John of the Cross (1542-1591) was a Catholic, a monk, a priest, a mystic, a saint, and a Doctor of the Church.
Juan de Yepes was born in 1542 in a small town called Fontiveros, Spain. His family was Catholic. Juan was the last of three sons. But when Juan was two, his dad passed away after a long illness. His mom was reduced to begging. Shortly afterwards, probably as a result of malnutrition, his middle brother died.
John was sent to a school for poor children near Castille. He helped in the school’s church as a sacristan, setting up things for the Mass. It was at this school that he discovered a gift for compassion for the sick.
The administrator of the school enrolled John in a Jesuit school at age 17, where he received a classical education. At age 21, John surprised everyone and entered the Carmelite monastery at Medina. This was probably motivated by his contemplative gifting and by his devotion to Mary.
There, John was renamed Brother John of St. Mathias. After his novitiate, he studied philosophy and theology. He had outstanding talent and was even named prefect, or head, of studies.
In the midst of all this academia, however, a vocational crisis emerged. John found that the life of contemplative prayer was calling for first place. Hence his interests turned away from the Carmelites toward the Carthusians, with their more solidly contemplative leanings.
However, John stayed with the Carmelites. He was ordained a priest in 1567. Shortly afterwards, Mother Teresa of Jesus arranged to meet him. In our day, we know her as Teresa of Ávila.
Teresa was 52; John was 25. She convinced him to remain a Carmelite and to help her found a reformed order of Carmelites. After finishing his studies, John joined Teresa to begin founding small houses for contemplative Carmelites.
After being convinced of this new reform, he changed his name to John of the Cross. In 1572 he was sent to Avila to be a confessor for the 180 nuns there. His ministry of spiritual direction extended beyond the monastery to many people in the area.
However, many Carmelites were hostile to the reform movement that John was building. In 1577, they kidnapped him. He was handcuffed and blindfolded and led to the monastery prison in Toledo. They locked him in a room that was six feet wide by ten feet long. There was no heat in the long winter months, and no ventilation in the suffocating heat of summer.
Each week, all the monks gathered. They drug John out of his cell. They flogged and tortured him.
The monks withheld all sustenance from John except bread and water. He was required to wear the same robe month after month, without washing. And his cell was infested with lice.
After six months, the guard was changed. The new guard gave him paper and pen, and he was finally able to write. What he wrote were his poems. They crystallize the spiritual life and mystical prayer.
One hot night in August, after being held prisoner for nine months, emaciated and close to death, John somehow loosened the screws that held his door locked. Then while the friars were asleep, he escaped through a narrow window.
Later, John was found innocent of wrongdoing.
John of the Cross was later named a rector of the Carmelite college. He resumed giving spiritual direction. Over the years, he wrote several spiritual books and founded seven more monasteries.
Late in his life, one of the Carmelite friars became John’s enemy and made considerable difficulty for him. He lost health and was not welcomed at the monastery where he was sent. At Midnight, December 13, 1591, John repeated the words from Psalm 31: “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit,” and he died.
John of the Cross was canonized a saint of the Catholic church in 1726. Then in 1926, he was declared a Doctor of the Church. That title means he is one of the 30-some greatest teachers of the faith ever.
Among the Doctors of the Church, John is referred to as the Mystical Doctor, the Prince of Mystics.
If you’ve ever felt stuck in the life of prayer, if you’ve ever longed to go further in the spiritual life, if you long to know the Lord Jesus Christ more, John can probably help you out. He is best known for three works:
The Ascent of Mt. Carmel. This is John’s systematic treatment of the ascetical life in pursuit of mystical union with Christ. He reports and gives advice based on his own experience.
The Dark Night is one of the great spiritual masterpieces of all time. When an individual wishes to grow closer in their relationship with God, God is likely to purify the individual of that which is not holy. These purifications feel like hardships. But they prepare the soul for the unspeakable joys that are in store.
The Living Flame of Love. Toward the end of his life, St. John of the Cross wrote this book. It describes his experiences in prayer near the end of his life. He was at the very peak of mystical experience. It is the definitive work on mystical union with God.
The Memorial of John of the Cross is observed each year on December 14.
Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations on this page are from the World English Bible and the World Messianic Edition. These translations have no copyright restrictions. They are in the Public Domain.