THE FORMATIVE YEARS OF ST. JOHN
by Father Reginald McSweeney, OCD
I. FONTIVEROS (1542)
When Saint Teresa died in 1582 there were thirty monasteries and convents of Discalced Carmelites in Spain with more than 300 friars and 200 nuns. She left them a rich legacy of spiritual teaching in her writings.
Next in importance to her in the history of the Discalced Carmelites is Saint John of the Cross - saint, poet, writer, Doctor of the Church. He was born in Fontiveros in 1542. His father was Gonzalo de Yepes of Toledo and his mother was Catalina Alvarez, a native of Toledo but living in Fontiveros.
Gonzalo de Yepes was the son of noble parents. His ancestors were illustrious in science and military skill. The town of Yepes, eighteen miles east of Toledo, was named after the family. Both parents died when Gonzalo was still quite young. His uncles, prosperous silk merchants in Toledo, adopted him. He eventually became their sales representative. He was an expert at writing contracts and good at keeping accounts.
As a salesman he had to attend various fairs. At that time the most notable fair in Spain, and even in Europe, was that of Medina del Campo. On his way there from Toledo, Gonzalo would sometimes stop in Fontiveros and stay in the house of a widow who used to do business with the Yepes family. She was a weaver and had often gone to Toledo to purchase material. During one of those trips she became acquainted with Catalina Alvarez, who was an orphan. She brought her to her home in Fontiveros and taught her how to weave. Catalina was a very beautiful girl and very soon Gonzalo fell in love with her. The feeling was mutual, so they decided to get married. The widow cautioned Gonzalo, warning him that his family would not countenance a marriage to a penniless orphan, no matter how beautiful she was. He ignored her advice and the couple were married in Fontiveros in 1529.
As soon as word reached his uncles in Toledo, they disowned him and would have nothing further to do with him. The widow allowed the couple to stay in her house.
The skills that Gonzalo had acquired were of little use to him in Fontiveros. To help make ends meet he had to learn the art of weaving. Their first child, Francisco, was born in 1530. We have no date for the birth of Luis, their second child. John, their third child, was born in 1542.
Soon after John's birth Gonzalo fell ill. Two years later he died, leaving Catalina with three young boys to care for, one of them still a baby. It was a time of great scarcity in Castile. Bread, we are told, was not available for its weight in gold. Friends advised Catalina to go to Toledo and ask the Yepes family for help. It was 15 years since the marriage and, hopefully, the bitterness and anger would have evaporated by then.
Catalina set out with her three sons on the long and difficult journey. Francisco was 14 years old and able to help her carry the two-year-old John. The distance she had to travel was 90 miles. She had to cross a range of mountains, the Sierra del Gredo. They had to beg for food and find shelter wherever they could. Her plan was simple. She would first visit Torrijos, a little town northwest of Toledo. Her brother-in-law, an arch priest, lived there and was quite well-to-do. As a priest, he would surely show some compassion to her. To her dismay, he slammed the door in her face.
Her next stop was Glavez, 18 miles south of Torrijos. A second brother-in-law, a doctor, lived there. This man received her kindly. He agreed to take Francisco off her hands. He promised to educate him and, since he was childless, make him his heir. Encouraged by this promise, Catalina rested for a few days and then trudged the 90 miles back to Fontiveros.
For 12 months Catalina had no news of Francisco and her maternal instinct told her something was wrong. On an impulse, she went all the way to Galvez and arrived unannounced on the doctor's doorstep. To her consternation she found that her son had not been sent to school and the doctor's wife had treated him like a servant and had made life miserable for him. The doctor was totally unaware of all this. He promised to remedy the situation but Catalina refused to listen to him. A happy Francisco went back to Fontiveros with her.
When she sent Francisco to school in Fontiveros, he showed very little aptitude or inclination for study. Finally she taught him how to weave. He remained in this trade for the rest of his life.
Two events that touched the lives of the Yepes family occurred at this time. One was the death of Luis, most likely from malnutrition. He was buried next to his father in Fontiveros.
The other event concerned John. He and some companions were playing on the edge of a muddy pond. They were throwing sticks or straws perpendicularly into the water and grabbing them when they surfaced. John over-reached and sank, head first, to the muddy bottom. He came to the surface and sank again. As he was about to drown, he saw a beautiful lady. She reached out her hands to him but his own were so muddy that he was reluctant to grasp hers. At that point, a farmer, who was alerted by the other boys, arrived and pulled him out of the water. We know that this episode is historically true. John himself narrated it to Martin of the Assumption. Shortly before his death, he also mentioned it to Luis of San Angelo when they were traveling together in Andalusia. They passed near a muddy pond and it reminded him of the incident in Fontiveros. There was no doubt in his mind about the identity of the beautiful lady. She was the Blessed Virgin.
II. AREVALO (1548)
Seeing no future for the family in Fontiveros, Catalina decided to move to the larger town of Arevalo, 18 miles northeast of Fontiveros. She left behind treasured memories of twenty years and said good-bye to the grave of her husband and son.
In Arevalo, she and Francisco worked for a daily wage. Francisco was now in his late teens. He was handsome, affable and popular with the boys. He danced well and could play an instrument. This led to late nights. He and his companions would rob orchards and engage in other youthful pranks. There were nights when he did not come home and would sleep in the church with the sacristan. We can imagine the anxiety and worry he must have caused his mother.
All that changed when he began to confess to one of the priests in Arevalo. Father Carrillo showed him the error of his ways and there was a complete transformation. He began to pray frequently. In bad weather he would go in search of the homeless and bring them to his house, where he and his mother cared for them. He married Ana Izquierda and became the father of eight children; seven boys and one girl. The seven boys died in infancy. The girl became a Cistercian nun in Olmedo.
For three years John lived with his family in Arevalo. He had a loving mother, a dear brother and sister-in-law, but not much else. The economic situation had not improved. Catalina decided to move again, this time to Medina del Campo.
III. MEDINA DEL CAMPO (1551)
Medina del Campo was a town of 30,000 inhabitants. By 1551 it had become the most important business center in Castile. It was situated between several great cities - Salamanca to the west, Segovia to the east, Madrid, Avila and Toledo to the south, Valladoid and Burgos to the north. It was a proud city. Its coat of arms stated: no office for the king, no benefits for the pope. It was a prosperous city, owning large tracts of agricultural and forest land.
However, it depended for the most part on its fairs. It had the most successful fairs in Europe. Four times a year, huge crowds flocked there. Merchants came from Genoa, Belgium, Holland, England, Portugal and other European countries. Merchandise was imported from as far away as Morocco, Syria, the Far East and the Americas.
The highlight of the fair was the bullfight, Saint Teresa tells us that when she and her nuns entered Medina on the Vigil of the Assumption they had to contend with the running of the bulls for the corrida the following day.
Francisco testified that when the family was making its way to Medina they had a hair-raising experience. As they were passing by a river, a huge fish, bigger than a whale, came out of the water and threatened to devour John. He recommended himself to God and made the sign of the Cross, at which the fish disappeared.
The house that Catalina occupied in Medina del Campo was near the house where Saint Teresa and her nuns settled in 1567. Years later it was deeded to the Carmelite Fathers, who built a monastery there.
Finding it difficult to make ends meet, Catalina decided to place John in the Colegio de los Ninos, an orphanage in which the children of the poor were fed and clothed and given an elementary education. As well as studying to read and write, the children were also taught a trade, according to their aptitude. The orphanage did not have the facilities for teaching trades, so the boys were sent out to the shops and stores where they could work as apprentices. John tried his hand at carpentry, tailoring, carving and painting. He never achieved excellence in any of these skills, but he was able to put them to good use later.
The orphanage had an obligation to send boys to the convent of the Magdalena to serve masses and clean the church. Four boys were designated and the times established. In the mornings they worked for four hours and were on call in the afternoon. They received no payment. John was one of the those designated for the work and he excelled at it, a fact that was very quickly noted by the nuns.
It was during his stay at the orphanage that John experienced the help of Our Lady in a life-threatening situation. He and some other boys were standing near a deep well in the courtyard of the orphanage. The wall around the well was quite low. One of the boys accidentally pushed John and he fell headlong into the well. He came to the surface and sank three times. The boys screamed for help. All thought he would drown because the well was very deep. When they looked down they saw him floating on the surface. He asked them to throw him a rope, which he places under his armpits and was pulled to safety. Years later he told several of the Carmelite friars in Andalusia that Our Lady had rescued him from drowning. Fr. Innocent of St. Andrew and Fr. Martin of the Assumption testified to this, as did several Carmelite nuns in whom the saint had confided.
When he was 17, John was invited to transfer from the orphanage to the Plague Hospital de la Concepcion. His benefactor was Don Alonso Alvarez, the hospital administrator. His motives were not purely philanthropical. He had noticed John's dedication to his work at the convent of La Magdalena and was hoping that he might become a priest and act as chaplain to the hospital. So, when John transferred to the hospital he was given three assignments: to help the sick, collect alms for the hospital, and study at the Jesuit College.
The Jesuit school had opened in Medina de Campo in 1551, the year the Yepes family arrived in the city. In a few short years it had gained the reputation of maintaining a standard as high as that of the best universities in Spain. Students were able to read classical authors such as Valerio Maximus, Suetonius and Pliny. They were asked to translate excerpts from the Breviary, ecclesiastical hymns, the Letter of Saint Jerome and, in later times, excerpts from the Council of Trent. John studied Greek, Latin, and rhetoric and became adept in all subjects. Being exposed to these classical writings prepared him to write his own classical works later.
As well as forming their students intellectually, the Jesuits inculcated a high moral standard. A Jesuit historian gives us the following information about the Medina del Campo school. "Eighteen have entered Religious Orders. Four have gone to the Dominicans, three to the Carmelites and one to the Franciscans. Their superiors are so pleased with them, seeing how well instructed they were in Letters and virtue, that one of them said to his fellow religious: Fathers, let us stop teaching Theology and preaching and let us teach Grammar instead. By starting with the basics, as the Jesuits do, we will get far better results." A master of novices, who was asked by one of the Jesuits how their former students were doing, said that they were so well grounded in virtue that all he had to do was make sure they did not lose what they already had.
One of the professors, Fr. Juan Bonifacio, had such a strong influence on his students that, over the years, 1,200 of them entered Religious Orders.
While John was at the orphanage and the Plague Hospital, what was happening in the life of his mother and brother? They lived the life of the poor, struggling from day-to-day to make ends meet. They and Anna Izquierda continued weaving. They also found time for prayer and works of charity. Father Christopher Caro, a Jesuit, was the confessor of Francisco. Later, when he heard them praising the heroic virtues of John of the Cross, he would say: "Francisco de Yepes is a saint like his brother."
Knowing that the family income from weaving was so meager, friends advised Francisco to take a job as a domestic with a rich mother and daughter. Part of his duty was to accompany them to receptions. This meant that he had to dress well and wear a sword. He did not hold the job very long. One day he spent too much time visiting churches and arrived late at the house of the ladies. They fired him.
From that time on he dedicated himself completely to works of charity. His special concern was abandoned babies. Possibly because of the influx of visitors to the fairs in Medina, a lot of unwanted babies were left at the doors of churches. Francisco would collect them and try to find a home for them. His first concern was to have them baptized. In the records of the parishes of St. James and St. Martin we find his name and that of his mother Catalina, entered as godparents time and time again. Here are a few such entries. "I baptized Maria, parents unknown. The godfather was Francisco de Yepes and the godmother Catalina Alvarez. In witness thereof I sign my name: Vincent Lobatol." "Today, Sunday, December 23, 1565, John de Flores, priest of St. Martin, baptized Maria, the daughter of Francisco Hernandez and his wife Anne. The godfather was Francisco Santos and the godmother Catalina Alvarez."
One day Catalina found a little baby, abandoned at the door of a church. Without hesitation, she brought it home and cared for it until it died. Another time, Francisco found a sick man lying in the street. He put him on his shoulder and brought him to the hospital, probably the same hospital where his brother John was working.
V. CARMELITE NOVICE AND STUDENT (1563-1568)
When he completed his studies at the Jesuit school, John de Yepes had several options. Don Alonso Alvarez wanted him as chaplain at the hospital and several Religious Orders were interested in him. He quietly made up his mind to join the Carmelites. He was one of eight students from the Jesuit College who joined Religious Orders in 1563. Four joined the Dominicans, one the Franciscans and three the Carmelites. Without telling anybody about his intentions, John presented himself at the door of the Carmelite monastery of Santa Anna and asked the prior to receive him. He was given the name John of Saint Matthias. We know very little about his life as a novice, except that he was very fervent in serving mass and praying in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
John was the sixth novice to make profession at Santa Anna. The monastery had been founded just a few years previously. In 1563 the friars were living in a temporary house, adjacent to the church of Santa Anna. It took them several years to build the permanent monastery.
During his novitiate, he must have studied the history of the Carmelite Order and, in particular, the Rule of St. Albert. We know that, immediately after his profession, he got permission from his superiors to follow the Primitive Rule as approved by Innocent IV in 1247.
VI. SALAMANCA (1564-1568)
The Carmelites had a monastery in Salamanca since 1306. At the General Chapter of Venice in 1548 it was established as an inter provincial house of studies for the Spanish Provinces. The rules were strict. In 1564, the General Chapter ordained that the students in Salamanca could not leave the monastery except to go to class at the university. Then, they were to go two-by-two and wear the white mantle. Any student found breaking this rule was to be incarcerated for eight days. A second infringement merited three disciplines and a whole day on bread and water. A third offense was punished by expulsion.
John of St. Matthias went to Salamanca at the end of 1564. There were ten students from the various Spanish Provinces at the monastery. Seven thousand students were enrolled at the University. Most of the Religious Orders were represented: Dominicans, Franciscans, Augus-tinians, Benedictines, Mercedarians, Trinitarians, Theatines, Premonstratensians, Canons Regular and Carmelites. The Dominican students numbered only 200.
As well as studying at the university, the students had to attend class at the Carmelite monastery. John Baconthorpe (1348) and Michael of Bologna (1317) were two Carmelite theologians whose writings were used as texts. The General Chapter of Naples, held in 1510, ordained that the works of these two authors should be available in every conventual library. Of the two, John Baconthorpe, England, was born in 1290 and made his profession as a Carmelite in 1306. He studied in Paris and received his doctor's degree in 1323. He taught at Cambridge University.
We know a little about John's life as a student in Salamanca. He must have enjoyed a good reputation in his community because he was appointed Prefect of Students, an office given only to the most outstanding student. He lived in a small, dark cell with a little window facing onto the Sanctuary. He would spend long hours in prayer at that window. He led such an austere life that it was talked about back in Medina del Campo. His very presence made the other students feel guilty if they were talking or acting out of line. They would say: "Let us get our of here before that devil comes." They all knew that he fasted most of the year, did severe penances and spent a lot of time in prayer. His bed was a wooden chest without a mattress.
In February 1566, the Superior General of the Order, John Baptist Rossi, visited the house of studies in Salamanca. He had been to Seville and other monasteries in Andalusia and had referred to friars there as "unbridled horses" (cavalli sfrenati). What joy it would have given him if he could have foreseen the glory this young student would bring the Carmelite Order.
John of Saint Matthias was ordained to the priesthood in 1567 at the age of 25. The exact date of his ordination is not known. He and his classmate, Pedro de Orozco, came home to Medina to celebrate the First Mass. What a wonderful moment it must have been for his mother, Catalina, and his brother Francisco.
During the Mass he asked a special favor from God. It was that he would never offend Him by committing a mortal sin, and that he would be able to do penance throughout his life for all the sins he would have committed had not God preserved him. Years later, he confided to a nun that God had granted him this favor and that he was confirmed in grace at that First Mass.
It was during this visit to Medina del Campo that he met Saint Teresa, a meeting that radically changed the course of his life.
In conclusion, we would like to pay special tribute to the mother of Saint John of the Cross. Catalina Alvarez deserves the admiration of all. She had to cope with difficulties all her life, from the time she was an orphan in Toledo until she died in Medina del Campo in 1580. She experienced poverty and the daily grind of hard work. Four times in the course of her life she had to move from one location to another.
She was strong. A journey of 90 miles with three young boys, one of them just a baby, did not faze her in the least. Total rejection from a brother-in-law, who was a priest, did not discourage her.
She did not hesitate to move from one town to another when she thought it would improve the quality of life for her children. She was detached and humble enough to place her youngest son in an orphanage, knowing that it would give him a chance to get an education. The move set him on the road to a classical education in two of the best schools in Spain.
In spite of the hardship and poverty, she experienced one of the greatest joys a person can have, namely, the joy of being genuinely in love. Saint John of the Cross has been called the Doctor of Divine Love. He inherited his capacity to love from his parents, who got married because they were in love.
Her good nature shines through the baptismal registers of the churches in Medina del Campo. Whenever the priests needed a godmother, all they had to do was call Catalina Alvarez.
She had been residing in Medina del Campo for 16 years when Saint Teresa and the Carmelite nuns established their convent a block away from where she lived. We know that she visited them often. Saint Teresa talked with her frequently. In particularly difficult times, Saint Teresa ordered the Carmelite nuns in Medina to send her food.
When her son and Father Anthony Heredia established the first house of Discalced Friars in Duruelo, she and Ana Izquierdo would visit them from time to time and do the laundry or clean house.
When Catalina died of the terrible flu - the "catarro universal" - that almost took the life of Saint Teresa in 1580, she was buried in the Carmelite nuns chapel. She is surely one of the many uncanonized saints.
1. Please refer to the Rule of Life,
Foreword, para 11; Article 2, as pertinent to the
2. Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, ICS Publications.
3. Carmelite Studies VI: John of the Cross, ICS Publications.
4. St. John of the Cross, A Challenge for Us All, The proceedings of the 1990 San Diego Congress. Wenzel Press.
5. Video of St. John of the Cross, by Fr. Michael Buckley, OCD. Wenzel Press.
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