Faithful Heroes: Saint John of the Cross

John of the Cross was a major figure of the Counter-Reformation, a friar, and priest and canonized a saint.

Saint John of the Cross by Francisco de Zurbarán, 1656

He was born Juan de Yepes y Álvarez in 1542 Fontiveros, Ávila, Spain. He was the son of Gonzalo and Catalina, but his father died when he was around three years old.

He attended school with other poor and orphaned children. He also worked at a hospital while growing up and studied humanities at a Jesuit school.

In 1563, he entered the Carmelite Order, adopting the name John of St. Matthias.

In 1567, he was ordained a priest.

While preparing to enter the strict Carthusian order, he met Carmelite nun Teresa of Jesus. John traveled with Teresa, as she founded another monastery. “John was attracted by the strict routine followed by Theresa, a routine she hoped to reintroduce to her order, as well as her devotion to prayer and simplicity. Her followers went barefoot, and were therefore known as the Discalced Carmelites.”

Saint Theresa of Avila

He then left to found his own monastery of friars. On November 28, 1568, he changed his name to John of the Cross.

Sometime between 1574-1577, he had a vision of the crucified Christ which he drew.

“Around 1575, a rift within the Carmelite order began to grow and create controversy between various monastic houses. There was disagreement between the Discalced Carmelites and the ordinary Carmelites, over reform.”

Tensions began to rise over the reforms of John and Teresa between 1575-1577. John was arrested in January 1576 and while soon released, tensions remained.

A group of Carmelites Friars broke into his home on December 2, 1577, and took John prisoner. He was accused of disobeying the ordinances of Piacenza and imprisoned, despite his objections that he had not disobeyed.

Drawing of the crucifixion by John of the Cross

He was public lashed on a weekly basis and suffered severe isolation. While imprisoned he wrote, composing his famous poem Spiritual Canticle.

He escaped nine months later on August 15, 1578. Teresa’s nuns nursed him back to health.

John was not to be deterred and even while recovering, continued with his reform.

He moved to Baeza in 1579 and served as rector at the new college, for the next three years.

In late November 1581, he traveled to Granada to found a new convent for Teresa. Early the next year, he learned of her death.

In 1588, he was elected Vicar General for the Discalced Carmelites but upon disagreeing on their model of leadership he left.

Saint John of the Cross

His health continued to worsen and he died on December 14, 1591, in Úbeda, Jaén, Spain. He was forty-nine years old.

John of the Cross is known for his writings. Both his poetry and his studies on the growth of the soul are considered the summit of mystical Spanish literature and one of the peaks of all Spanish literature.

Saint John of the Cross is considered one of the foremost poets in the Spanish language. Two of his poems, The Spiritual Canticle and the Dark Night of the Soul, are considered masterpieces of Spanish poetry.

Saint John of the Cross was beatified by Pope Clement X in 1675, and Canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726.

His feast day is December 15.

St. John of the Cross is a faithful hero for his suffering, writings, and reform that he brought.