Who was John of the Cross?
John of the Cross (1542 – 1591) was a major figure of the Counter-Reformation, a Spanish mystic, Roman Catholic saint, Carmelite friar and priest, born at Fontiveros, Old Castile. John of the Cross was a reformer of the Carmelite Order and is considered, along with Saint Teresa of Ávila, as a founder of the Discalced Carmelites. He is also known for his writings. Both his poetry and his studies on the growth of the soul are considered the summit of mystical Spanish literature and one of the peaks of all Spanish literature. He was canonized as a saint in 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII. He is one of the thirty-five Doctors of the Church.
He was born Juan de Yepes y Álvarez into a Jewish converso family in Fontiveros, near Ávila, a town of around 2,000 people. His father, Gonzalo, was an accountant to richer relatives who were silk merchants. However, when in 1529 he married John's mother, Catalina, who was an orphan of a lower class, Gonzalo was rejected by his family and forced to work with his wife as a weaver. John's father died in 1545, while John was still only around seven years old. Two years later, John's older brother Luis died, probably as a result of insufficient nourishment caused by the penury to which John's family had been reduced.
After this, John's mother Catalina took John and his surviving brother Francisco, and moved first in 1548 to Arevalo, and then in 1551 to Medina del Campo, where she was able to find work weaving. In Medina, John entered a school for around 160 poor children, usually orphans, receiving a basic education, mainly in Christian doctrine, as well as some food, clothing, and lodging. While studying there, he was chosen to serve as acolyte at a nearby monastery of Augustinian nuns.
Growing up, John worked at a hospital and studied the humanities at a Jesuit school from 1559 to 1563; the Society of Jesus was a new organization at the time, having been founded only a few years earlier by the Spaniard St. Ignatius of Loyola. In 1563 he entered the Carmelite Order, adopting the name John of St. Matthias. The following year (1564) he professed his religious vows as a Carmelite and travelled to Salamanca, where he studied theology and philosophy at the prestigious University there (at the time one of the four biggest in Europe, alongside Paris, Oxford and Bologna) and at the Colegio de San Andrés.
Some modern writers claim that 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.)
Joining the Reform of Teresa of Jesus
John was ordained a priest in 1567, and then indicated his intent to join the strict Carthusian Order, which appealed to him because of its encouragement of solitary and silent contemplation. A journey from Salamanca to Medina del Campo, probably in September 1567, changed this.
In Medina he met the charismatic Carmelite nun, Teresa of Jesus. She was in Medina to found the second of her convents for women. She immediately talked to him about her reformation projects for the Order: she was seeking to restore the purity of the Carmelite Order by restarting observance of its "Primitive Rule" of 1209, observance of which had been relaxed by Pope Eugene IV in 1432.
Under this Rule, much of the day and night was to be spent in the recitation of the choir offices, study and devotional reading, the celebration of Mass and times of solitude. For the friars, time was to be spent evangelizing the population around the monastery. Total abstinence from meat and lengthy fasting was to be observed from the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14) until Easter.
There were to be long periods of silence, especially between Compline and Prime. Coarser, shorter habits, more simple than those worn since 1432, were to be worn. They were to follow the injunction against the wearing of shoes (also mitigated in 1432). It was from this last observance that the followers of Teresa among the Carmelites were becoming known as "discalced", i.e., barefoot, differentiating themselves from the non-reformed friars and nuns. Teresa asked John to delay his entry into the Carthusians and to follow her.
Having spent a final year studying in Salamanca, in August 1568 John traveled with Teresa from Medina to Valladolid, where Teresa intended to found another monastery of nuns. Having spent some time with Teresa in Valladolid, learning more about this new form of Carmelite life, in October 1568, accompanied by Friar Antonio de Jesús de Heredia, John left Valladolid to found a new monastery for friars, the first for men following Teresa's principles.
The were given the use of a derelict house at Duruelo (midway between Avila and Salamanca), which had been donated to Teresa. On 28 November 1568, the monastery, was established, and on that same day John changed his name to John of the Cross. Soon after, in June 1570, the friars found the house at Duruelo too small, and so moved to the nearby town of Mancera de Abajo. After moving on from this community, John 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 he arrived in Avila, at the invitation of Teresa, who had been appointed prioress of the Monastery of the Visitation there in 1571. John become the spiritual director and confessor for Teresa and the other 130 nuns there, as well for as a wide range of laypeople in the city. In 1574, John accompanied Teresa in the foundation of a new monastery in Segovia, returning to Avila after staying there a week. Beyond this, though, John seems to have remained in Avila between 1572 and 1577.
One day at some point between 1574 and 1577, while praying in the monastery of the Incarnation in Ávila, in a loft overlooking the sanctuary, John had a vision of the crucified Christ, which led him to create his famous drawing of Christ "from above." In 1641 this drawing was placed in a small monstrance, and kept in Avila. This drawing inspired the artist Salvador Dali's 1951 work, Christ of Saint John of the Cross.
The height of Carmelite tensions
The years 1575-77, however, saw a great increase in the tensions among the Spanish Carmelite friars over the reforms of Teresa and John. Since 1566 the reforms had been overseen by Canonical Visitors from the Dominican Order, with one appointed to Castile and a second to Andalusia. These Visitors had substantial powers: they could move the members of religious communities from house to house and even province to province.
They could assist religious superiors in their office, and could depute other superiors from either the Dominicans or Carmelites. In Castile, the Visitor was Pedro Fernández, who prudently balanced the interests of the Discalced Carmelites against those of the friars and nuns who did not desire reform.
In Andalusia to the south, however, where the Visitor was Francisco Vargas, tensions rose due to his clear preference for the Discalced friars. Vargas asked them to make foundations in various cities, in explicit contradiction of orders from the Carmelite Prior General against their expansion in Andalusia. As a result, a General Chapter of the Carmelite Order was convened at Piacenza in Italy in May 1575, out of concern that events in Spain were getting out of hand, which concluded by ordering the total suppression of the Discalced houses.
This measure was not immediately enforced. For one thing, King Philip II of Spain was supportive of some of Teresa’s reforms, and so was not immediately willing to grant the necessary permission to enforce this ordinance. Moreover the Discalced friars also found support from the papal nuncio to King Philip II, Nicolò Ormanetto, Bishop of Padua, who still had ultimate power as nuncio to visit and reform religious Orders.
When asked by the Discalced friars to intervene, Ormanetto replaced Vargas as Visitor of the Carmelites in Andalusia (where the troubles had begun) with Jerónimo Gracián, a priest from the University of Alcalá, who was in fact a Discalced Carmelite friar himself. The nuncio's protection helped John himself avoid problems for a time. In January 1576 John was arrested in Medina del Campo by some Carmelite friars. However, through the nuncio's intervention, John was soon released. When Ormanetto died on 18 June 1577, however, John was left without protection, and the friars opposing his reforms gained the upper hand.
Imprisonment, writings, torture, death and recognition
On the night of 2 December 1577, a group of Carmelites opposed to reform broke into John’s dwelling in Avila, and took him prisoner. John had received an order from some of his superiors, opposed to reform, ordering him to leave Avila and return to his original house, but John had refused on the basis that his reform work had been approved by the Spanish Nuncio, a higher authority than these superiors. The Carmelites therefore took John captive. John was taken from Avila to the Carmelite monastery in Toledo, at that time the Order's most important monastery in Castile, where perhaps 40 friars lived.
John was brought before a court of friars, accused of disobeying the ordinances of Piacenza. Despite John's argument that he had not disobeyed the ordinances, he received a punishment of imprisonment. He was jailed in the monastery, where he was kept under a brutal regimen that included public lashing before the community at least weekly, and severe isolation in a tiny stifling cell measuring ten feet by six feet, barely large enough for his body.
Except when rarely permitted an oil lamp, he had to stand on a bench to read his breviary by the light through the hole into the adjoining room. He had no change of clothing and a penitential diet of water, bread and scraps of salt fish. During this imprisonment, he composed a great part of his most famous poem Spiritual Canticle, as well as a few shorter poems. The paper was passed to him by the friar who guarded his cell.
He managed to escape nine months later, on 15 August 1578, through a small window in a room adjoining his cell. (He had managed to pry the cell door off its hinges earlier that day). After being nursed back to health, first with Teresa's nuns in Toledo, and then during six weeks at the Hospital of Santa Cruz, John continued with reform.
In October 1578 he joined a meeting at Almodovar del Campo of the supporters of reform, increasingly known as the Discalced Carmelites. There, in part as a result of the opposition faced from other Carmelites in recent years, they decided to demand from the Pope their formal separation from the rest of the Carmelite Order.
At this meeting John was appointed superior of El Calvario, an isolated monastery of around thirty friars in the mountains about 6 miles away from Beas in Andalucia. During this time he befriended the nun Ana de Jesús, superior of the Discalced nuns at Beas, through his visits every Saturday to the town.
While at El Calvario he composed his first version of his commentary on his poem, The Spiritual Canticle, perhaps at the request of the nuns in Beas. In 1579 he moved to Baeza, a town of around 50,000 people, to serve as rector of a new college, the Colegio de San Basilio, to support the studies of Discalced friars in Andalucia. This opened on 13 June 1579, and he remained there until 1582, spending much of his time as a spiritual director for the friars and townspeople.
1580 was an important year in the resolution of the disputes within the Carmelites. On 22 June, Pope Gregory XIII signed a decree, titled Pia Consideratione, which authorised a separation between the Calced and Discalced Carmelites. The Dominican friar, Juan Velázquez de las Cuevas, was appointed to carry out the decisions.
At the first General Chapter of the Discalced Carmelites, in Alcalá de Henares on 3 March 1581, John of the Cross was elected one of the ‘Definitors’ of the community, and wrote a set of constitutions for them. By the time of the Provincial Chapter at Alcalá in 1581, there were 22 houses, some 300 friars and 200 nuns in the Discalced Carmelites. In November 1581 John was sent by Teresa to help Ana de Jesus in founding a convent in Granada. Arriving in January 1582, she set up a monastery of nuns, while John stayed in the friars' monastery of Los Martires, beside the Alhambra, becoming its prior in March 1582. While here, he learned of the death of Teresa in October of that year.
In February 1585, John travelled to Malaga and established a monastery of Discalced nuns there. In May 1585, at the General Chapter of the Discalced Carmelites in Lisbon, John was elected Provincial Vicar of Andalusia, a post which required him to travel frequently, making annual visitations of the houses of friars and nuns in Andalusia. During this time he founded seven new monasteries in the region, and is estimated to have travelled around 25,000 km. In June 1588, he was elected third Councillor to the Vicar General for the Discalced Carmelites, Father Nicolas Doria. To fulfil this role, he had to return to Segovia in Castile, where in this capacity he was also prior of the monastery.
After disagreeing in 1590-1 with some of Doria's remodeling of the leadership of the Discalced Carmelite Order, though, John was removed from his post in Segovia, and sent by Doria in June 1591 to an isolated monastery in Andalusia called La Peñuela. There he fell ill, and traveled to the monastery at Úbeda for treatment. His condition worsened, however, and he died there on 14 December 1591, of erysipelas.
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