill after only a month at La Penuela, however. When urged to seek medical attention, he went to the monastery at Ubeda, where the Prior received him coldly, placed him in the worst cell in the house, and complained bitterly about the expense of caring for him. John grew worse, and, realizing his time was short, he called for the Prior to beg forgiveness for all the trouble he had caused him. Instead, the Prior, realizing John’s holiness and his own hardheartedness, wept. John died as he had prayed to: without honors, without material comforts, and with great suffering.
He was 49. He was beatified in 1675, canonized in 1726, and declared a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church in 1926.
My own devotion to John is rooted in my perception that he understood interior desolation–depression, if you will, but brought beauty out of his darkness; that he plumbed his interior landscape while remaining a vital public ministry, both as a reformer and spiritual director; and that he managed, with seemingly effortless grace, the treacherous intellectual task of maintaining a deep and rigorous commitment to Christianity while not making an idol of his own necessarily limited understanding of the infinite mystery that is God.
To learn more about John of the Cross, try this volume of Carmelite Studies from the Discalced Carmelites.
Other dailyepiscopalian entries on John are here, here and here.
Click “continue reading” to read The Spiritual Canticle.
The Spiritual Canticle
translation by the Revs. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD
(John’s commentary on this poem is here.)
1. Where have you hidden,
Beloved, and left me moaning?
You fled like the stag
after wounding me;
I went out calling you, but you were gone.
2. Shepherds, you who go
up through the sheepfolds to the hill,
if by chance you see
him I love most,
tell him I am sick, I suffer, and I die.
3. Seeking my Love
I will head for the mountains and for watersides,
I will not gather flowers,
nor fear wild beasts;
I will go beyond strong men and frontiers.
4. O woods and thickets,
planted by the hand of my Beloved!
O green meadow,
coated, bright, with flowers,
tell me, has he passed by you?
5. Pouring out a thousand graces,
he passed these groves in haste;
and having looked at them,
with his image alone,
clothed them in beauty.
6. Ah, who has the power to heal me?
now wholly surrender yourself!
Do not send me
any more messengers,
they cannot tell me what I must hear.
7. All who are free
tell me a thousand graceful things of you;
all wound me more
and leave me dying
of, ah, I-don’t-know-what behind their stammering.
8. How do you endure
O life, not living where you live,
and being brought near death
by the arrows you receive
from that which you conceive of your Beloved?
9. Why, since you wounded
this heart, don’t you heal it?
And why, since you stole it from me,
do you leave it so,
and fail to carry off what you have stolen?
10. Extinguish these miseries,
since no one else can stamp them out;
and may my eyes behold you,
because you are their light,
and I would open them to you alone.
11. Reveal your presence,
and may the vision of your beauty be my death;
for the sickness of love
is not cured
except by your very presence and image.
12. O spring like crystal!
If only, on your silvered-over faces,
you would suddenly form
the eyes I have desired,
which I bear sketched deep within my heart.
13. Withdraw them, Beloved,
I am taking flight!
the wounded stag
is in sight on the hill,
cooled by the breeze of your flight.
14. My Beloved, the mountains,
and lonely wooded valleys,
and resounding rivers,
the whistling of love-stirring breezes,
15. the tranquil night
at the time of the rising dawn,
the supper that refreshes, and deepens love.
16. Catch us the foxes,
for our vineyard is now in flower,
while we fashion a cone of roses
intricate as the pine’s;
and let no one appear on the hill.
17. Be still, deadening north wind;
south wind, come, you that waken love,
breathe through my garden,
let its fragrance flow,
and the Beloved will feed amid the flowers.
18. You girls of Judea,
while among flowers and roses
the amber spreads its perfume,
stay away, there on the outskirts:
do not so much as seek to touch our thresholds.
19. Hide yourself, my love;
turn your face toward the mountains,
and do not speak;
but look at those companions
going with her through strange islands.
20. Swift-winged birds,
lions, stags, and leaping roes,
mountains, lowlands, and river banks,
waters, winds, and ardors,
watching fears of night:
21. By the pleasant lyres
and the siren’s song, I conjure you
to cease your anger
and not touch the wall,
that the bride may sleep in deeper peace.
22. The bride has entered
the sweet garden of her desire,
and she rests in delight,
laying her neck
on the gentle arms of her Beloved.
23. Beneath the apple tree:
there I took you for my own,
there I offered you my hand,
and restored you,
where your mother was corrupted.
24. Our bed is in flower,
bound round with linking dens of lions,
hung with purple,
built up in peace,
and crowned with a thousand shields of gold.
25. Following your footprints
maidens run along the way;
the touch of a spark,
the spiced wine,
cause flowings in them from the balsam of God.
26. In the inner wine cellar
I drank of my Beloved, and, when I went abroad
through all this valley
I no longer knew anything,
and lost the herd that I was following.
27. There he gave me his breast;
there he taught me a sweet and living knowledge;
and I gave myself to him,
keeping nothing back;
there I promised to be his bride.
28. Now I occupy my soul
and all my energy in his service;
I no longer tend the herd,
nor have I any other work
now that my every act is love.
29. If, then, I am no longer
seen or found on the common,
you will say that I am lost;
that, stricken by love,
I lost myself, and was found.
30. With flowers and emeralds
chosen on cool mornings
we shall weave garlands
flowering in your love,
and bound with one hair of mine.
31. You considered
that one hair fluttering at my neck;
you gazed at it upon my neck
and it captivated you;
and one of my eyes wounded you.
32. When you looked at me
your eyes imprinted your grace in me;
for this you loved me ardently;
and thus my eyes deserved
to adore what they beheld in you.
33. Do not despise me;
for if, before, you found me dark,
now truly you can look at me
since you have looked
and left in me grace and beauty.
34. The small white dove
has returned to the ark with an olive branch;
and now the turtledove
has found its longed-for mate
by the green river banks.
35. She lived in solitude,
and now in solitude has built her nest;
and in solitude he guides her,
he alone, who also bears
in solitude the wound of love.
36. Let us rejoice, Beloved,
and let us go forth to behold ourselves in your beauty,
to the mountain and to the hill,
to where the pure water flows,
and further, deep into the thicket.
37. And then we will go on
to the high caverns in the rock
which are so well concealed;
there we shall enter
and taste the fresh juice of the pomegranates.
38. There you will show me
what my soul has been seeking,
and then you will give me,
you, my life, will give me there
what you gave me on that other day:
39. the breathing of the air,
the song of the sweet nightingale,
the grove and its living beauty
in the serene night,
with a flame that is consuming and painless.
40. No one looked at her,
nor did Aminadab appear;
the siege was still;
and the cavalry,
at the sight of the waters, descended