Let’s start our study of St. John of the Cross with an examination of his life and the context of his work.
Juan de Yepes was born in Fontiveros, Spain in 1542. He was the youngest of three brothers. His father died of a long illness when John was only two. (Did you notice the similarities with St. Therese?) The family then moved to Medina del Campo, where John grew up in poverty.
An influential person recognized John’s gifts and helped him enter a Jesuit school, where he studied both the classics and theology. After graduating, John rejected offers to be a hospital chaplain and to enter the Jesuits. Instead, he became a Carmelite friar. He then studied philosophy and theology in Salamanca.
Meeting St. Teresa
But John was dissatisfied. He pondered joining the Carthusians. In 1567 St. Teresa of Avila came to Medina to found the second monastery of the reform. Looking to add friars to her movement, she sought out John. The following year he joined her on a journey to found a new monastery in Valladolid.
Teresa’s ideal was to have smaller communities, dedicated to prayer, silence, solitude, and a simple life. She had already written The Book of Her Life and The Way of Perfection. She was 52. John was only 25.
After a novitiate under Teresa, John and some other men founded a monastery in Duruelo. Soon Teresa called him to be the confessor for the nuns in Avila, where she had become prioress. It was 1572.
Later that year, while under John’s direction, Teresa was granted the Spiritual Marriage, the height of the Christian life on earth. At the same time, he acted as director to many lay people in Avila.
Imprisonment and Escape
The reform of the Carmelites was mixed up in Spanish politics and attacked by other religious, even within the order. In 1576, the Carmelites who were not part of the reform (called Carmelites of the [Ancient] Observance), arrested John. The papal nuncio won his release. But when the nuncio died a year later, his enemies saw their chance. They kidnapped John and imprisoned him in the Carmelite monastery in Toledo.
Later, John escaped in the middle of the night. The experience inspired him to write these words:
One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
–ah, the sheer grace!–
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.
And the spiritual classic The Dark Night (of the Soul) was born.
During his imprisonment he had been composing part of The Spiritual Canticle and other works.
John hid for a time with Teresa’s nuns in Toledo, then at a hospital. After more intrigue, John eventually settled for a short time at the Beas monastery. He taught for a time at a Carmelite college. In 1582 he became prior of the monastery in Granada, and vicar provincial of Andalusia in 1585. He founded seven monasteries before becoming the prior in Segovia.
The last work he completed was The Living Flame of Love. After that he tried to dedicate his life to prayer, but turmoil in the order and the pleas of lay people for spiritual direction kept him busy. The new general of the order planned to send him on a mission to Mexico to get rid of him. But soon John fell ill with a sickness that would end in his death. He died in Ubeda, just after midnight on December 14, 1591.
My next post in this series will begin looking at his spirituality.
By the way, in case you missed it, I replied to my critics about Centering Prayer in an article at the National Catholic Register yesterday.