14 December 2009
John of the Cross, priest and doctor
Saint John of the Cross was born as Juan de Yepes Alvarez near Avila, Spain on 24 June 1542. Saint John's father died when he was young, and his family moved often, suffering from the effects of poverty. In 1563 Saint John entered the Carmelite Order and the following year, in 1564, Saint John professed vows as a Carmelite and moved to Salamamca, where he studied at the University and Colegio de San Adres.
Saint John was ordained to the priesthood in 1567, and afterwards he indicated his intent to join the Carthusian Order--attracted to the Carthusian's life of solitude and silent contemplation. However, before joining the Carthusians, Saint John met with Saint Teresa of Jesus, who described her efforts to reform the Carmelite Order and asked Saint John to delay his entry into the Carthusian Order. The following year, on 28 November, Saint John began the reformation of the Carmelite Order, as envisioned by Saint Teresa of Jesus, in Durelo.
Durelo, previously a small and impoverished town, became a hub of religious activity in Spain. Saint John continued to work as a helper of Saint Teresa until 1577, founding new monestaries around Spain and taking an active part in their governance. The followers of Saint Teresa and Saint John called themselves "discalced" or barefoot Carmlites to distinguish their stricter, reform rule from other Carmelites. However, some Carmelites at the time opposed Saint Teresa's and Saint John's reforms as too strict.
On 2 December 1577, Saint John's superiors took him prisoner and jailed him in Toledo, where he was publicly lashed and kept in isolation in a cell barely large enough for him to fit into. However, after nine months of imprisonment, Saint John managed to escape. After his escape from prison, Saint John continued his reform of the Carmelite Order, founding many Discalced Carmelite monasteries.
While in prison, Saint John of the Cross composed poetry on paper that was smuggled to him be a friar who was charged with guarding his cell. Today he is recognized as one of the foremost poets of the Spanish language, even though all of his poetry, together, comprises less than 2,500 verses. Saint John died on 14 December 1591. However, that is not the end of Saint John's story.
Probably his two most famous poems, Spiritual Canticle and Dark Night of the Soul, are considered widely the best Spanish language poems written. Spiritual Canticle is an eclogue where the bride represents the human soul and the bridegroom is Jesus Christ. In the poem, the bride searches for the bridegroom with anxiety that she has lost him; both are filled with joy when they reunite. Dark Night of the Soul tells the story of the soul;'s journey from her bodily home to God. The poem is set at night, which represents the hardships of the world. The soul's journey takes several steps through the night, representing the painful experiences that people endure in growing closer to Christ.Saint John also wrote a commentary on Dark Night of the Soul, which explains the poem verse-by-verse.
Saint John also wrote four treatises on mystical theology, two treatises concerning Spiritual Canticle and Dark Night of the Soul, and Ascent of Mount Carmel, of which most Catholics have at least heard something. Ascent of Mount Carmel is a systematic study of the ascetical endeavor of a soul looking for perfect union with God. Servant of God Pope John Paul II wrote his dissertation on Saint John of the Cross' mystical theology.
Saint John's writings were first published in 1618. He was canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726. In 1926, Pope Pius XI declared Saint John of the Cross a doctor of the Church. Although Saint John's feast day was originally celebrated on 24 November when it was first added to the General Roman Calendar, it was moved to the anniversary of his death, today 14 December, by Pope Paul VI.