Saint John of the Cross was a Spanish mystic, writer and founder of a strict religious order and a significant influence in the counter-reformation. He was active in reforming the religious life of his time and wrote some highly-rated mystical works and poems. He had some strong friendships, but also, some enemies who mistreated him.
Childhood and early years
St John of the Cross was born as Juan de Yepes Alvarez in 1542 in Castile, Spain. His father died when Juan was young and the family suffered poverty. However, he did acquire an education, studying under the Jesuits. However, he chose to join the Carmelites, which is an order of friars. Friars differ from monks insofar as they work more in the public world.
His move to Salamanca to study was important as this placed him at a major educational centre, where he could develop a knowledge of theology and scripture. During this time, he developed a desire to join the strict Carthusian order, who live in seclusion to devote themselves to prayer and study. However, he met Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite nun who was devoted to reforming the Carmelite order. She asked him to delay his joining the Carthusians to assist her.
His friendship with Teresa lasted for life and the two co-operated in working to reform the Carmelite order by dealing with lax discipline. The two decided that a stricter way of life was necessary, so they split off to find the Discalced Carmelites. To be discalced is to go without shoes. The co-operation went on uninterrupted until 1577.
His superiors were unhappy at the split and ordered him to return to his original monastery. However, his work had been authorised by the Papal Nuncio, a higher authority. John therefore, refused to obey. His superiors had him arrested, held for several months and whipped once a week. He escaped and reached friends, who protected him.
His written works on the spiritual life were his greatest contribution. He is considered as a great writer on mysticism. Though he wrote little poetry, his two poems, the Spiritual Canticle and the Dark Night of the Soul, are considered to be among the greatest poems written in Spanish. His works on mystical theology include The Ascent of Mount Carmel, which compares progress in the spiritual life to the ascent of a mountain, and the Living Flame of Love.
He died in 1591. His work has been regarded as a major contributor to the counter-reformation, the Catholic response to the reformation. He is regarded as a doctor of the church, the most esteemed theological writers in the Catholic Church.