St. John was born Juan de Yepes Alvarez, in Avila, Spain, in 1542. His family was one of the conversos – Jews, Muslims, or their descendents who converted to Catholicism during the 14th and 15th centuries, under pressure from the government. To better understand the culture of the time, the conversos endured suspicion and harassment from Christians and Jews, and were called renegades. Also, their lives were regulated to prevent their conversion back to their heritage religions, going so far as to even forbid dining with the unconverted. Though, while not treated with equality, conversos did span classes, and even held some offices of limited power.
While a child, John’s father died, and his remaining family struggled with poverty as they moved from village to village to eke a living. In 1551 he moved to Medina del Campo, where he was able to work at a hospital, and he went on to study humanities at a Jesuit school from 1559 to 1563. The Jesuits were a new organization at the time, recently founded by the St. Ignatius Loyola. At the age of 21 he entered the Carmelite order, adopting the name Fr. Juan de Santo Matia. In his first year, he was promoted from novice status, and moved to Salamanca to study theology and philosophy at the University there, and at the Colegio de San Sandres. This education would influence all his later writings, with one of his teachers being Fray Luis de Leon, a foremost expert in Biblical studies.
After his studies, John was ordained a priest in 1567, and indicated intent to join the strict Carthusian order, which encouraged solitary and silent contemplation. Before he joined, however, he had a life-changing meeting with Teresa de Jesus, who shared her vision for reforming the Carmelite order to which John had belonged. She convinced him to stay with the Carmelites, to join her reforming effort, and so he kicked-off the actual reformation effort with another priest in the small, impoverished town of Duruelo. Together, they transformed the town into a center of religion.
Through his 20s, John continued the reformation by founding and managing Carmelite monasteries around Spain. Naturally, many Carmelite friars resisted the reformation and these new monasteries, some feeling it to be too strict. Some even tried to bar Teresa from even entering their convents! One distinction that continues through today is their differentiation from other Carmelites as “discalced”, or barefoot, versus “calced”.
The reformation drama came to a head in 1577, when John was taken prisoner by his calced Carmelites superiors, who had launched their counter-reformation. This should sound very familiar to those of us in the Lutheran tradition. John refused an order to return to his own house, insisting that his reformation had been approved by the Spanish Nuncio, a higher Carmelite authority. In turn, he was jailed in Toledo, and was kept under a brutal regimen that included weekly, public lashings before the community, and isolation in a tiny, stifling cell barely large enough for his body.
While imprisoned, he composed a great part of his most famous poem, Spiritual Canticle. All his subsequent writings reflect this suffering and its effect on his spirituality. After 9 months, he managed to escape and return to normal life, continuing with the founding of additional monasteries. Finally, in 1591, at the age of 49, he died of disfiguring bacterial infection. Within 20 years of his death, his writings were published, and he was canonized 135 years after death by Pope Benedict XIII. In 1926 he was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI, and the Church of England commemorates him as a Teacher of the Faith (their version of “Doctor of the Church”). A Doctor of the Church is a canonized saint whose writings are declared as providing great advantage to the church. As of 2011, only 33 saints have been so declared, and in fact, St. Teresa herself is one of the few women, all after 1970, to receive the title.
John’s legacy is that of a foremost Spanish poet. Though limited in quanity, his verses are considered among the best poems ever written in Spanish, both sylistically and in his use of symbolism. He also wrote about mystical theology, including detailed, verse-by-verse commentaries on some of his poems. One of his poems you may have heard of – Dark Night of the Soul. It concerns the painful experience that people endure as they grow in spiritual maturity and union with God. Today, you’ll find “dark night of the soul” to be a popular phrase, often concerning the times in our lives when God seems hidden from us, when our own spiritual landscape seems barren and dry. We go through the motions, without the sense of life or vibrancy that otherwise fuels our passion and devotion. His writings have inspired famous writers, philosophers, and even artists through the centuries, and Pope John Paul II’s own dissertation concerned John’s mystical theology.
What can we, as Lutherans in the 21st century, learn from John of the Cross? Obviously we can read his writings, and grow in our own spiritual journey through reflecting on his thoughts. He led a reformation, suffered for it, and the order he founded thrives even now, reminding us of Brother Martin and his movement that continues to inform the Christian lives of millions of people around the world, and even ourselves. He arose from the consersos and their second-class citizenship, and poverty, to become well-educated, to discover his gifts, and to share them with the world. While we may not be able to relate to such an ordered life while sinning boldly, we can appreciate the great devotion that drove John to persevere until the end. Let us thank him when we navigate the dark nights of our own souls, knowing that he shared our own darkened paths, and found light.
Let us pray. God of shadows, God of boldness, grant us comfort in the growing darkness of winter. Do not hide your face from us. In the deep blue journey of Advent, lead us to the light the shines from the face of the precious, holy baby who brings peace between us and You. Inspire our own boldness, to seek the common good that will allow those around us to thrive and to know blessing. In the name of the One who came among us, and Who goes before us for all our days, Amen.