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St. John of the Cross

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Where have You hidden
Beloved, and left me moaning?
You fled like a stag
After wounding me; I went out calling You, and You were gone.

(from the poem, Spiritual Canticle, by St. John of the Cross)

Juan de Yepes wrote this poem of 39 verses while he was a prisoner for nine months in a small dark closet. This poem sings of the love a soul and God, and it made him one of the greatest Spanish poets of all time. Who is this man?

Juan de Yepes was born in 1542, at Fontiveros, Spain into a deeply religious and very poor family. Juan’s widowed mother did her best to give him an education, and by dint of hard work and studying late at night, he received a good education. Juan was an outstanding student.

He could have accepted the offer of a comfortable position, but instead he chose to enter the Carmelite Order in 1563 at the Monastery of Santa Ana in Medina del Campo.

Fray Juan was ordained to the priesthood in 1567. With permission, he began to live a stricter life. When he returned to Medina del Campo to say his first Mass, he met St. Teresa of Avila, who had begun a reform for the Nuns in the Carmelite Order. With her characteristic gift for persuasion she got him interested in joining her in her project of starting the reform for the Friars. On the first Sunday of Advent, November 28th, 1568, the Reform began with 5 Friars. At that time Fray Juan de Santo Matia changed his name to Fray John of the Cross.

However, this caused much conflict with the other Carmelite Friars. Father John was eventually kidnapped and taken prisoner to Toledo, where everything possible was done to make him renounce the Reform. His imprisonment lasted nine months in an airless cell, with only a small opening high up for a little light. He suffered intensely at this time in body and spirit, being subjected to much humiliation and ill-treatment. But these extraordinary sufferings served to complete his preparation for the highest spiritual favours from God. In his treatise, The Dark Night II, he writes, “Until the Lord finishes purging him in the way He desires, no remedy is a help to him in his sorrow. ....He remains in this condition until his spirit is purified, until it becomes so refined that it can be one with the Spirit of God.” There is no doubt, then, that by the time of his escape from prison, St. John had reached the summit of the spiritual life. All his written work dates from after this time. Christ was his textbook and it was in His Cross that he learned the science of mystical theology.

In September 1591 he fell ill and was sent for convalescence to Ubeda. After indescribable sufferings, he died on December 14th, 1591, in holiness and wisdom, to which his many spiritual writings give eloquent witness. His writings are both classics of spirituality and of Spanish literature. His best-known works are The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night of the Soul, and The Living Flame of Love. He was canonized in 1726 and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1926.

The feast of St. John of the Cross is celebrated on December 14th.