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John of the Cross

St. John of the Cross
St. John of the Cross

Saint John of the Cross (Juan de la Cruz) was a Spanish Carmelite friar, born on June 24, 1542 at Fontiveros , a small village near Avila.

He is renowned for his cooperation with Saint Theresa of Avila in the reformation of the Carmelite order, and for his writings; both his poetry and his studies on the growth of the soul (in the Christian sense of detachment from creatures and attachment to God) are considered the summit of mystical Spanish literature.



Early life and education

As a child he lived in various Castilian villages, with the last being Medina del Campo , to which he moved in 1551. There, he studied the humanities at a Jesuit school from 1559 to 1563, and then entered the Carmel order, adopting the name Fr. Juan de Santo Matía.

The following year (1564) he professed as a Carmelite and moved to Salamanca, where he studied at the University and at the Colegio de San Andrés . This stay would influence all his later writings, as Fray Luis de León taught biblical studies (Exegesis, Hebrew and Aramaic) at the University. León was one of the foremost experts in Biblical Studies then and had written an important and controversial translation of the Song of Songs into Spanish. (Translation of the Bible into the vernacular was not allowed then in Spain).

Priesthood and association with Saint Teresa de Jesús

Saint John was ordained a priest in 1567. That same year he met Saint Teresa de Jesús, who immediately talked to him about her reformation projects for the Carmelite order, including among the friars. The following year, on 28 November, he started this reformation at Duruelo together with Fr. Antonio de Jesús de Heredia. In the following years, until 1577, he worked as a helper of Saint Teresa, founding monasteries around Spain and taking active part in their government. These foundations and the reformation process were resisted by a great number of Carmelite friars. The followers of St. John and St. Teresa differentiated themselves from the non-reformed communities by calling themselves the "discalced", i.e. barefoot, and the others the "calced" Carmelites.

Imprisonment, writings, death and recognition

On the night of 3 to 4 December 1577 he was taken prisoner by the calced in Toledo, where he was kept under a brutal regime that included public lashing before the community at least weekly, and severe isolation. He escaped on 15 August 1578. He had composed a great part of his most famous poem Spiritual Canticle during this imprisonment; his sufferings and spiritual endeavours then are reflected in all of his subsequent writings.

After returning to his normal life, he went on with the reformation and the founding of monasteries until his death on 14 December 1591.

His writings were first published in 1618. He was beatified by Pope Clement X in 1675, and canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726. In 1926 he was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pius XI. He is also considered a saint and "Teacher of the Faith" in the Church of England. His feast day is December 14.

Literary works

St. John of the Cross is considered one of the foremost poets in the Spanish language. Although his complete poems add up to less than 2500 verses, two of them—the Spiritual Canticle and Dark Night of the Soul are widely considered to be among the best poems ever written in Spanish, both for their formal stylistic point of view and their rich symbolism and imagery.

The Spiritual Canticle is an eclogue in which the bride (representing the soul) searches for the bridegroom (representing Jesus Christ), and is anxious at having lost him; both are filled with joy upon reuniting. It can be seen as a free-form Spanish version of the Song of songs at a time when translations of the Bible into vernacular were forbidden.

Dark Night of the Soul narrates the journey of the soul from her bodily jail to her union with God. It happens during the night, which represents the hardships and difficulties she meets in detachment from the world and reaching the light of the union with the Creator. There are several steps in this night, which are related in successive stanzas.

St. John wrote also three treatises on mystical theology , two of them concerning the two poems above, and supposedly explaining the meaning of the poems verse by verse and even word by word. He actually proves unable to follow this scheme and writes freely on the subject he is treating at each time. The third work, Ascent of Mount Carmel is a more systematic study of the ascetical endeavour of a soul looking for perfect union with God, and the mystical events happening along the way. These, together with his Sayings of Love and Peace and St. Teresa's writings are the most important mystical works in Spanish, and have deeply influenced later spiritual writers all around the world, such as T. S. Eliot and Thomas Merton.

Last updated: 11-05-2004 12:30:02