St John of the Cross began his life in humble circumstances in mediaeval Spain but became a renowned mystical philosopher and a great poet while striving to keep the Carmelite Order of monks intact. The middle of the 16th century saw turbulent times all over Europe and catholic priests and other holy men were, in particular, often persecuted. He was imprisoned for his beliefs but he used this time to write some of his best poetry. His was a short but productive life and it was recognised by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726 when he was admitted to the sainthood.
Few would have predicted that though when, in June 1542, he was born in the small town of Hontoveros, Old Castile. His parents were poor silk weavers and the family circumstances were made even more desperate when, at a very young age, John lost his father. His mother moved the family to Medina del Campo and John was sent to the school for the poor there. His efforts in school were promising but, when he started an apprenticeship with a local artisan, John seemed disinterested and incapable of learning the trade.
He was rescued from this by the governor of the town hospital and he worked there for seven years in a fairly menial capacity while, at the same time, continuing his education at a Jesuit school. At the age of 21 he found his calling, entering the ailing Carmelite Order of monks. He studied at the University of Salamanca and combined this with a little teaching. A significant event during this period was that he met one of the great mystical figures of the Christian tradition. In 1567 St Teresa of Avila took the newly ordained John under her wing and sought his help in reforming the Order and he set about this task with zeal.
He formed a new monastery in a small farmhouse and imposed severe restrictions on the monks including making them go barefoot to remind them what it is like to suffer extreme poverty. The Order was soon to be known as the “Discalced”, meaning “shoeless” but there was trouble ahead. His extreme ideals were at odds with the Carmelite traditional ways and he was imprisoned twice – in 1576 and again a year later.
This was the time when John wrote his most important work. He was, of course, deeply affected by his incarceration and wrote a number of poems that were recognised later as representing the clear steps that his very soul would take in its journey towards Christ. In other words, these were the beginnings of his mystical ascent and included poems like:
The Spiritual Canticle of the Soul contains 40 verses of exchanges between a bride and bridegroom and the opening four verses are shown below:
Such poems have long been recognised as being at the very pinnacle of mystical Spanish literature. In his short life St John of the Cross was outwardly kind and charitable to others while living a life of austerity, spending much of his time alone with his thoughts and his mystical compositions.
St John died in December 1591, aged 49.