St. John of the Cross (1542-1591)

June 24, 1542–Born


Baptismal Fount

Juan de Yepes y Álvarez was born into a Jewish converso family in Fontiveros, near Avila a town of around 2,000 people. He was born in 1542, but whether it was in June or December is still debated. The inscription placed at a later date in the baptistery of the parish church favors the tradition of June 24: “At this fount was baptised the mystical doctor St. John of the Cross, the first Discalced Carmelite, the shining light and honor of this most illustrious town of  Fontiveros of which he was a native. He died December 14, 1591. This marker was set in place in 1680 during the pastorate of Joseph Velado”. God Speaks in the Night—-The Life, Times, and Teaching of St. John of the Cross, Federico Ruiz

1545–Father Dies

When John was three, his father, Gonzala de Yepes died leaving his mother, Catalina Alvarez, a poor weaver, and his two brothers, Francisco and Luis.

Francisco relates,

“Our Lord tried father with an illness lasting two years in which he showed through his patience how united he was to God’s will…the expenses occasioned by Gonzalo’s long illness came in those years called ‘the barren years. One could not find bread or food for nay amount. And when one found some barley bread one considered oneself lucky.”  

Our Lady‘s Protection

Lady-Protection-Boston-Carmel_079bDuring the years 1551-1558   while attending catechism school and acting as an acolyte, assisting with sacristan work, at La Magdalena, a nearby monastery of Augustinian nuns, Juan, while playing with companions, fell into a well. He was pushed. He went under sinking to the bottom several times. His friends fled in fear. When adults came on the scene John said, “I didn’t drown. Our Lady protected me. Throw me a rope. I’ll tie it to myself and you can pull me out.” -God Speaks in the Night—-The Life, Times, and Teaching of St. John of the Cross, Federico Ruiz

1551-58 Compassion for the Sick

 Don Alonzo Alvarez, administrator of the hospital in Medina took an interest in John and enlisted his services as nurse and alms-collector for poor people with the plague or other contagious diseases.  His brother Francisco also helped.

“Francisco brought poor people who were sick to the hospital where his brother was caring for them. In this case the sick person passed from Francisco’s hands to Juan’s. They were hands caressing the needy, belonging to the both brothers, brothers poor and orphaned from childhood, knowing the taste of hunger, tears and abandonment; hands overflowing with the affection and attention that others had denied these brothers from their childhood.” –God Speaks in the Night—-The Life, Times, and Teaching of St. John of the Cross, Federico Ruiz

1559-63 Studies Humanities and Philosophy, Latin and Greek with the Jesuits

Still caring for the sick, Don Alonzo “granted him permission to audit classes” at Medina del Campo, then, later enrolled him.

Study during the day was limited so he studied at night…his mother told how in going to look for him in the middle of the night, she found him studying in the haystacks.- God Speaks in the Night—-The Life, Times, and Teaching of St. John of the Cross, Federico Ruiz

1563 Brother John of St. Matthias

Boston Carmel_082At age 21, Juan enters Carmelite novitiate at Santa Ana in Medina.

His brother Francisco relates, “Some monasteries wanted him to join them. (He was) esteemed  and loved by many people on account of his virtue and good character. He set his eyes on the order of Carmel -enkindled daily with a more ardent love for the Virgin Mary, Mother of God.”  Later, in the midst of community life, John always stood out. He dedicated long hours to prayer.  His penances caught the attention of others- a bed of boards, a block of wood for a pillow, frequent fasts and disciplines. –God Speaks in the Night—-The Life, Times, and Teaching of St. John of the Cross, Federico Ruiz

1564-1568 Attends University of Salamanca

John, a Carmelite Novice, was known as “remarkable” for his “outstanding talent” and was appointed prefect of studies while still a student. With this office went the obligation to teach class daily, defend public theses and resolve objections that were raised.  

1567 Ordination

Years later Ana Maria de Jesus, a nun in Avila asked him what he asked of the Lord at his first Mass.

“I besought His Majesty to grant me the grace never to offend him through mortal sin and that I might suffer in this life the penance due all the sins that, as a weak man, I might have committed had His Divine Majesty not held me in his hand!”

“And I asked him if he believed that God had heard his prayer; and he answered that he believed it just as he believed he was a Christian, and he was certain God would answer it completely.” –God Speaks in the Night—-The Life, Times, and Teaching of St. John of the Cross, Federico Ruiz

October 1567 First Meeting with St. Teresa

Still at Salamanca, the quest for titles, chairs, promotions and awards were of no interest for him. He was in search for a pure contemplative life….with the Carthusians.

Having been told of John’s exceptional qualities St. Teresa arranged a meeting with him. She was 52 at the time; he was 25.

When I spoke with this friar he pleased me very much. I learned from him how he also wanted to go to the Carthusians. Telling him what I was attempting to do, I begged him to wait until the Lord would give us a monastery and pointed out the great good that would be accomplished if in his desire to improve he were to remain in his own order and that much greater service would be rendered to the Lord. He promised me he would remain as long as he wouldn’t have to wait long.” –The Foundations

October 1568 Dureulo- First Foundation of Discalced Carmelite Friars

Boston Carmel_085 St. Teresa relates,

“I  was amazed at the spirit which God had infused into the place. Two merchants who had traveled with me did nothing but weep. There were so many crosses! So many skulls I shall never forget a little wooden cross above the holy-water stoup. His picture representing Christ which was glued to it, though only of paper, inspired one with more devotion than if it had been an exquisite carving…On either side of the chapel Fray Antonia and Fray John had erected two hermitages so small that they could only sit or lie prostrate there: they had filled the hermitages with hay, for it was Very cold and the roof was almost touching their heads; through two garret windows they could see the altar; they had stone for pillow, their crosses and their skulls. I learned that after Matins until Prime , instead of going to rest they remained there so absorbed in prayer that  they sometimes came into the chapel for Prime with their habits covered with snow, without  noticing it.”-The  Foundations


Jeronima de San Jose  an early biographer.

“The venerable Father was between small and medium in height, well proportioned in body, although thin from the rigorous penance he performed. His face was of a brownish color, somewhat gaunt, more rounded than long; he was bald with a little hair in front. The forehead was broad; the eyes, black with a gentle gaze. The eyebrows were clearly formed . The mouth and lips, with all the rest of the face and body wee well proportioned. He allowed his beard to grow slightly so that with his short habit of coarse wool he seemed more venerable and edifying.”

Maria de San Pedro, a nun at Beas

”I have often reflected that even though the the said fray John was not handsome, but small and subdued and without what in the world attracts the eyes, there nevertheless shown-or I saw- something of God in him that drew one’s gaze and also one’s desire to listen to him. And when one looked at him, it seemed one saw a majesty surpassing anything.”

An Artist

One day during the years when John was chaplain at the monastery of the Incarnation in Avila, between 1574-1577, he was praying in the loft overlooking the sanctuary. Suddenly he received a vision. Taking paper and pen he sketched on a small piece of paper what he had beheld. The sketch is of Christ Crucified, hanging in space, turned toward his people, and seen by a new perspective.  This image inspired Salvator’s Dali’s painting “The Christ of St. John of the Cross.”


Known as "The Quiet Steel File" and "The Submissive Rebel"

Boston Carmel_084In the summer of 1577, the Carmelite Friars charged  John to abandon the Teresian reform and return to his former way of life…if he didn’t he would be severely punished. The calced friars who judged him noticed an anomaly in his attitude:He was firm and yet gentle. They bribed him to which he responded, “He who seeks the naked Christ has no need for jewels of gold.”-  God Speaks in the Night—-The Life, Times, and Teaching of St. John of the Cross, Federico Ruiz

The Monastery Prison at Toledo

On December 2, 1577, a group of Carmelites, lay people and men-at-arms seized John and handcuffed and blindfolded, took him to the monastery prison in Toledo.

The room was six feet wide and ten feet long without air or light except for whatever filtered through a small slit high up in the wall.  In the midst of deprivation for the next eight months John sought relief by composing poetry in his mind.  Among them a major portion of The Spiritual Canticle. He escaped miraculously in August and found refuge in the monastery of nuns in Toledo.  –The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, Otilio Rodriguez OCD ICS Publications

Spiritual Director and Founder

In the years after his escape John took up the ministry of spiritual direction of the friars and nuns. In 1585 he was elected vicar provincial of  Andalusia and during this time founded seven new monasteries of friars.

 “It pleased him to place a rose or a carnation before the Blessed Sacrament,”  said the Sacristan at Granada. “Whenever he could he decorated the church himself, prepared the shrines, verses, and hymns for the celebration of the Lord’s mysteries…In Granada and Segovia, he took great care about the architecture of his monasteries. . He so combined stone solidity with architectural elegance  and the beauty of light…that it seemed always new.”  –  God Speaks in the Night—- The Life, Times, and Teaching of St. John of the Cross Federico Ruiz

Recognized as one of the greatest Spanish Poets

Boston Carmel_094

The Spiritual Canticle

“In his travels along the roads, he sang many hymns to our Lord, psalms from David, and verses from the Song of Songs,” according to testimony from his companions. The stanzas of his poems were authentic canticles, songs of joy, hope, pain and, above all, love and praise. His first disciples read and sang them. St. Teresa herself got to know the The Spiritual Canticle and sang it with delight. She taught her nuns a melody for it, so that they would frequently sing it in community. –God Speaks in the Night—-The Life, Times, and Teaching of St. John of the Cross, Federico Ruiz

A Writer in Granada

His Commentaries  were written ‘little by little” and “ with many interruptions.”

Carmelite Juan Evangelista, his secretary, confessor and friend, helped him with the transcription of his books.

“I saw him writing all of them, because I was the one always at this side. He wrote The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night in this house in Granada, little by little for he wrote with many interruptions. He wrote The Living Flame of Love also in this house, while he was provincial. He wrote it in 15 days.” –God Speaks in the Night—-The Life, Times, and Teaching of St. John of the Cross, Federico Ruiz

A Tireless Traveler

Youth 450 miles
Discalced Carnmelite (1569-1578)  2,018 miles
Superior in Calvario and Baeza (1578-1582) 4,185 miles
In Granada (1582-1588) 8,595 miles
Segovia and final years  (1588-1591) 564 miles

The total is 15,812 plus all his daily masses and other trips………Total Estimate 17,000 miles- God Speaks in the Night—-The Life, Times, and Teaching of St. John of the Cross, Federico Ruiz



The Last Journey

In mid September 1591 John began to suffer a slight fever caused by an inflammation of the leg.

The leg grew worse. Ulcerated, the disease, erysipelas spread to his back where a fist sized tumor formed. Traveling and forced to stay in the monastery at Ubeda,  where he was not welcomed, the Prior saw him as a nuisance. On December 13th John called for the prior and begged pardon for all the trouble he had caused. The Prior left the sickroom in tears, totally transformed.-God Speaks in the Night—-The Life, Times, and Teaching of St. John of the Cross, Federico Ruiz


Boston Carmel_100At 11:30PM on December 13th he asked for the Blessed Sacrament to be brought to his room…

The Prior began the prayers for the dying. At a certain point John said to the Prior: “Recite the Song of Songs for me Father, for this is not necessary.”  Listening eagerly he said: “Oh, what precious pearls.” At midnight learning that the bells were ringing for Matins prayer exclaimed , “I am going to heaven to recite them.” His last words were those of Christ and for Christ. Kissing the crucifix he held in his hands he prayed: “Into your hands, I commend my spirit.”-God Speaks in the Night—-The Life, Times, and Teaching of St. John of the Cross, Federico Ruiz

Doctor of the Church

pope-john-paul-II “I got to know St. John of the Cross in my youth and was able to dialogue with this master of faith.  I wrote my Doctoral thesis on ‘Faith in St. John of the Cross.” I have found him a friend and master who has shown me that light shines in darkness.”   Saint John Paul ll