Following Mary’s example, the contemplative is a person centred in God. (VDQ 10)

John of the Cross: His life

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1542-1591

  St John of the Cross is not a saint of stone. He is a man of fire and love.

Very young he learned from his family that nothing is equal to true love, it is above all. When he grows up and falls in love with God, John goes on with the spirit of his father, leaving all behind, naturally, because it is love alone, love in Person (with a capital letter), that matters.

John de Yepes was born in 1542 at Fontiveros, in Old Castile , . His father, Gonzalo de Yepes, belonged to a wealthy family of silk merchants. He married Catalina Alvarez, a weaver of poor and humble background, in spite of bitter opposition from the members of his family, who considered that marriage to a girl of low position as shameful. Gonzalo learned the lowly trade of silk weaving to adapt to his wife's work. But in spite of hard work, the household was very poor and food scarce.

Only two years after the birth of John, Gonzalo died of a painful and costly illness. The young John learned from his family that nothing is equal to true love, it is above all. When he grows up and falls in love with God, John goes on with the spirit of his father, leaving all behind, naturally, because it is love alone, love in Person (with a capital letter), that matters.

At the age of twenty-one, he entered the Carmelite Order at the Monastery in Medina del Campo. Attracted by the contemplative traditions of Carmel , it is ultimately love that moved John de Yepes to leave all behind.

Even as a novice he was noted for his love of solitude, his devotion to prayer and to penance. Some considered his zeal extreme. This zeal would mature and some aspects of it would change, but the son of Gonzalo was incapable of half measures.

In 1567 John the new priest made a visit to Mother Teresa of Jesus, who in 1562 had established a reformed community of nuns in Avila . The nuns professing the Carmelite life in the Reform devoted themselves to contemplation and intercession for the Church.

Teresa was at the time considering the extension of her strict Reform to the friars. These, while not cloistered like the nuns, would follow the Primitive Rule of Carmel and be given to a more contemplative lifestyle than the Carmelite monks of whom he was a member. They would have some ministry, however, but their activities will be deeply rooted in personal prayer.

The Holy Madre spoke of her plan to Father John.

Because he was eager to find a life of deeper solitude and prayer, he agreed to take part in the reform for the friars. It was actually established in Duruelo the 28 th November 1568 . The Rule and Constitutions called for fasts and total abstinence from meat; poverty in the choice of dwelling, clothing, and food.

At this point a tension ensued between the ancient observance and the fledging reform. It's enough to say that it was a matter of confused jurisdictions, with each party appealing to different interpretations of the law. John of the Cross, as the first of the discalced, was a symbol of the movement that many sincerely felt was destroying the Order.

During one night of December, 1577, in Avila , John of the Cross was seized, and carried off to Toledo . He was thrown in a prison where he suffered from cold, hunger and threats, and he was beaten in attempt to force him to renounce to the reform. But in the darkness of his prison, the son of Gonzalo de Yepes encountered his beloved Lord. He composed part of the poem of the « Spiritual Canticle » and the « Romances on the Gospel ».

After nine months in this tiny jail, he managed to escape.

Then John began to comment on his poems, thus beginning the process that resulted in his major prose works.

John died in Ubeda ( Andalusia ) the 14 th December 1591 , at the age of forty-nine.

St John of the Cross is not a saint of stone. He is a man of fire and love, warming and enlightening those he knew and offering that light to us as well. If one time you pick up his writings, remember first this man. See if it changes what you read, if it helps to understand. And remember these encouraging words from his « Prayer of a Soul Taken with Love »:

With what procrastinations do you wait,
since from this very moment you can love God in your heart?
Go forth and exult in your Glory!
Hide yourself in it and rejoice, and you will obtain
the supplications of your heart.

(Sayings of Light and Love, 26)

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