John of the Cross

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JOHN OF THE CROSS (15421591), mystic, poet, saint, and doctor of the church. John was born Juan de Yepes y Álvarez in Fontiveros, Spain, the youngest of three sons. His father's untimely death left the family in poverty. Nevertheless, young John received an excellent education in the humanities at the Jesuit college in Medina del Campo, and in 1563 he entered the Carmelite order at the Monastery of Santa Ana. That same year he received the habit of the order and the religious name Juan de Santo Matía. He completed further studies at Salamanca and in 1567 was ordained to the priesthood.

Shortly after ordination the young friar returned to Medina del Campo, where he met the great Carmelite reformer Teresa of Ávila. Teresa, fifty-two years old at the time, recognized in the twenty-five-year old John the intelligence and holiness that would make him her spiritual and mystical compatriot and her collaborator in the reform movement, he doing in the masculine branch of the order what she was already accomplishing in the feminine branch. On November 28, 1568, after Teresa, as his spiritual mentor, had judged him ready, he professed the Primitive Rule and took the name Juan de la Cruz.

Captured by enemies of the reform movement and imprisoned in the calced (mitigated, or unreformed) monastery at Toledo, John spent nine months in a tiny cell. He was deprived of adequate food and was regularly scourged; yet his established holiness manifested itself in patient acceptance of these hardships and while in prison he began to write the exquisite religious poetry that was to place him among the greatest of the Spanish poets and form the kernel of his mystical legacy.

In 1578 he escaped from prison and began a twelve-year period of administration within the reformed branch of the order. He was a remarkably able superior and as spiritual director was much sought after by religious and laity alike. In 1590 John again became the object of persecution, this time by jealous confreres within the reform movement. An effort to have him expelled from the movement was frustrated by his death. John died at Ubeda on December 13, 1591, at the age of forty-nine.

John of the Cross was beatified in 1675 and canonized in 1726. In 1926 Pius XI declared him a doctor of the church under the title "Mystical Doctor." Besides a few letter, various maxims and counsels, and a number of extraordinarily beautiful poems, John left only four major works, and these have become the instruments of his remarkable influence on the history of Christian spirituality. All four were written from the vantage point of the full maturity of John's own mystical experience, and they reflect the wisdom of deep holiness well served by biblical and theological scholarship. Each consists of a poem followed by a long spiritual commentary.

The Ascent of Mount Carmel (15811585) and The Dark Night (poem, 1578 or 1579; commentary, 15841585) together form a treatise on the double purification (of the sensory and of the spiritual dimensions of the person) that leads to full mystical union. The Spiritual Canticle (poem, 1578, 15801584; commentary, 15841586) is the longest of John's poems, a rapturous overflowing of what he called "mystical wisdom" as he himself had experienced it. It describes four stages of the mystical journey, but the commentary sets forth the whole of that journey from its ascetical beginnings to total transformation in the mystical marriage, the last stage of the spiritual life. The Living Flame of Love (poem, 15821585; commentary in two redactions, 15851591) treats the most perfect experience of love within the highest mystical state of transforming union. The commentary frequently digresses from the poem's subject matter to treat various important aspects of the spiritual life as a whole.

Through the example of his sublime personal holiness and his wonderfully fruitful and very human friendship with Teresa of Ávila, his collaboration in the establishment of the Discalced Carmelite Friars, and especially, his unsurpassed poetic and doctrinal writings on mystical theology, John of the Cross continues to exercise an influence in Western Christian spirituality probably unequaled by anyone except Thomas, Augustine, Dionysius, and Teresa herself.


The Collected Works of Saint John of the Cross. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez. Rev. ed. Revisions and introductions by Kieran Kavanaugh. Washington, D.C., 1991.

The Complete Works of Saint John of the Cross, Doctor of the Church. 3 vols. Translated by E. Allison Peers. London, 1953. Contains an extensive international bibliography useful for any study of John of the Cross.

God Speaks in the Night: The Life, Times, and Teaching of St. John of the Cross. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh. Washington, D.C., 1991.

Matthew, Iain. The Impact of God: Soundings from St. John of the Cross. London, 1995.

Thompson, Colin. St. John of the Cross: Songs in the Night. Washington, D.C., 2003.

Sandra M. Schneiders (1987 and 2005)

St. John of the Cross

views updated May 23 2018

St. John of the Cross

The Spanish Carmelite St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) is the most important mystical writer in the Catholic tradition. He also played a leading role in the 16th-century reform of the Carmelites.

Juan de Yepes, later St. John of the Cross, was born at Fontiveros. His father died when Juan was 2 years old and left the family of three children penniless. After they all moved to Medina del Campo, the boy tried several trades without success. Excellent at school, he continued his studies at the Jesuit college in Medina. In 1563 he became a novice at the monastery of St. Ana in Medina. His superiors sent him to the University of Salamanca, where he was ordained a priest in 1567.

In 1568 the reformer and mystic Theresa visited John's monastery of Medina to discuss the possibility of including male monasteries in her reform of the Carmelite order. Both John and the prior of the house went over to the Primitive Rule, and John was the first friar to enter the first foundation, Duruelo. After some short stays in Pastrana and Alcalá, John joined Theresa as confessor in the unreformed Carmelite convent of Á vila, of which she had become prioress. During this period they stayed in constant spiritual contact, in which John was Theresa's director as well as her spiritual son.

Meanwhile, the opposition between Discalced (reformed) and Calced Carmelites, which had existed from the beginning, took on alarming proportions. In 1575 John was abducted and imprisoned by the Calced friars. He was set free at the request of the papal nuncio. But the same occurred again in 1577, and this time he had to escape. For safety he stayed in remote places in Andalusia. During those years of obscurity he wrote most of his mystical works.

After the two branches of the order were finally split, John remained in the south but regained status as vicar provincial. It was only toward the end of his life, in 1588, that he returned to Castile as prior of the house of Segovia and as councilor of the provincial. Because of his disagreement with the radical, innovative provincial, he was soon removed from office and sent back to Andalusia, where he died after an excruciating agony in 1591. He was canonized in 1726 and pronounced a Doctor of the Church in 1926.

His Works

The work of St. John consists of poetry and of mystical commentaries that he wrote on some of his poems. Best known are The Spiritual Canticle, The Living Flame of Love, The Dark Night of the Soul, and Ascent of Mount Carmel (the last two works comment on the same poem). It is not easy to define the nature of those commentaries since they are at once didactic (often in a scholastic way) and obscurely symbolic. The traditional division of spiritual life into the three ways of purgation, illumination, and union provides the basic framework for all John's treatises. Yet the order of succession appears clearly only in The Spiritual Canticle. In The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul, the process of spiritual life is considered mainly from the purgative point of view: to reach the union of light the soul must pass through the night of purification. Yet in this purifying night John also includes the illumination of faith and even the union with God. The soul can be fully purified only in the highest mystical states. The three ways, then, must not be considered as definitive stages of a rectilinear succession. Their nature is cyclical; that is, they appear at each level of the mystical life.

The Ascent of Mount Carmel deals primarily with the early stages of spiritual life, the active purification of the senses (Book I) and of the spirit (intellect, memory, and will, Books II-III). The passive purgation is described in The Dark Night of the Soul. Here also the purgation of the senses (Book I) is distinguished from that of the spirit (Book II). The union with God is treated explicitly in The Spiritual Canticle and The Living Flame of Love.

Aside from being the most important Christian mystical writer, John is one of the greatest poets in the Spanish language. His prose has been influential on the development of the literary language of his culture.

Further Reading

The best-known English translation of St. John's works is Edgar Allison Peers, The Complete Works of St. John of the Cross (3 vols., 1934-1935). Several recent translations of the poems, all entitled The Poems of Saint John of the Cross, are by Willis Barnstone (1968), which includes a good bibliography; by Roy Campbell (1951), which is perhaps less felicitous than Barnstone's rendering; and by John Frederick Nims (1968), which is faithful to the originals, includes the Spanish text, and provides an introduction by Robert Graves. The classic biography is Gabriele di Santa Maria Maddalena, St. John of the Cross (trans. 1946). Other studies include Edgar Allison Peers, Spirit of Flame (1943); Robert Sencourt, Carmelite and Poet (1944); and Leon Cristiani, St. John of the Cross (trans. 1962). Interpretive and critical discussions are in Edgar Allison Peers, Studies in the Spanish Mystics (3 vols., 1927-1960), and E. W. Trueman Dicken, The Crucible of Love (1963).

Additional Sources

Cumpiano, Marion, Saint John of the Cross and the dark night of FW, Colchester, Essex: Wake Newslitter Press, 1983.

Hardy, Richard P., God speaks in the night: the life, times, and teaching of St. John of the Cross, Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1991.

Peers, E. Allison (Edgar Allison), Spirit of flame: a study of St. John of the Cross, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978. □

John of the Cross

views updated May 23 2018

John of the Cross (1542–91). Poet, mystic, and joint founder of the Discalced Carmelites. He entered the Carmelite Order in 1563 and studied at Salamanca (1564–8). Faced with what he regarded as laxity in the order, he considered becoming a Carthusian. Teresa of Avila persuaded him to stay and undertake her own kind of reform. He spent the rest of his life furthering the reform and suffering imprisonment and banishment from those opposed to his and Teresa's vision. Out of his suffering his great works of mystical theology were born. All take the form of commentaries on his own poems, amongst the greatest in Spanish.

The Ascent of Mount Carmel and the Dark Night of the Soul expound the dark night, the Spiritual Canticle expounds the whole spiritual life through commentary on his long poem inspired by the Song of Songs, and the Living Flame of Love is concerned with the unitive way. He died on 14 Dec. (feast day), saying, ‘Tonight I shall sing mattins in heaven.’ He was canonized in 1726 and declared a Doctor in 1926.

John of the Cross, Saint

views updated May 21 2018

John of the Cross, Saint (1542–91) Spanish poet and monk in the Carmelite order. He tried to reform the order to make it more austere, and became co-founder of the contemplative order of the Discalced Carmelites. He is best known for his spiritual poems, which are among the finest verses in Spanish literature. His feast day is December 14 or November 24.

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Saint John of the Cross