THE LIFE OF ST. JOHN
by Father Edward Leahy, OCD
I. THE EARLY YEARS
St. John of the Cross was born in Fontiveros in 1542. Neither the day or month of his birth is known to us, since the parish archives were destroyed by fire two years later. Tradition has placed the time as June 24, feast of St. John the Baptist. This approximation is explained by the given name of John. Fittingly so. Was he not the John the Baptist of a spiritual reform, he himself diminishing as the movement he initiated progressed, until he faded out of the scene like a light on a summer's evening? Fontiveros was no imperial city in the 16th century, nor is it one today: a dusty little town sitting in the Castilian plateau, its houses of stone and clay, with scarcely any industry. Walking its few streets gives one more than a hint of the Nazareth where Jesus lived.
Apart from an episode in which he nearly drowned in a muddy pool and from which he was rescued by "a very beautiful lady," we have no details of John's young life. No portents of greatness preceded his birth such as we read about in the lives of some great saints. But in the very straitened financial circumstances of a poor household John must have known little of the carefree joys of infancy and early youth. Having to struggle as a single parent after the early death of her husband, Gonzalo, Catalina, John's mother, was to experience deprivation and rejection as well as the loss of one of her three sons, probably as the result of malnutrition.
At the age of six we see John make the first of many moves he would be called to make for the remainder of his life. Arevelo, a town twenty miles or so to the northeast of Fontiveros, was to be Fray John's new home from 1548-51. It is the highest part of the central plateau. Did the family improve itself by the move? We know little of this period of John's life but we can be sure that hunger was no stranger in his home. The same economic difficulties that had been responsible for the exodus from Fontiveros forced Gonzalo's widow to move house once more to set out on her travels for a means of livelihood for herself and her family. John was now nine years old and as yet there is no record of his going to school.
It would appear that Catalina's next move to Medina del Campo had something better to offer. It is here she would spend the remainder of her life, being cared for in the end by her son Francisco and the Carmelite nuns of that town, who gave her burial in their own church.
In Medina del Campo while Catalina looked for work for herself and Francisco, John was placed in an orphanage called Colegio de los Niños de la Doctrina, close to his family home. It is the first evidence we have of his going to school. Grammar, the study of religion as well as a trade were useful challenges, proving him an apt student. In 1559 at the age of seventeen, John left the Colegio de los Niños and went to live in a nearby hospital called de la Concepcion where his duties were the care of the sick. He would also go begging alms to support that charitable institution. The experience of sickness and suffering at an early age was to make a lasting impression on the young man of seventeen. It would serve him well in the role God had destined for him.
II. CARMELITE AND PRIEST
Due perhaps to John's exemplary conduct as well as to the concern of the Augustinian nuns in whose chapel he served Mass, the administrator of the hospital allowed Fray John to enroll at the nearby college of the Jesuits. Here our young student made good use of his time and opportunities. Having brilliantly finished his studies in the human sciences in 1563 we find him on his way to the nearby Carmelite Monastery of Santa Ana asking to be admitted to the Order. We are told there was not the slightest hesitation on the Prior's part, Padre Ildefonso Ruiz, or on the part of the Fathers of the Council. He was taken forthwith to the chapter room, clothed in the dark brown habit and white mantle of the Carmelites and given the name of Fray Juan de Santo Matio. So a new chapter opens up for the newly clothed Carmelite novice, a life of religious dedication that twenty-eight years later would culminate in one of the most edifying death-scenes in the annals of holiness. John's spiritual journey at the end of his novitiate period 1564 would take him to the great center in intellectual life, the University of Salamanca. Here as a student of the Carmelite College of San Andrea he gave himself wholly to his scholastic studies at the renowned Dominican faculty of Santo Esteban.
At the beginning of summer 1567 John was ordained to the priesthood in Salamanca and returned to Medina del Campo to celebrate his first Mass in the oratory of Santa Ana. In September of that same year an event occurred that was to change the course of John's life and, to some extent, the life of the Carmelite Order as well. He was introduced for the first time to Mother Teresa of Jesus, a dynamic Discalced Carmelite nun who was in Medina del Campo for the founding of her second monastery of the Reform of the Carmelite nuns. The meeting took place in the parlor of the newly founded monastery. When their conversation concluded John was won over by Teresa's magnetic personality to work with her for the reform of his own Order rather than go over to the stricter order of the Carthusians as he had intended. This victory of Teresa set in motion an outline of the work that lay ahead.
III. BEGINNING THE REFORM
A year later when John had completed his studies we find him back again in Medina del Campo, plans already under way for the new venture. To acquaint himself with the new style of life of the Reform, Mother Teresa suggested that John should accompany her to the newly established monastery in Valladolid while waiting the requisite permission to begin his own work. Once there, Mother Teresa stitched the habit John was to wear as a Discalced reformed Carmelite. November 28, 1568 dawned on the little hamlet of Duruelo where a simple ceremony was taking place that marked the beginning of the Carmelite reform of the men. "We, Fray Antonio de Hereda, Fray Juan de Santo Matio and Fray Jose de Cristo begin this day, November 28, 1568, to live the primitive rule." Immediately Fray Juan de Santo changed his name to become John of the Cross. Simultaneously the Discalced way of life went into effect. Thus John of the Cross began a new chapter of his life that would take him far and wide through Spain and beyond for the next twenty-three years.
The first move necessitated by growing numbers and cramped space was made in the space of less than two years (1570), to Mancera de Abajo, a small place a few miles away. Only a few months later John's presence was required in another newly established monastery (1569) in Pastrana, some thirty miles away. He went there to curb the excessive rigors of the first untrained novice masters.
Much was happening in the growing ranks of the newly reformed Carmel, both men and women. Organization was necessary. In the university town of Alcalá de Henares, thirty-five miles to the east, a third foundation came into being in 1571 with John of the Cross appointed Rector of the College of St. Cyril. In the first months of 1572, whatever plans John had for his new appointment had to be set aside hastily. At the behest of Mother Teresa he was called to become confessor at the Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila where she had, by order of the apostolic visitor, been made Prioress the previous October. She needed the guiding hand of John to assist her efforts in calming 120 disgruntled women religious in that monastery. Here one is tempted to see the strong influence of Teresa over the infant Reform, men as well as women. John was needed to guide the new-born Reform, three years old, when he is taken out of it for all of seven years to fulfill what seemed a lesser assignment, the direction of one monastery of nuns. Thus Teresa and John lived in the same complex for more than two years, the longest time they had been in close proximity. It was here at the Incarnation on the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, 1573, that both saints went into ecstasy as they conversed in the monastery parlor. By the grill that overlooks the church in the year 1577 John had a vision of Christ Crucified. He made a pen and ink picture of that vision and gave it to one of the nuns. It became the inspiration of Salvador Dali's celebrated painting of Christ on the Cross.
On the night of December 2-3, 1577, John was taken prisoner by his Calced brothers because he refused to abandon or modify his decision for the Reform. His prison was a monastery cell in Toledo where 800 Carmelites lived; a very large number until one reflects that close to one quarter of the population of Spain at that time were in monasteries or religious institutions. In the darkness of his cramped cell, 3 by 1.8 meters, the mystical poet came alive in John's soul. His body was incarcerated but his soul experienced and entirely new sense of liberation. In August 1578, after almost nine months of confinement, John was able to escape from prison, using an ingenious method for the mystic that he was. Though weak and emaciated he was able to make his way to the Discalced Carmelite monastery were the nuns gave him shelter from his pursuers, his Calced brethren. The sisters received him warmly and listened to the lyric poetry, profound in content, he had composed during the dark days in his dungeon. Shortly after his recovery from his prison ordeal that same year, John was on his way to the Provincial Chapter at Almadover del Campo, October 8th. It was a turbulent assembly, convened against the wishes of the Nuncio, Msgr. Sega, who hurled a sentence of excommunication against all those who took part in the Chapter and put the Provincial in prison.
V. SUCCESS IN THE SOUTH OF SPAIN
After the Chapter another phase of John's life opened up unexpectedly. He was sent to the South of Spain, Andalusia, where the Carmelite Reform had already taken root. For all of the ten years of John's stay in Andalusia, 1578-88, we witness a period of much travel and intense literary activity. Most of his literary output comes from these years in Andalusia.
His first assignment was at the Monastery of El Calvario as Prior of about thirty friars, practicing a life of penance. Here John felt the attraction to poetry. He also undertook the spiritual care of the Carmelite nuns at Beas about seven miles away. Each Saturday he would make that journey and retrace his steps the following Monday. The time in Beas was spent confessing the nuns and giving spiritual direction. This was a Carmel specially loved by John. He knew each of the sisters and would give them notes and spiritual sayings suitable to the needs of each. It was here also that he made the well known sketch of the Mount of Perfection, the road to the summit of divine union. It would appear that the period of his stay at El Calverio, short though it was, marked an aspect of his life that was very rich and rewarding. June 1589 shows us John of the Cross on his way to Baeza, a university town in Andalusia, to become rector of the newly founded college of San Basilio for the cultural formation of the Andalusian Carmelite religious. His gifts and talents found an outlet among the professors and lecturers of this center, both as a director and confessor. In addition, this period was to mark the beginning of many journeys and many new assignments attendant on the fast growing reform of Carmel. When any new venture came up his name was inevitably mentioned as the person to take charge. And so, after almost three years as rector of Baeza, John is appointed Prior of the Monastery of Los Martyrs in Granada, in 1582. The picture we have of him at this point, a vital moment in the Constitution of the Teresian Reform when it became an autonomous province, is of someone caught up in many activities and much travel. For a good six years (1582-86), he was successively Prior of the monastery and Vicar Provincial of the newly constituted Province of Andalusia (1586-88). Those privileged by his ministrations at this time were the nuns of St. Joseph, Granada, a foundation in which he himself had taken an active part with Ana of Jesus, the Prioress. It was at this time that he wrote his commentary on the spiritual canticle which was addressed to the same Ana of Jesus. Also from his pen came the last of his great works, the Living Flame of Love which he wrote at the request of a devout woman benefactor, Ana de Peñalosa. Among the notable accomplishments of the Vicar Provincial worthy of recall are the foundations of Cordoba, Manchuela and Caravaca de la Cruz, all of which came into being in 1588. It was the most prolific period of John's ministry as well as a time of prodigious growth of the Reform, men and women.
VI. THE FINAL YEARS
The chapter which convened in Madrid, June 1588 was a decisive one in which the reformed Carmel became an autonomous Congregation. As might be expected, John of the Cross would become a key figure at this point. He was recalled to Castile after an absence of ten years to assume the government of the important Monastery of Segovia, which was to be the seat of the newly established governing body called the "Consulta." John also became a member of that governing body of six. He was now 46 years old, 20 of which had been passed as a member of the Reform he himself had set on foot. He had three more years to live. Helped in his new office of Prior by the generosity of Ana de Peñalosa, herself a native of Segovia, whose devotion was equal to her wealth, John was able to carry out his plans to reconstruct the monastery in a better location. Still to be seen are traces of John's administration, notably a piece of land dotted with caves, in one of which John would retire frequently for prayer, contemplating the panorama of natural beauty spread out before him. Here once again we find John engaged in his preferred apostolate, the direction of the Carmelite nuns, in Segovia, in the foundation of whose monastery he himself had an active part in 1574. We have no writings from this period but there is evidence of numerous other occupations, including helping the workmen with the construction of the church and monastery. John's gifts of administration were mobilized in the development of this Segovia foundation and the purchase of adjoining property. Still preserved in the monastery is a painting of Christ carrying the Cross. John confided to his brother Francisco that the suffering figure spoke to him, "Friar John, ask what you want for this service you have rendered me." To this offer John replied, "Lord, I ask to suffer much for you and to be held in contempt and thought of by men as nothing."
June 1591 a General Chapter was convened in Madrid. In his capacity as Definitor, John attended this assembly. His term of office had expired exactly as he himself had foreseen and for reasons of which he was well aware. We find John at the end of this Chapter for the first time the humble subject of the reform he had set on foot. He is on his way back to Andalusia, to La Penuela, located in a quiet backwater of the deserted Sierra Morena. Here he could settle down without the burden of responsibility, happy to be away from the turmoil of events and strife among his brethren. It was here he began to feel the first pangs of an illness from which he would not recover. It was also here that news reached him of a campaign of defamation being mounted against him that was intended to expel him from the Reform of which he was the father. Fray John's stay in La Penuela was short, for on the 29th of September of the same year, 1591, he went to Ubeda Carmel some forty miles away to seek a cure for a persistent ulceration of his right leg. It was to be John's last journey on this earth. As his suffering increased together with interior trial, always endured with edifying patience, on the night of December 13-14 we find the reformer of Carmel in the last moments of his life. As the Community bell was ringing the call for the night office of Matins, John announced: "Glory be to God, for I shall be saying Matins in Heaven." He put his lips to the Crucifix he was holding in his hands and said, "Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit," and fell asleep in the Lord. He was 49.
Almost two years after his death, in deference to an agreement between the Carmelite Order and John's penitent, Ana de Peñalosa, the body was exhumed and transferred to the Carmelite monastery in Segovia where a somewhat ostentatious monumental tomb was built, oddly contrasting with someone who always sought the lowest place. The transferal of John's holy body aroused the indignation of the people of Ubeda. They characterized it as robbery. To placate their anger, some relics of the saint were returned to the monastery where he died.
A superficial perusal of the life of Fray John of the Cross would incline one to see him almost continually lost in contemplation and doing heroic mortifications. As one gains a clearer knowledge of the man who was the real John, it becomes necessary to modify this impression drastically. There is an enormous amount of activity and movement from one place to another, one monastery to another, packed into his relatively short life, especially the 23 years as a Discalced Carmelite. Even today such movement would not be inconsiderable. A rough estimate would place the distance covered in his many journeys at more than 16,000 miles, with residence in thirteen different monasteries. It wouldn't surprise us that his last illness, erisiplas, and ulcerated leg had more than a casual relation with his many journeys and the roads of 16th-century Spain, much as the same ailment was many years later to hinder Junipero Serra, his fellow compatriot and apostle of California.
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.
BACK TO TOPICS