by Larry Herz
John de Yepes y Alvarez was born in Castile in 1542 to a family on the verge of poverty. After his father’s death, he was enrolled in a religious school for indigent children. Authorities recognized something about him which led them to advance him to acolyte, then hospital orderly, then theological student in his “college years.” At 23, he became a Carmelite and entered the prestigious University of Salamanca.
These were turbulent times in Europe. In her History of God, Karen Armstrong calls the 16th century a time of transition characterized by anxiety: “The laity were especially dissatisfied with the medieval forms of religion that no longer answered their needs….Great reformers…discovered new ways of considering God and salvation….[and] urged the faithful to rid themselves of peripheral devotion to saints and angels and to concentrate on God alone.”
The Reformation was validating personal approaches, including the direct experience of divinity through mysticism, and non-literal interpretation of the Bible, both of which the West had long eschewed. In addition, the institutional Church was vacillating about the propriety of personal possessions by clerics of different levels.
Perhaps influenced by his childhood, John felt strongly attracted to poverty, contemplation, and discipline in religious life. This put him in line with various reform movements currently flowering. His university education seems to have further radicalized him, interesting him in the poesy of biblical text. One of his professors, Luis de Leon, had translated the highly allegorical Song of Songs into Spanish, a translation for which the Inquisition would imprison him in 1572. John was ordained in 1567. His next step was toward the austere life of a mendicant, but that same year, he met Teresa, a charismatic activist who was to become Saint Teresa of Avila. She enlisted him into the reform wing of the Carmelites, into her project of forming small, poor reformist monasteries. He renamed himself John of the Cross and became confessor to Teresa and other nuns.
Their movement became known as the Discalced Carmelites (“unshod”, from “caliga” for shoe or boot), harking back to the extreme poverty, renunciation, and devotion of the Carmelite founders. This righteous self-denial got the Discalced into trouble with the mainstream Carmelites (a microcosm of the ambivalence about worldly possessions seizing the Church as a whole). As a leading reformer, John, like his professor before him, was imprisoned for most of 1578 – not by the Inquisition, but by his fellow (non-discalced) Carmelites.
It was during this confinement that he is thought to have written his Spiritual Canticle on smuggled paper. Its title is reminiscent of the Song of Songs, (or “Canticle of Canticles”), and its theme and imagery are very similar.
Eventually, the Discalced Carmelites were granted separate status. John worked and wrote free of persecution until 1591, when he died of an infectious illness.
By the time of his death, he was so popular that pieces of his clothing then of his body were separated as relics for various monasteries. Most of him remains in Segovia, where he had last served several years as Prior. He was beatified in 1675 and canonized in 1726.
His poetry, celebrating the deeply personal process of ecstatic union with the divine, has had enduring prominence among appreciators of religious mysticism. In recent years, Thomas Merton called him “the greatest of all mystical theologians."