Today the church celebrates one of the great mystics of history, St. Juan de Yepes y Alvarez, but you know him better as St. John of the Cross, Renewer of the Church and Visionary.
St. Juan was born in Fontiveros Spain, the third son of a Jewish silk merchant. His father died shortly after he was born, and his family placed little Juan in an institution for the poor.
St. Juan was extremely short of stature, even for his day, but showed great skill in craftsmanship from early on, and apprenticed at many places. He enrolled in college and worked his way through school striving to become an exemplary monk.
He was entranced in the Order of the Blessed Virgin (Carmelites), and was ordained. Soon after met St. Teresa of Avila, his spiritual cousin. She had begun to implement her reforms of the Carmelite order, and St. John promised himself to these reforms, adopting the name St. John of the Cross to embody his minimalist and mystic piety.
St. Teresa eventually helped get St. John appointed as Confessor to the Convent of the Incarnation, where she was a sister.
St. Teresa’s reforms were causing division within the Carmelite Order, and some monastics came and seized St. John, imprisoned him in a six foot by ten foot cell, beat him, and attempted to force him to renounce the austere reforms.
St. John refused and after nine months was able to escape, fleeing to a safe monastery in southern Spain.
This is where he began writing down his mystical visions and dreams, having had them in the confinement of his prison cell. His deeply spiritual writings often took the form of poetry. Most notable are The Ascent of Mt. Carmel-the Dark Night, and Living Flame of Love (which is more song than pure poetry).
In 1591 the controversy over the austere reforms rose again, and St. John was banished further south in Spain. It was there that he caught a fever and, though he sought medical care, was poorly treated because the prior of the monastery didn’t want the burden of another monk.
He died uttering the Psalms, saying, “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my Spirit.” He was deeply beloved by the people, though he was rejected by much of the Church at the time, and was immediately heralded as a Saint.
You may not be too familiar with St. John of the Cross, but you’re certainly familiar with art that is based off of his mystical visions. Salvador Dali’s unique painting of the crucifixion was based on one of St. John’s poems.
St. John of the Cross is a reminder to me, and should be for the whole church, that sometimes the most despised in our midst are the wisest.
Let those with ears to hear, hear.
-historical notes from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations
-icon written by Br. Robert Lentz