John of the Cross (1542-1591)

14 December
Doctor of the Church

Imagine the effect on a person of continuing opposition to their life’s work. Imagine the effect of being removed from office, held in actual or virtual captivity, treated without humanity, even with brutality? This was the experience of Juan de Yepes, not once, but twice within fourteen years. Yet he remained a man of gentle and compassionate disposition and one whose writings are infused with love above all things.

John was born in Fontiverors, Castile in 1542. His father came from a good Spanish family but was disinherited when he married a working woman, so there was always a struggle to make a living in that poor but loving household. After several false starts as apprentice to local craftsmen, John was sponsored by a retired businessman, helping him care for the sick in a hospital in return for an elementary education at a Jesuit school.

At twenty he entered the Carmelite order, studying at their college in Salamanca, then one of Europe’s foremost universities. At about the time of his ordination in 1567 he met Teresa of Avila who enlisted him in the movement to restore to monastic life the original strict form of the Carmelite rule - small, poor, enclosed and highly disciplined. Until Teresa died they worked together to establish what became known as ‘discalced’ (barefoot) houses. This work addressed the scandal of soft living among some clerics but also reflected an understanding of the human inclination to be selfish and self-seeking. We try to have God and what we want as well. ‘Be continually careful and earnest in imitating Christ in everything, making your life conform to his.’ It is not that other people and things are unholy, unlovable or undesirable, but that true joy is to be found in Christ, and having him we have all else as well.

This work continued against entrenched opposition and in 1577 John was kidnapped by unreformed ‘calced’ (shod) friars and incarcerated in their monastery at Toledo. There he was half starved, humiliated and publicly flogged. In his tiny cell he had to stand on a stool to obtain enough light to read. When he escaped after some nine months he brought with him the first of the mystical poems through which his name endures. He wrote with great literary beauty from the depths of his own experience; with passion and imaginative imagery. It is perhaps not surprising that he writes powerfully in the language of suffering and the cross:

Would that we might understand it is impossible to attain the thicket of manifold riches of the wisdom of God without entering into the thicket of manifold suffering, making that a consolation and desire. The soul which really longs for divine wisdom first longs for suffering, that it may enter more deeply into the thicket of the cross.
Spiritual Canticle

For John the way of prayer is a way of self-denial, not that we should be limited, but that we should be set free from the obvious, the superficiality of immediate experience. It is a way to transcend not diminish.

When our hearts are free from liking and judging people merely according to their natural gifts we are not held captive by external and changing charms. We are instead free to love people as they really are, and can penetrate more easily into the core of their personality, their true goodness.
Ascent of Mount Carmel

John of the Cross is perhaps best known for Dark Night of the Soul in which he describes a spiritual emptiness where the consolations of faith are missing, an emptiness necessary for deeper union with God, the night necessary to reach the following dawn.

The soul cannot by its unaided labours fit itself for union with God in love. God must take it to himself into his own hands and purify it in the dark fire…
Out of this night springs first the knowledge of oneself, and on that, as a foundation, is built up the knowledge of God.
Dark Night of the Soul

Following further disputes over monastic reform John was banished - this time by extreme radicals - to a remote friary where, in poor health, he was again harshly treated until just before his death in 1591.

John’s holiness and influence spread after his death and his writings have been increasingly appreciated during the current century. Salvador Dali’s famous painting of the Crucifixion by is based on an original drawing by St John.

A life reflecting paradox in God’s purposes. Lived in controversy but teaching us unity in love. Experience of physical and spiritual suffering yielding an exuberant poetry of hope and generosity. ‘My happiness is to be who I am so that I may give myself to you and be all yours.’

Jim McLean

One of the poems of St John of the Cross

The birth of Christ
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 30th November 1999