SAINT JOHN OF THE CROSS
by Meredith Oesch
Saint John of the Cross. Saint John of the cross was born in 1542 in Avila, Spain. His father worked for a wealthy family as an accountant. His family disowned him when he married a poor woman from the lower class. John suffered greatly due to his family’s poverty.
Saint John was sent to boarding school for children who are poor and orphaned. Here he received a religious education. Even as a child Saint John chose to follow a religious path. He served as an acolyte at an Augustinian monastery. When he was older, he worked in a hospital while attending a Jesuit school.
In 1563, Saint John joined the Carmelite Order. Upon his joining he took the name, “John of St. Matthias.” After this he was sent to the university in Salamanca to study theology and philosophy. Saint John with his studies became an expert in the Bible and translated the Song of Songs into Spanish. This was controversial since the church at the time forbade the translation of the Bible from Latin in order to protect the original meanings of scripture.
Saint John became a priest in 1567 and considered joining the Carthusian Order where monks lived in individual cells. Saint John was attracted to the simpler and quieter ways of life. He soon encountered Theresa of Avila, a nun and she asked John to follow her.
Saint John really enjoyed following a strict routine and so he enjoyed following Teresa’s very strict and controlled way of life. Her followers went barefoot which saint john really enjoyed as well.
On Nov. 28, 1568, Theresa founded a new monastery. On that day as well, John changed his name to John of the Cross. After a few years passed they relocated to a larger monastery site. They remained there until 1572.
In 1572, John traveled to Avila to see Theresa to become her confessor and spiritual guide. He remained there until 1577. While Saint John of the Cross was in Avila, he had a vision of Christ and made a drawing called “Christ from Above” that remains in existence until this day. The drawing shows Christ on the cross, looking down on him from above.
Around 1575, issues in the Carmelite order began to spark and create divides in various monasteries. Theresa and John both sought to restore original rule. This aligns with their love for simplicity and strict rules.
In late 1577, John was ordered to leave the monastery in Avila and to return to his original house. John chose to ignore this order and stay because his work to reform the order had already been approved.
On December 2, 1577, some of the people who had disagreed with his reforms broke into his chambers and kidnapped him. He was taken to the main house of the order in Toledo. He was brought before a court and placed on trial for disobedience. He was then imprisoned as a punishment.
A cell was made for him in the monastery. It was so small that he could barely lie on the floor. He was only fed bread and water, and occasionally scraps of salt fish. Weekly he was taken into public and lashed. He did have a prayer book and an oil lamp to read. To pass the time he wrote poems on paper that were smuggled to him.
John became known as a remarkable and influential poet, most so after his death. He has been cited to have influenced many poems, mystics, and artists.
After nine months in this environment, John managed to pry his cell door off its hinges and escape his captivity.
He returned to Teresa’s in Toledo and spent six weeks there in the hospital to recover. After his recovery in 1579, he was sent to Baeza to be rector of a new college and to support the Discalced Carmelites in Andalusia.
In 1580, Pope Gregory formally authorized the split between the Discalced Carmelites and the rest of the order. This ended the rift in the order that had been going on for some time now.
During the last few years of his life, John traveled and established new houses across spain.
In 1591 he became ill with a skin condition that resulted in an infection. This eventually led to his death on December 14, 1591.
Shortly following his burial, there was a dispute over where he should be buried. This was solved by the removal of his arms and legs and over years part of his body being placed on display and buried in several places.
Saint John of the Cross was canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726
He is the patron saint of contemplatives, mystics and spanish poets. His feast day is December 14th.