John of the Cross (Juan de Yepes Álvarez) was born in Fontiveros (Ávila) in 1542. There were three brothers: Francisco, Luis, and Juan. His father, Gonzalo, died when Juan was very little. Gonzalo’s relatives from Toledo disinherited Gonzalo because of his marriage to Catalina, who belonged to a lower social class. They were left in poverty because of this, and it became worse when the father died.
Catalina travelled to Toledo to ask for help from Gonzalo’s relatives. She stayed in Torrijos without success. She continued on to Gálvez and Francisco remained with the town’s doctor. Catalina returned to Fontiveros with little Juan. After a year, she visited Gálvez and returned to her home with Francisco and little Juan. Things were not going well. They moved to Arévalo, from where they probably returned to Fontiveros and then left for Medina del Campo. Because they were so poor, Catalina was able to send her little one to the School of Doctrine. He was also able to work as an infirmarian in the Hospital of Our Lady of the Conception or “of the buboes” and attend the Jesuit College as an extern student from 1559 to 1563.
In 1563 he joined the monastery of Santa Ana of Carmel in Medina as a novice and made his profession the following year. He began studies at the University of Salamanca: three years of philosophy as an ordinary student and one of theology (1567-1568), this last after having been interviewed by Saint Teresa (“La Santa”) in Medina during his vacation in 1567.
La Santa convinced him not to become a Carthusian. On her request that he join the new Carmelite family she was organizing, he agreed, but under the condition that she would not delay a long time.
On his return from Salamanca in 1568, he continued his dialogue with Teresa about the new Carmelite life. He accompanied her in the founding of the Valladolid community of nuns and duly familiarized himself with all the proceedings. After finishing that novitiate of sorts, Juan left for Duruelo (Ávila) and began to adapt the little house that was gifted to La Santa as the first small convent of friars.
The official inauguration: November 28, 1568. La Santa visited during Lent in 1569.
John of the Cross was named master of novices in Duruelo and in this capacity travelled to Mancera after the move to this nearby location took place in 1570. The duty to organize the novitiate in Pastrana (Guadalajara) fell upon him in 1570. He returned to Mancera. In April 1571 he headed to a new destination: rector of the college in Alcalá de Henares. The following year, possibly in May, Saint Teresa requested his presence in Ávila to be the confessor of the great monastery of La Encarnación, where she was prioress.
He spent five years in Ávila, earning renown for his power against evil spirits and as a notable exorcist and teacher of souls. The Calced Carmelites tore him away from Ávila and took him as a prisoner to the convent of Toledo. Nine months of jail ensued, from which he escaped in August 1578.
In 1578 he attended the small chapter of the Discalced in Almodóvar del Campo (Ciudad Real) in which he was named superior of the convent of El Calvario (Jaén). He travelled to Andalucía and situated himself in his new location. From there he went to the university city of Baez to found the monastery-college of the Order in 1579, where he was rector.
In January 1582 he moved to Granada. He was prior of the convent of Los Santos Mártires in that city three times. In 1585 he was vicar provincial of Andalusia. From Baeza he attended the chapter in Alcalá de Henares during which the Discalced formed their own, separate province in 1581. Likewise, he attended all the other chapters: Almodóvar in 1583; Lisbon and Pastrana in 1585; Valladolid in 1587; and Madrid in 1588, 1590, and 1591. From the chapter of 1588 onward, he was the second authority of the Order and in that capacity moved to Segovia as a new member of the general government of the Order, presiding over its sessions when Nicolás Doria, the vicar general, was absent. He built the new convent in Segovia, although he did not see it finished. He left Segovia and travelled to La Peñuela in August 1591. He became ill and on September 28 moved to Úbeda. He suffered considerably under the prior of Úbeda, together with the infamous persecution of Diego Evangelista. He died in Úbeda on December 14, 1591. His body was transferred to Segovia in 1593.
John of the Cross preferred to talk about spiritual matters rather than write about them; his most profound vocation was oral teaching. He spontaneously wrote The Sayings of Light and Love, The Letters, The Precautions, and little more.
His great works: The Ascent of Mount Carmel / The Dark Night, The Spiritual Canticle, and The Living Flame of Love, were written on the request of friars and nuns.
The only thing needed to get an idea of the written works of John of the Cross is to look over one of the good editions currently available. They are usually presented divided in two halves: minor writings and major writings.
Minor writings are also called short works. This does not mean they are less important or represent less significant messages than the other writings. They are so called because of their length.
If we include his poetry within the minor writings, particularly the poetry which he comments on in his major works, we gain a better understanding of what the term “minor works” means.
Regarding the old question about where to start when reading Saint John of the Cross, the simplest and most efficient approach is to start with the shorter works. For the most part, these also chronologically precede the major treatises.
Attentive and affectionate reading of the great poems will yield in the reader the desire to know their meaning, the meaning of that whole marvellous world of poems, and will provide the motivation to read the prose commentaries.
The spirituality of Saint John of the Cross is wholly theological. From the instance in which the saint presents the theological schema in 2A chapter 6, all his magisterium is perfectly elucidated and organized. This chapter and forward through the end of Ascent is entirely manifest theological doctrine. The Word of God with which John of the Cross is in love permeates that theological substance. In that same framework he presents all the mysteries of the faith, the lamps of fire of the divine attributes, and likewise the entire realm of the reciprocal falling in love of Christ Jesus and the soul, shown in the Ascent / Dark Night, as in the Canticle and the Flame. As has been precisely written about St John’s theological magisterium: “By the theological life, the attitudes and behaviour of the person are carried out and informed by the three theological virtues. They integrate, orient, drive, and transform the person and life, allowing them to be completely directed toward God. A life of faith, hope, and charity, with all its divine demands and human, spiritual, and earthly renunciations” (Isaías Rodríguez, “La vida teologal según el Vaticano II y San Juan de la Cruz,” Revista de Espiritualidad 27 (1968), p. 477).
It is useful to transcribe a letter of Edith Stein written on March 30, 1940, in which she refers to a very important point in the spirituality of John of the Cross. Edith Stein received a letter from Agnella Stadtmüller, a Dominican nun and doctor of philosophy, well known by her. In the letter she asked what Saint John of the Cross understood as “pure love.” Edith answers exactly what is asked. Her words are: “Saint John of the Cross understands by ‘pure love’ the love of God for himself; a love free of all attachment to any created thing, but also from all consolation and similar things which God may give to a soul, and any form of special devotion, etc.; the love of a heart that does not desire any other thing but the completion of the will of God and that allows itself to be led by him without any resistance. What a person can do to get to this point is amply explained in The Ascent of Mount Carmel; how God purifies the soul, in The Dark Night; the result, in The Living Flame of Love and in The Spiritual Canticle. Basically, the entire path can be found in each work, but one or another specific stage is highlighted in each case. However, if you want to learn what is essential, compiled in a much briefer way, then you should take up the minor works.”
“John of the Cross had limited geography: he lived only in Spain and a few days in Portugal. The highest point he reached in the Iberian Peninsula was Valladolid, where he accompanied Saint Teresa in 1568 and where he returned in 1574 to make a declaration before the tribunal of the Inquisition regarding his intervention in the case of the possessed woman of Ávila, María de Olivares Guillamas. On one other occasion he arrived at this Castilian city in 1587 for the chapter of the new province of the Discalced. The southernmost point he reached on several occasions was the city of Málaga. To the west, the city of Lisbon in 1585. Caravaca, in the province of Murcia, was the easternmost point, where he visited several times. Within this very limited geography he travelled 27,000 kilometers (over 16,000 miles), mostly on foot or on the back of a humble, little donkey” (José Vicente Rodríguez, San Juan de la Cruz, La Biografía, Ed. San Pablo, Madrid 2012, 61).
Among the places to mention and visit:
Fontiveros: His birthplace and place of baptism.
Medina del Campo: He attended the School of Doctrine; assisted the sick in the Hospital; studied in the Jesuit College; entered the Order of Carmel; and made his profession in 1564.
Salamanca: He studied philosophy and theology in the University. He lived in the college of Saint Andrew. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1567. In 1567 and 1568 he met Saint Teresa in Medina. He travelled to Valladolid with her, staying there for more than a month.
Duruelo-Mancera: In Duruelo he prepared the house in which the renewed Carmelite life was inaugurated in November 1568. In Duruelo and Mancera he was Master of Novices.
Ávila: He spent five years here, from 1572 to 1577.
Toledo: He was jailed for nine months and escaped, risking everything.
El Calvario: Prior of the convent.
Baeza: In 1580 he founded the college in this university town. He was rector there.
Granada: He arrived in January 1582 and lived here until the summer of 1588.
La Peñuela: August-September 1591.
Úbeda: Where he died. His remains have rested in Segovia since 1593.