St. John’s crosses began before he took the name of John of the Cross as a religious brother.
Born into deep poverty in 1542, St. John lost both his brother and his father while still a youth.
After receiving a religious education in his childhood, John entered the Carmelites in 1563, at the age of 21. Slowly, he began to desire a more simple and austere life (the Carmelites had not yet regained many of the sacrificial practices for which the order is well-known today). He became a priest and then considered joining the Carthusians, but an encounter with Teresa of Ávila, and her vision of reforming the Carmelites, changed his mind. John decided to join the future saint in her efforts.
While some friars did embrace St. John’s leadership, others opposed him adamantly, and at times even violently.
In 1577, disgruntled members of John’s community kidnapped and imprisoned him. For nine long months, John was kept in a cell so small that he could barely lie down. He was fed only bread and water and was lashed on a weekly basis. The only possessions in the cell were a prayer book and an oil lamp…well, and the secret writing materials smuggled to him by the frightened but sympathetic friar who guarded his cell.
It was during these long, dark, painful months that St. John of the Cross composed and recorded some of the most beautiful Spanish mystical poetry the world has ever known. On scraps of smuggled paper, he wrote incredibly moving stanzas based on the biblical book the Song of Songs and his own experience with physical, mental, and spiritual darkness.
Eventually, John escaped his captors and rejoined St. Teresa to continue the Carmelite reforms, traveling around Spain to establish new monasteries. His feast is celebrated today, December 14th.
St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Ávila’s work to reform the Carmelite order bore much fruit, both for the order and for the whole world. Their spiritual writings have earned them both titles as Doctors of the Church and have transformed the souls of thousands.
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