|'Dark Night' Becomes 'True Light'
We celebrate the liturgical memorial of St. John of the Cross on 14
December. His father, Gonzalo de Yepes, who came from Toledo, Spain, was a
wealthy and noble silk merchant. On one of his journeys he met Catalina
Alvarez, a silk weaver, who was a poor orphan. He married her against the
will of his well-to-do parents, who promptly disowned him.
Three children were born in the small, humble dwelling at Fontiveros,
little more than a hut: the last one, born in 1542, was John.
John's parents truly loved each other; however, when John was only 2
years old, his father died, and the family lived in dire poverty. His
mother, with her three children, went in search of help, moving from one
village to another.
John was sent to a boarding school for orphans in Medina del Campo,
where he studied and earned his keep as a hospital orderly. He accepted
anything that came his way and offered everything up for the love of Jesus
Crucified, the only joy of his youth.
Thirsting for God
At age 21, his heart already consumed by a burning passion for God, the
young man felt called to become a Carmelite and a priest. "If you want to
reach your destination", the Carmelites taught him, "not only must you
avoid what is forbidden, but also all that stands in the way of a more
He was sent to the University of Salamanca to study philosophy and
theology. Studying interested him greatly, and he refined himself through
prayer. Whether in the church or in his small cell where a tiny window
onto the church gave him a glimpse of the altar, John would lie prostrate
for hours and hours, adoring the Eucharistic Jesus in the Tabernacle.
Yet the life he was leading did not quite satisfy him.
In 1567, he met Teresa of Avila, who had already started her reform of
Carmel. She eagerly desired to extend it to the Order's male branch, thus
combining contemplation and mission in the friar's life.
She won John over and he agreed to share her ideal. In 1567, he was
ordained a priest, while Teresa hunted for a small house for the reformed
She found one in the remote country village of Duruelo. It was a small
friary with a raised choir, bordered by tiny cells, with a chapel under
the portico and premises for a kitchen and refectory.
There, with a few friends, John of the Cross (this was now his name)
began the severe and demanding life of the "Discalced" Carmelites, making
prayer his priority and going about the small towns to preach and hear
confessions of peasants who had no religious guidance. He was filled with
God and his life was steeped in truth and charity.
Life as a love story
In 1572, John was living in Avila, the place where Teresa was a
prioress of a large convent in which she was attempting to implement her
"reform" by living the Carmelite life in the light and strength of its
Primitive Rule. As spiritual director, he helped her with the nun's
formation. This work of the reformer saints, however, was viewed by some
as an attempt at rebellion within the Order.
Consequently, John was imprisoned in Toledo. To obtain his release,
Teresa wrote forceful words to the King of Spain, Philip II. John lived
his imprisonment in an ever more intense union with Jesus, enlightened by
a unique light that he expressed in fervent, luminous poems on love for
"He composes for them from memory and creates an incredible world of
images, symbols and sentiments where beauty becomes the cry of the soul
that seeks Christ, just as the bride seeks the Bridegroom and becomes an
inexorable attraction of God who seeks his creature in Jesus" (A.M. Sicari).
Thus, John of the Cross wrote long romances in which life and history,
according to divine Revelation, are seen as a nuptial celebration, a love
story between the soul and its God, between God and humanity, in the image
of the Song of Songs.
After nine months in prison, the day after the Feast of the Assumption,
John managed to escape, seeking refuge in the Carmelite convents in
Toledo, then in Beaza.
He was painfully thin, emaciated as a corpse, and unable to speak after
the intense suffering he had experienced. He responded with tears to the
nuns who sought to comfort him, explaining that he wept "in seeing that
God was now sending him little sufferings, so that he might truly savour
the love of God!".
He had but 14 years to live and he lived them truly aflame: he was
superior of convents born from the Teresian "reform", esteemed and
beloved, sometimes set aside but more generally sought above all by those
who asked him to lead them to the peaks in their ascent to God. He also
became a spiritual director beyond compare.
He lived as one with Jesus in the mystery of his sacrifice on the
Cross, in adoration of God and in expiation for human sin, what he called
"the absolute religion". He was crucified with Jesus in special joy, a
prelude to the resurrection and life. Convents founded by Teresa were
clamouring for him as their guide.
Jesus, Jesus alone!
For this very reason, he took up and developed in a commentary the
light that he had received in the dark night of prison, utilizing the
knowledge he had learned in theology and which God himself had granted to
He then wrote his ascetic treatises: The Ascent of Mount Carmel
— The Dark Night, The
Spiritual Canticle, The Living Flame of Love. He also wrote
marvelous letters of spiritual direction and poetry of extraordinary
beauty and fullness.
He is the "mystical Doctor" whose writings are the most exalted of all
the authors of Spanish literature and of the whole world. It is truly
impossible for one to sum them up. They must be read, contemplated and
lived in life, inspired by God's grace.
His life and writings demonstrate that Jesus Christ is everything for
St. John of the Cross, for as the heavenly Father says to him: "If I have
told you the whole Truth in my Son and have nothing more to show you, how
can I have anything else to reveal to you? Fix your gaze on Jesus alone,
through whom I have related and revealed to you all things; in him you
will find even more than you can ask or desire".
At age 49, having fully identified with Jesus on the Cross and been
transformed through pure love, he went to meet his God in the night of 14
December 1591, kissing the crucifix and saying to the Lord: "into your
hands I commend my spirit".