Juan de Yepes y Álvarez was borned in Fontiveros (Ávila) in 1542 and died in Úbeda (Jaén) on 14th December 1591. He lived in a time period widely known as the Spanish Golden Age, which was a time of sharp contrasts. While Philip II held “the empire on which the sun never sets” (Spain, Portugal, German Empire, Netherlands, Naples, Milan, Philippines, America, and African Colonies), popular revolts shook the Peninsula. The people were against the Empire’s drain of both money and men. Especially in Castile, Aragon and the Levante, they protested against these imperial measures that —they said— only aimed to conquer the Americas, to fight France and England, and to contribute to the European wars of religion. Also while Cervantes and Lope de Vega were writing their major papers, most of the population was still illiterate. It was a time when amazing palaces, cathedrals and monasteries, all together with some of the most characteristic Renaissance works, coexisted with poor harvest, famine and epidemic that caused the death of the weakest.
St John of the Cross learned what misfortune was since he was a child. He witnessed his father and brother’s death —both caused by starvation. He had to emigrate, beg for money, and serve at a hospital of contagious patients. He even worked as an apprentice in several craft workshops. When he later assumed responsibility charges in the Carmelite Order, he would himself take care of the ill people, design the floors of monasteries, build partition walls, paint walls, grow vegetables in the garden, and do any other kind of handwork. That was a time when those activities were considered incompatible with the intellectual and governing occupations, for they were dishonourable. St John of the Cross voluntarily assumed the evangelic poorness as a way to express the renouncement and the detachment of material things. Nonetheless, he did not allow the friars to go beg for money in the street, and always did his best to meet his needs (food, clothing), especially for those who were ill.
St John of the Cross’ misfortunate condition paradoxically allowed him to start an intellectual training at a college for poor children in Medina del Campo. There he rapidly learned how to read and write. This allowed him to attend classes on Humanities (Grammar, Rhetoric, Philosophy) at a new Jesuit college in the city. His teachers were some of the first —and most prepared— colleagues of Ignatius of Loyola. They introduced him to the world of classic authors and contemporary Italian literature, as well as to poetry. He learned how to use language resources in order to transfer knowledge.
The “Hospital de la Concepción” administrator proposed him to be ordained to become a priest. It seems that the Jesuits wanted him in their order. But he was keener on a praying life so he chose the Carmelite Order, to which he got access under the name of John of St Matthias when he was 23. During the novitiate he received an intense spiritual training bound to approach him of the traditions and legislations of the Order of Our Lady, founded by a community of hermits on the isolated Mount Carmel. The first page of the Constitutions started with a question: “How can we answer when and how our Order was created?” And the answer was: “Witnessing the Truth of God, we say that since Elijah and Elisha, his disciple, who piously dwelled in the Mount Carmel, near Acre, a lot of saint Fathers, of the Ancient and the New Testament, esteemed living isolated in this same mountain to contemplate the celestial things… There they built an oratory in honour of the Mother of the Savior.” The Book of the First Monks was a compulsory reading task, which by that time was considered older than the Carmelite Rule of St Albert. The first one proposes “the end of our eremitical religious life”, this is “to offer God a pure and holy heart (…) and to see mystically in the heart something of the power of the divine presence and to taste the sweetness of heavenly glory.”
From 1564 to 1568 he was sent to the University of Salamanca —a splendorous university at the time. There it was possible to study Arts (Philosophy, Logic, Moral), Oriental Languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic), Theology, Law and Medicine. The best teachers of the century were there: Francisco de Vitoria, Luis de León, and Melchior Cano. St John of the Cross extended his studies every day at the monastery, for he was surrounded with the teachers of the Order. He soon came up to be an advantageous student, and he was even entitled prefect —he had to prepare disputes (public discussions about a given subject in which one had to defend his position against an opponent’s objections). By that time he suffered from a vocational crisis, which has not been uncommon in the Order for the last centuries. Whereas the Brothers have been prepared during the novitiate to have a life of praying and retirement, they must read and hear texts that make them think of the hermits of Mount Carmel. Yet the Carmel is a mendicant order, which is involved in the urban ministry. Fray John himself was always busy in activities for the common good, but which differed with his contemplative vocation. After reflecting on this, he decided to leave for the Charterhouse.
By then, he encountered Teresa of Ávila, who Felipe Sega described as “a restless disobedient and obstinate woman that devotedly make up bad doctrines against the Council of Trent and the prelates; that teaches against Saint Paul’s word on women teaching; and that walk out of the monastery”. St Teresa was already 52 years old and had already founded a monastery in Medina del Campo and another one in Ávila. St John of the Cross was only 25 years old, and was to celebrate his first mass in Salamanca. On one occasion when they were in the parlour, he told Teresa of Ávila his wish to go to the Charterhouse. She answered back: “Why do thou search outside what thou can find in your own Order?” And he invited him to join her for a foundation adventure; since then they got to be very close to each other. He agreed, provided they started right away. He changed his name for St John of the Cross, and became the first of the Discalced Carmelites.
He found the answer for his contemplative needs at the Discalced Carmel. He also could combine constant praying, handwork, simple brother life and an intense apostolic activity. This last one is nowadays called the spiritual and pastoral care, which consists of: preaching God’s Word; religious men and women training; spiritual management of clergymen and lay people; and prolific teaching writings of spiritual maxims (letters, commentaries on his poetry, etc). He walked through Spain and Portugal spreading his teaching practice, and bringing contemplation to life, and life to contemplation.
He was misunderstood, mistreated, persecuted, and imprisoned. However, you will not find any sign of bitterness or resentment in his writing legacy. He intimately got to know God, and then he found all he could ever wish. More than 400 years after his death, he is still a lighthouse that lights our way. I propose you read some lines of his writings: “You will not take from me, my God, what You once gave me in Your only son, Jesus Christ, in Whom You gave me all I desire. Hence I rejoice that if I wait for You, You will not delay. With what procrastinations do you wait, since from this very moment you can love God in your heart? Mine are the heavens and mine is the earth. Mine are the nations, the just are mine, and mine the sinners. The angels are mine, and the Mother of God, and all things are mine; and God Himself is mine and for me, because Christ is mine and all for me. What do you ask, then, and seek, my soul? Yours is all of this, and all is for you. Do not engage yourself in something less, nor pay heed to the crumbs which fall from your Father’s table. Go forth and exult in your Glory! Hide yourself in It and rejoice, and you will obtain the supplications of your heart.”
(Father Eduardo Sanz, O.C.D.)