Saints for Today: John of the Cross, Mystic and Doctor of the Church (1542-1591)


Feast Day: December 14

He was born John de Yepes at Fontiveros, a town between Salamanca and Avila, Spain. His father, a nobleman by birth, had been disinherited for marrying a “common girl” and died several months after John’s birth, leaving the family in desperate straits. Nevertheless, growing up in poverty, John received an education and pursued his religious inclinations.

John entered the Carmelite Order in 1563, and after his novitiate was sent to Salamanca for further studies. When he returned to Medina del Campo for his first Mass, he considered withdrawing from the Carmelites to a Spartan Carthusian monastery, where he might pray more deeply. At Medina del Campo, he met St. Teresa of Avila, who convinced him to join her movement for the reform of the Carmelite friars and nuns. In 1568, taking the name of John of the Cross, he and four others opened the first men’s house of Discalced (barefooted) Carmelites at Duruelo in Spain.

John of the Cross threw himself wholeheartedly into the work of the reform, which eventually resulted in the separation of the Discalced Carmelites from the Calced Carmelites. He suffered persecution from the Calced Carmelites, even to the point of being kidnapped and held prisoner at an unreformed Carmelite monastery in Toledo. He was held there in penal confinement, treated brutally in starvation and torture. This lasted for nine months. Finally, at a point close to death, he managed to make a most miraculous escape by dark of night (an incident which supplied one of his potent metaphors for the spiritual life).

John’s writings are theologically substantial and that is why he is regarded not only as a mystic but also as a supreme Doctor of Mystical Theology. He held numerous important positions among the Discalced Carmelites and wrote major treatises and poems in mystical theology – “The Ascent of Mount Carmel,” the “Dark Night of the Soul,” “The Spiritual Canticle,” and “The Living Flame of Love.” He was one of Spain’s foremost poets, mystics, and mystical theologians. A man of very small physical stature, John, as poet and mystic, is among the giants. What was rare about him was the combination of deep poetic sensitivity and articulateness with the rigorous thought-training of Thomist philosophy and theology. His spiritual written works, stress the need for active asceticism as well as the far deeper purification of the soul by divine grace and by the unsought humiliations of external agents. Through a life of pure faith and love of God, the soul eventually attains the deepest mystical union.

Together with St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross is an outstanding teacher of the ascetical and mystical life. Like St. Francis of Assisi, this saintly Carmelite had a special love for the beauties of nature, since through them one could experience something of the beauty of God. The teaching of this mystical doctor has special significance for our sensate society in which it is so easy to become attached to pleasure and to created goods. The path of detachment and self-denial is still the path that leads to union with God.

Towards the end of his life, while praying before the crucifix at Segovia, a voice asked John what reward he wanted for his service for the Lord. John replied that he desired to endure suffering for the Lord and to be despised and counted as nothing. He died at Ubeda, as he had predicted, just as the friars were beginning their midnight Office prayers. He was beatified in 1675, canonized in 1726, and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1926.

“At the evening of life, you will be examined in love. Learn to love as God desired to be loved and abandon your own ways of acting.” – St. John of the Cross

Ellsberg, Robert. “All Saints.” New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2010.
Farmer, David. “Oxford Dictionary of Saints.” New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Ghezzi, Bert. “Voices of the Saints.” Chicago: Loyola Press, 2000.
Lodi, Enzo. “Saints of the Roman Calendar.” New York: Alba House, 1992.


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