Saint John of the Cross: Confessor and Poet

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Even if his personality and biography were slightly romanticized to create a positive and popular role model for religious descendants, John of the Cross still became a very prominent figure of his times and the entire history of Spain. What did he actually want? What were all his efforts actually directed towards? Probably, these questions will never be answered. But one thing is absolutely clear: this clergyman and martyr believed that everything wrong could be changed for the best and all mistakes could be corrected if people’s hearts were filled with faith and love.

Childhood Pervaded with Love

He was born in the small Spanish town of Fontiveros, in 1542. His parents gave him the name Juan. His father, Gonzalo de Yepes, came from a rich family of silk merchants, but he was deprived of the inheritance and left penniless. He dared go against his parents’ wishes and married a poor orphan, and weaver, Catalina.

Despite severe poverty, Gonzalo and Catalina’s family lived in love and peace. They had three sons. Juan was the youngest. However, only three years passed after his birth, and their father died. Two years later middle brother Louis also passed away. Catalina decided to take her two sons and move to a bigger town, Medina, to find a job. When Juan’s elder brother Francisco started to work, their life got a little bit better and they could even help other people who suffered from the need. By the way, Francisco would later become famous as a miracle-worker and a man of holy life.

Little Juan enrolled into a local school for children from poor families. There he could get a basic theologian education, some food and clothes. The boy studied well and much, served as an acolyte and worked at a local hospital. His life was destined to be full of challenges but pervaded with sincere love, and that determined the choice he made.

Taking the Life-Long Road

Landscape with Path

When he was 21 years old, Juan became a member of the Carmelite Order, founded in the 12th century by the Crusaders. Then he took the name John of Saint Matthias. A few years later the young man left for Salamanca to study. He proved to be a conscientious student, and some later scholars claimed that the theologian and philosophical lectures at Salamanca had a great influence on his own ideas and worldview.

Young Juan believed that he had found his vocation as a hermit who should contemplate in silence and intended to change the Order and dedicate his life to solitary. However, man proposes and God disposes.

Meeting Teresa of Jesus

After he came back to Medina in 1567, John met the influential Carmelite nun who fought for reforming the Order and bringing it back to initial strict rules and purity. That woman was Teresa of Jesus. She arrived to Medina with the aim to establish a new women convent. Besides, Teresa wanted to spread her reforms among the men’s branch of the Carmelite order. So, she needed a friar who would support her aspirations and help her. John decided to join her. Having learnt more about a different side of the Order and being supported by its powerful prominent members, following Teresa’s moral and religious considerations, John became the founder of a men monastery. Here he adopted the name of Juan de la Cruz or John of the Cross.

Imprisonment or Liberation?

Candles

Teresa and John’s reforms, which they implemented in their communities, began to disturb the Carmelites and the official Church. Though King Phillip II personally welcomed some of their ideas, even he could not prevent tensions between Carmelites. The opponents of the reforms could not accept the appeal for solitary and modesty. What is more, John was accused of making efforts to gain power over the entire Order. As a violator of the sacred law, he was imprisoned by opposing Carmelite monks in the Toledo’s monastery.

Nine months he had to survive in a small, dark, cold and damp monastery cell, fed with some bread and water. He was allowed to keep his Breviary, which he could read only at midday. Thrice a week he was beaten by friars. What could happen with a person who was tormented like he? However it may sound, John of the Cross began to compose mystic poems which fit in with the general literary tendency of the time surprisingly well. He had nothing to write them down on, so he just memorized them.

It is an interesting fact that all sources state that John of the Cross managed to escape from the monastery, but there is no clear information on how exactly he did it. Nonetheless, he found shelter in another Toledo’s monastery where nuns nursed him to health. They remembered that once John cried, saying that God had sent him too few challenges to let him cognize the final divine truth. Still, the difficulties of the imprisonment remarkably influenced his mental strengths: he survived, finding his comfort in his sincere faith and without blaming his offenders. Is it possible for a mere mortal?

After recovery and until his natural death in 1591, John of the Cross continued his reforming activity, wrote the poems as well as several prose comments on them, and established new monasteries.

Contribution to Spanish Literature

Old Books

Indeed, it is said that most of his mystic poems John composed while he was imprisoned. What could he think of? Pain, sufferings, disappointment and defeat? No! This man thought of those things which helped him deal or even fight with the ones just listed: love, truth, knowledge and faith. All his poems seem to be pervaded with tender light and immortal hope. A legend says that his monastery cell, though dark and dirty it was as he was locked there, was also shining when local friars discovered his escape.

Noche Obscura del Alma (The Dark Night of the Soul)

In his poem John ponders that a human soul has to live through the night of purification before it can unite with and become the divine light. Probably, his night is the metaphor for all human life on the Earth during which each person is given challenges which should finally help it comprehend and merge with its true divine nature.

Cantico Espiritual (The Spiritual Canticle)

It tells the story of the virgin bride (the allegory for human Soul) that is searching for the bridegroom (that is for Christ). When reunited, both are filled with heavenly joy. This work is believed to be one of the masterpieces of Spanish poetry due to its lavish symbolism and original interconnection of images. The poem might explain the nature and purpose of love.

Post Scriptum

Saint John of the Cross was never accused of heresy. His high ideas and ideals were protected by influential people, and he himself was respected by many. So, why were his reforms not accepted actually? There definitely had to be a reason. Whether he knew it or not, still he was a great and unique man of big and brave heart which he readily gave to others.

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