St John of the Cross

St John of the Cross

Saint John of the Cross (original name of Juan de Yepes y Álvarez)(1542-1591) was a Spanish Catholic mystic. He belonged to the Carmelite order. He is one of the Doctors of the Church. And He is a patron saint of mystics and contemplatives and of Spanish poets.

Born in Spain in 1542, John learned the importance of self-sacrificing love from his parents. His father gave up wealth, status, and comfort when he married a weaver’s daughter and was disowned by his noble family. After his father died, his mother kept the destitute family together as they wandered homeless in search of work. These were the examples of sacrifice that John followed with his own great love — God.

When the family finally found work, John still went hungry in the middle of the wealthiest city in Spain. At fourteen, John took a job caring for hospital patients who suffered from incurable diseases and madness. It was out of this poverty and suffering, that John learned to search for beauty and happiness not in the world, but in God.

After John joined the Carmelite order, Saint Teresa of Avila asked him to help her reform movement. John supported her belief that the order should return to its life of prayer. But many Carmelites felt threatened by this reform, and some members of John’s own order kidnapped him. He was locked in a cell six feet by ten feet and beaten three times a week by the monks. There was only one tiny window high up near the ceiling. Yet in that unbearable dark, cold, and desolation, his love and faith were like fire and light. He had nothing left but God — and God brought John his greatest joys in that tiny cell.

After nine months, John escaped by unscrewing the lock on his door and creeping past the guard. Taking only the mystical poetry he had written in his cell, he climbed out a window using a rope made of strips of blankets. With no idea where he was, he followed a dog to civilization. He hid from pursuers in a convent infirmary where he read his poetry to the nuns. From then on his life was devoted to sharing and explaining his experience of God’s love.

His life of poverty and persecution could have produced a bitter cynic. Instead it gave birth to a compassionate mystic, who lived by the beliefs that “Who has ever seen people persuaded to love God by harshness?” and “Where there is no love, put love — and you will find love.”


John of the Cross is most identified with the phrase dark night of the soul, but in fact he never uses the term. John does speak of the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the spirit in his treatise titled simply The Dark Night. But he is centrally concerned not to identify those purifying processes with what we would call clinical depression (or what he would have called melancholy, which he does discuss and carefully distinguishes from the dark night) or world-weariness or monastic acedia (spiritual torpor). Nor is it true that John was a reclusive hermit with little experience of the world. His biographers have estimated that after his ordination, he travelled nearly 18,000 miles all over Spain, mainly on foot.

Known as the Doctor of Mystical Theology, John was a mystic, theologian, and poet who composed a rich body of works that found their deepest expres­sion in mystical treatises in the form of poems with theological commentaries. These renowned poems include the Spiritual Canticle, the Ascent of Mount Carmel, the Living Flame of Love, and the Dark Night of the Soul. Through these, John presented the development of the human soul through purgation, illumination, and transforming union. Finally, he is not, despite the best efforts of some, to be classified with those mystics who are closer to Buddhism than to Christianity; in fact, his spiritual doctrine is both profoundly Christological and Trinitarian. It is merely a cliché to call him simply a mystic of the night, an apophatic mystic, since his final work ends in light, as is clear from its title, The Living Flame of Love.

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St John of the Cross