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 on St. John of the Cross

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 Biography 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.