Childhood & Early Life
Juan de Yepes y Álvarez was born in 1542, in Fontiveros, Ávila, Spain. His father, Gonzalo originally hailed from a well-to-do family, but when he married Catalina, a poor orphan girl of a lower class, his family rejected him. Thus John was born into poverty.
His father died when John was a young boy, driving the family into destitution. Catalina struggled to raise her children all alone. Another tragedy befell the family when one of John’s brothers died of probable malnourishment a couple of years later.
His desperate mother took John and his surviving brother Francisco to Medina del Campo in 1551 where she was able to find work weaving. John was sent to a school for poor children where he received a basic education mainly in Christian doctrine. He became interested in religion while he was a student and was chosen to serve as acolyte at a nearby monastery of Augustinian nuns.
On growing up he studied the humanities at a Jesuit school from 1559 to 1563. He also worked at a hospital. In 1563, he entered the Carmelite Order, adopting the name John of St. Matthias.
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St. John of the Cross professed his religious vows as a Carmelite in 1564 and travelled to Salamanca, where he studied theology and philosophy at the university there. John was ordained a priest in 1567. His initial plan was to join the strict Carthusian Order, which appealed to him because of its encouragement of solitary and silent contemplation.
However, he changed his mind after a trip to Medina del Campo in September 1567. He met the Carmelite nun Teresa of Jesus who was in Medina to found the second of her convents for women. She told him of her plans to restore the purity of the Carmelite Order by restarting observance of its "Primitive Rule" of 1209 which had been relaxed by Pope Eugene IV in 1432.
Teresa asked him to join her in the restoration. After completing his studies in Salamanca, he joined Teresa and travelled with her from Medina to Valladolid in August 1568. Teresa intended to found another monastery of nuns in Valladolid. During his stay with Teresa, John learned more about the form of Carmelite life.
In October 1568, John, accompanied by Friar Antonio de Jesús de Heredia, left Valladolid to found a new monastery for friars, the first for men following Teresa's principles. The new monastery was established on 28 November 1568 and on that same day John changed his name to John of the Cross.
John went on to set up a new community at Pastrana (October 1570), and a community at Alcalá de Henares, which was to be a house of studies for the academic training of the friars.
In 1572, Teresa invited him to Avila and he became the spiritual director and confessor for Teresa who was now prioress of the Monastery of the Visitation.
In 1574, John accompanied Teresa in the foundation of a new monastery in Segovia and returned to Avila soon after.
The reforms of Teresa and John, however, led to tensions among the Spanish Carmelite friars. On the night of 2 December 1577, John was abducted from his dwelling in Ávila by a group of Carmelites opposed to reform. He was made a prisoner in Carmelite monastery in Toledo, at that time the Order's most important monastery in Castile.
He was kept under brutal conditions and subjected to routine physical torture. He was kept isolated in a tiny stifling cell measuring ten feet by six feet and publicly lashed before the community at least weekly. Fed a very poor diet, and not even given a change of clothes, his physical health suffered greatly. But he held fast to his faith and focused on writing poems even under these terrible circumstances.
On 15 August 1578, he somehow managed to escape by prying open the cell door. It took him several weeks to regain his health following which he became active in reform again. In October 1578 he joined a meeting at Almodóvar del Campo of the supporters of reform and was appointed superior of El Calvario.
In 1579, he became the rector of a new college, the Colegio de San Basilio, to support the studies of Discalced friars in Andalusia. He held this post until 1582. He was made the prior at the friars' monastery of Los Martires, beside the Alhambra in March 1582.
Continuing the reform even after Teresa’s death, he established a monastery of Discalced nuns in Málaga in 1585. The same year, he was elected Provincial Vicar of Andalusia. In this position, he travelled widely and founded seven new monasteries in the region. In 1588, he returned to Castile as prior of the house of Segovia and as councilor of the provincial.
During his imprisonment, St. John of the Cross wrote several brilliant poems, including ‘Cántico espiritual’ (“The Spiritual Canticle”), ‘Noche oscura del alma’ (“The Dark Night of the Soul”), and ‘Llama de amor viva’ (“The Living Flame of Love”). Of these, ‘Noche oscura’ is regarded as his best known work. The poem is an intense description of the process by which the soul sheds its attachment to everything and eventually passes through a personal experience of Christ’s Crucifixion to his glory.