A-Z of Saints: John of the Cross

So far in this series we have tended to look outward, to men (and women) of action. Our saint for ‘J’ takes us inward, to a life of contemplation – though his life was not without its dramatic moments.

John de Yepes was born in old castile on 24 June 1542, the youngest son of silk weavers Gonzalo and Catherine, the latter widowed early in life. He lived in various villages as a child, attending schools for the poor, then studied the humanities at a Jesuit school in his late teens and early twenties, while attending to the very poor under the patronage of the governor of Medina hospital, before entering the Carmelite order as Father Juan de Santo Matia (St Matthias), studying at Salamanca University. He was ordained at the age of 25.

His life’s work arose from his meeting Theresa de Jesus, later St Theresa of Avila, and together they reformed the Carmelite order over the next 10 years, founding monasteries across Spain. Their reformed communities became known as ‘discalced’ (barefoot), in contrast to the ‘calced’ Carmelites who did not accept their reforms. At this period he took the name John of the Cross.

This work stopped abruptly in December 1577, when John was taken prisoner by those non-reformed calced Carmelites in Toledo, and he endured almost a year of brutal lashing, torture and isolation; his hardship was accompanied by mystical visions. Astonishingly he escaped in August 1578, and continued his reforming work until his death. In this latter period he produced many writings, all published posthumously, which were strongly influenced by his period in prison. He died in 1591.

These works have made him one of Spain’s foremost poets, with two of them, the Spiritual Canticle and the Dark Night of the Soul, accorded masterpiece status. In the former, he writes of how the bride of the soul has lost her groom, Jesus, and relates closely to the Song of Songs, which had been illegally translated into the vernacular by John’s tutor at university, Fray Luis de Leon.

His body of poetry is small overall, but has had a huge influence on subsequent mystical traditions, notably on Thomas Merton and T S Eliot. As a result he is regarded as the patron of the contemplative life and mystical theology, as well as Spanish poets. His memorial day is 14 December. Tradition has it that images of Christ, the Virgin and other saints have appeared in connection with his relics.

Other ‘J’ saints:

  • Joan of Arc (1412-1431) is of course the national heroine of France, and was canonised in the Catholic church in 1920. She was burnt at the stake in Rouen at the age of 19, at the instigation of the English. She was famed for her relieving the siege of Orleans in 1429, and for her visions. She is the patron of martyrs, France and prisoners, and her memorial is 30 May.
  • St John the Baptist (died c.30AD) is a prophet of Islam and Mandaeanism as well as Christianity, renowned for his diet of locusts of honey and his heralding of Jesus (Luke says he was actually Jesus’ cousin). He was beheaded at the behest of Salome whose jealousy he had aroused. He is patron of many things and people, including baptism, tailors, motorways, hailstorms and epilepsy. His memorials are 24 June and 29 August.