I hope this saint reflection encompasses not only the biographical information for St. John of the Cross, but also a brief summary of his spirituality. This great saint and Doctor of the Church, named Juan de Yepes Y Alvarez was born on an unknown day in an unknown month, probably in the year of Our Lord 1542, in the small Spanish town of Fontiveros. The town’s population was about 5000 and his father, Gonzalo de Yepes, belonged to a wealthy family of silk merchants in Toledo. He was married to Catalina Alvarez (Juan’s mother). Since he married a poor woman of no social status, Gonzalo was disinherited and moved to Fontiveros where he took up the lowly trade of weaving. It is under these poor and trying circumstances that Gonzalo and Catalina had to find strength in God and in their marital fidelity.
Little Juan was the last of three sons and was two years old when his father died. Catalina begged her deceased husband’s family to help with the dire financial situation, but they refused giving her another humiliating circumstance and rejection. This would allow her to grow more configured to Christ crucified. At this time the second born son, Luis, died, as well, possibly from lack of nourishment. She eventually moved to Medina del Campo, the market center of Castile, where she resumed her work at weaving. There she entered him in a school for poor children, where the priest director chose young John to be acolyte and sacristan at the La Magdalena Monastery of Augustinian nuns. In his school, due to his gentleness and patience, Don Alonzo Alvarez, administrator of the hospital in Medina, asked him to help with nursing and be an “alms-collector.” Their young John discovered his deep compassion for the poor, sick, and suffering.
From 1559-1562, Don Alonzo also supplied John an opportunity for further studies when at age 17, he enrolled him in the Jesuit school for studies in grammar, rhetoric, Latin and Greek. The greatest catholic poet certainly did not realize God was preparing him already for spiritual greatness in his preliminary studies, which will lay some of the initial framework for the great edifice or spiritual temple God was building in the future poet-saint. Along with his early experiences of suffering loss, through the deaths of his father and brother, his humble hospital work and acute poverty, he was learning literary composition, classical imagery, and other skills God would use in the future – he was being formed by God in secret. His love of the arts, composition and poetry are very similar to the formation Pope St. John Paul II received from the Lord in his upbringing in Krakow, especially during the Nazi occupation.
It does not appear very often in the biographies of Pope St. John Paul II, but when he was a young adult trying to discern his vocation, Karol Wojtyla thought very seriously of becoming a Discalced Carmelite. He would even write this later in his life: “For some time I thought about the possibility of becoming a Carmelite. My uncertainties were resolved by Archbishop Cardinal Sapieha, who – in his usual manner – said briefly: ‘You should first of all finish what you started’. And that is what I did” (Gift and Mystery, p. 35). In 1985 he shared his thoughts with the participants of the Discalced Carmelites General Chapter when he said: “My discovery of the works of the two saints, above all St. John of the Cross, gave me a great spiritual insight, especially while I was studying theology. Thus what I have said has been influenced by what I read. Carmelite spirituality has strongly influenced me during certain experiences of my life and in the different periods of my life.” This is the reason perhaps why in the “Rogito”, a summary of his life and main achievements, written on parchment and placed in a metal cylinder as a perpetual memorial to his Pontificate and placed in his wooden coffin, are mentioned the names of two Carmelite saints: John of the Cross, in remembrance of his Licentiate completed at the Angelicum (Rome) and Therese of Lisieux, whom he had proclaimed Doctor of the Church.
St. John Paul II would always be a faithful “student” and admirer of the poetic writings of St. John of the Cross. They would both eventually fall in love with God especially through God’s beautiful Scriptural love song called “The Song of Songs,” which St. John Paul II would reflect on extensively in his catechetical masterpiece The Theology of the Body. Here St. John Paul II would reflect on the beautiful imagery of God’s love for Israel and Christ’s love for the Church with the beautiful love of a husband for his wife. He would reflect on this love song by way of analogy the one-flesh union between husband and wife with the spousal love God has for each one of us and that He wants to be in complete union with us. St. John of the Cross would have a great influence of the life and teaching of St. John Paul II. Both saints lived their lives for one reason or end purpose alone: complete union with God and this could only be “achieved” by God’s grace of contemplation. Through His beautiful creation, art, music, and especially the Sacraments (Mysteries) of the Church, one can become so completely purified that one is mystically “one with God.” This is the poetry of St. John of the Cross and the anthropology of St. John Paul II in the Theology of the Body. Through the proper and holy gift of self we become other Christ’s not by “earning it,” but by “receiving it,” the grace His Divine Son Jesus gives us from His Cross. St. John of the Cross knew this even at a tender young age.
In 1563 at the age of 20 he entered the Carmelite novitiate at Medina. It was the Carmelite contemplative spirit and its devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary that drew the new friar, who chose the name Fray (Brother) John of St. Matthias. From 1564-68, he went to Salamanca to study philosophy and theology. In July 1567, he was ordained a priest and that autumn met Madre Teresa de Jesus (St. Teresa of Jesus) better known as St. Teresa of Avila. She had already begun her reform of the Carmelite nuns and was contemplating extending this to the friars, if possible. The ideas of reforming religious life went back to the 15th century due to the upheavals caused by the Black Death and other factors. She was 52 and he 25 years old. He was suffering at the hands of some of the friars who lived their lives very loosely, poisoned by their desire for ease and comfort. John was discontent with this lifestyle and Madre Teresa knew this. She promised him everything he was looking for in God. She convinced him to be in charge of a new reformed “discalced” Carmel for the friars. He was inspired by her joy and enthusiasm. The Spanish reform was marked by some common characteristics: a return to their origins, primitive rules, poverty, fasting, silence, enclosure and a deep contemplative prayer life balanced with asceticism. She was reading many of the spiritual masters of the time, but none could teach her the interior life except, her spouse, Jesus Himself, in contemplative prayer.
Fray John transformed a small farmhouse into the first monastery for discalced Carmelite friars. Fray John of St. Matthias embraced the new reformed discalced life promising to live without mitigation (like his former Carmelite Friary did) according to the ancient Carmelite rule. He changed his religious name to Fray John of the Cross. John became the novice master and by May 1572 was spiritual director of one of the female monasteries and the future St. Theresa herself.
This was a time of hard manual labor for Fray John, since he was helping with constructing the addition to the monastery. He did very little writing, but labored much in fruitful prayer and work. He was learning even more concretely how to surrender to God’s will. He would often go off to a cave to be drawn into contemplative prayer with God in silence and solitude. This is certainly a necessity for all priests, religious and diocesan alike, to have a deep prayer life in silence with God. This MUST be fostered by us priests to have a true and balanced priestly identity rooted in God’s unconditional love for us. God was using his manual labor, mental/vocal prayer, scriptural meditations, beautiful scenery and such to draw Fray John more deeply into the heart of the Trinity, which is a sacrificial, self-giving virginal heart. At the same time Fray John never shunned his priestly mission responsibilities, such as being a spiritual director and overseeing the business matters of the orders governance. However, he was always balancing the practical Petrine mode of doing with the Marian posture of receptivity in prayer, including vocal, but especially contemplation. This approach to prayer, especially the need for silence and contemplation will greatly enhance not only any priest’s prayer life, but also give him a mission rooted in true priestly identity. By 1585 he was imprisoned by the “Calced” Friars in Toledo for nine months. In August 1586, he escaped to the Discalced Convent in Toledo. It was here that he wrote some of his most sublime poetry, called the Spiritual Canticle. Between 1578-1594 he wrote his major works: The Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul (1579), and Living Flame of Love (1591) and other commentaries and redactions.
In 1590, Fray John had much contention and opposition from Fr. Nicholas Doria, but, Fray John did not let the abuse and contention caused by Fr. Doria remove his peace. Here is a piece of a letter he sent to Madre Teresa on July 6, 1591: “do not let what is happening to me, daughter, cause you any grief, for it does not cause me any. What greatly grieves, me is that one who is not at fault is blamed. Men do not do these things, but God, who knows what is suitable for us and arranges things for our own good. Think nothing else but that God ordains all, and where there is no love, put love, and you will draw out love.” Fr. Dorian sent Fray John to an isolated monastery in Andalucia called La Penuela. Some like, Fray Diego, were conspiring against him, because they felt threatened and intimidated by his deep spirituality.
By September 1597 he began to grow sick with fever due to an untreated, inflamed leg, which became ulcerated. The sickness called, erysipelas, spread to his back where a fist sized tumor formed. By December he was growing worst and weaker by the day. On December 13, the Memorial of St. Lucy, knowing his time was running short, he called for his prior (Fray Francisco Crisostomo) and apologized for all the trouble he “caused” him. Profoundly touched, he himself then begged Fray John’s forgiveness and according to reports was seen leaving Fray John’s cell in tears. As he was dying he stopped the friars from reciting prayers for the dying and instead instructed them as such: “no, read some verses from the Song of Songs,” and then said, “oh, what precious pearls.” His last words were form the psalmist: “into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”
Fray John’s life of deprivation, the fact that he was so seriously misunderstood and suffered great hardships, including from his own brothers and being imprisoned by them would have caused a less prayerful man to be bitter, angry and cynical, but his prayer life and relationship with God allowed him to become purified and enlightened. His life, which seemed so sad on the outside, was actually the life of Jesus Christ and his inner transformation bore much fruit for which the entire Church has benefited for over 400 years. Through all this formation in the Life of Christ, God allowed him to develop a clear vision of the beauty of His Creation due to his intimate relationship with the Blessed Trinity. Through his own journey and darkness through the purgative, illuminative and unitive stages, he was able to share it with us in his sublime writing.
Due to his own material privations and sickness, he had a great love of the poor and sick. He would often beg alms for those less fortunate, including nuns and friars. He had a wonderful sense of humor and took great pleasure in making the sad and downcast laugh, a good emotional medicine, second to the sacraments and spiritual direction. Despite his small demeanor (4 ft. 11 inches tall) and frail body he did not shy from hard manual labor, which was very contradictory to the attitude of the Illuminists, who regard only study and intellectual work worthy of such a vocation. He did whatever tasks necessary for the governance of the friary, including weeding the garden, cooking and visiting the sick and confessing. He loved the various designs of God’s creation, including lakes and mountains and often brought sisters and the friars there to relax and have solitude with God. He was enamored and transformed by the Mysteries of Christ in the Divine Liturgy and liturgical seasons, especially Christmas and Holy week. Again one can see many parallels between St. John of the Cross and Pope St. John Paul II. Seeing a statue of the Infant Christ he once said: “Lord, if love is to slay me, the hour has now come.” He cherished the Bible, besides the Holy Eucharist, his greatest source of intimacy with the Blessed Trinity. He always directed that people not to speak uncharitably of their persecutors, but to believe that “God ordains all.” He once said our trust in God should be so great that even if the whole world should collapse we should not become disturbed or lose our peace. We may not all reach his exalted level of holiness, however we should all be open to it, because with God nothing is impossible.
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Father Tom DeSimone was ordained a priest on May 13, 2006, the Feast day of Our Lady of Fatima. He most recently served as Parochial Vicar of Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in White Plains, NY. He joins the staff of the Theology of the Body Institute on a three-year leave from the Archdiocese of New York, to become the Institute’s first full time spiritual advisor and Director of Clergy Development.