Saint John of the Cross was a 16th century Spanish theologian and mystic. Together with Saint Teresa of Jesus, he reformed the Carmelite Order. He was proclaimed Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI in 1926 and, traditionally, is nicknamed the “Mystic Doctor”. His feast-day falls on December 14th.
“Today I’m going to sing the Office in Heaven”
A religious vocation and the call to the Carmelite charism were clearly manifest in the life of St John. He was born Juan de Yepes Álvarez, the son of poor parents from Castile, near Avila. He was eighteen when, in 1563, he left the Jesuit College of Medina del Campo where he studied the humanities, rhetoric and classical languages. Soon afterwards he met Teresa of Jesus. It was an encounter that would change their lives forever. St John was already a priest and was fascinated by her plan to reform the Carmelite Order, including the male branch. They worked together, sharing idea and proposals, and together inaugurated the first house of Discalced Carmelites in 1568 in Duruelo, in the province of Avila. It was then, when he, along with others, created the first reformed male community, that St John adopted the new name, “of the Cross”, by which he would later be universally known. At the end of 1572, at the request of Santa Teresa, John of the Cross became confessor and vicar of the monastery of the Incarnation of Avila, where Teresa was prioress. But nothing was easy: adherence to the reform led to St John being imprisoned for several months following unjust accusations. Assisted by St Teresa, he managed an adventurous escape. After regaining his strength, he undertook a series of responsibilities that he carried out until his death, after a long and painful illness. St John died between December 13 and 14, 1591, while his religious brothers were reciting the morning Office in a convent near Jaén. His last words were: “Today I’m going to sing the Office in Heaven”. His mortal remains were transferred to Segovia. Saint John of the Cross was beatified by Pope Clement X in 1675 and canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726.
The Saint of the “purification of the soul”
St John of the Cross had a difficult life, accepting persecutions and sufferings both in his activity as a reformer and in the period of his imprisonment. Yet it was precisely in the most difficult moments of his life that he created some of his most beautiful works. Pope Benedict XVI referred to him as “one of the most important lyric poets of Spanish literature”, pointing to the numerous and profound examples of his teaching that “describe a sure path to achieving holiness, the state of perfection to which God calls all of us”. St John imagined this path like climbing a mountain, a journey that takes courage and patience and leads to a profound “purification” of the senses and of the spirit. For him it was not just a case of simple physical deprivation of things; what makes the soul pure and free is the elimination of all disordered dependence and centering everything on God as the only purpose of life. The great Spanish mystic and theologian affirmed that if the soul wants the Whole (God), it must commit itself to leaving everything and wanting to be nothing. One of his most famous phrases is: “To reach where you are not, you have to go through where you are not. To achieve everything, do not want to own anything. To come to be everything, not wanting to be anything.” (“Para venir a lo que noes, has de ir por donde no eres. Para come to pose it todo, no quieras poseer algo en nada. Para come to serlo todo, no quieras ser algo en nada.”) Naturally for St John, it was not so much a matter of renouncing some-thing – but of loving Some-one.