John of the Cross | 1RCF Belgium

Juan de Yepes Álvarez is the second son of Gonzalo de Yepes, a Spanish nobleman who made a love marriage with Catalina Álvarez, a young woman of low social status. Gonzalo is rejected and disinherited by his family because of his marriage. He loses his noble status. Ruined, he moved with his family to Fontiveros, about 120 kilometers west of Madrid. He lived from weaving, all the more poorly because there was a famine. It was in Fontiveros that John was born on June 24, 1542. In 1545, Gonzalo died. John is barely 3 years old. With the death of the father, the family plunges even more into misery. In difficulty, Catalina sends 5-year-old Jean to a school for orphans. This is where a beautiful episode in the life of our saint takes place.

One day, young Jean almost drowned in a swamp. He then sees a beautiful lady whom all the commentators have identified as the Virgin Mary who holds out her hand to him to get him out of this mess. But the child refuses to take the outstretched hand so as not to soil it. At this moment, a plowman arrives who hands him a pole to get him out of his critical situation. Little Jean preferred to risk death rather than soil the Virgin Mary!
Eventually, the family moved to Medina del Campo where the mother worked as a weaver. Jean is admitted to the College of Christian Doctrine where he learns to read, write, count and studies the Christian faith. In this college reserved for the poor, you also learn a trade to be able later to meet the needs of your family. Jean tries to practice different trades like carpenter, tailor, wood carver and even painter, but he is not very skilled with his hands. On the other hand, we notice his intelligence and his piety. Jean also works as a nurse at the hospital. It was there that he was noticed by a gentleman who got him a place at the Jesuit college in Medina del Campo where he studied philosophy, rhetoric, grammar and Latin. He finished his studies at the age of 21 in 1563.

Entry into the Carmelite Order

His mother and his brother would see him as chaplain of the Medina hospital, but Jean preferred to join the Carmelites who had a house in the city and where he made his perpetual vows the following year. He takes the name John of Saint Matthias. He was then sent to the University of Salamanca, one of the great universities of his time. He studied brilliantly and was ordained a priest in October 1567. During his first mass, which he celebrated in the presence of his mother and his family, he received a great consolation: the certainty of never offending God, which this is called “confirmation in grace”. This consolation is all the more important since John is very anxious to always do the will of God. He also wondered if he should not enter a more contemplative order and hesitated to apply to the Carthusians.

In Medina del Campo, Brother John of Saint Matthias stands out for his life of asceticism and penance. When Teresa of Avila comes to the city to found her second monastery of Reformed Carmelites, she has already received permission to found a male branch as well. She even already has a candidate waiting. She hears about this very contemplative Carmelite brother and she meets him. It was the beginning of a great spiritual friendship that would bear much fruit for the whole Church. Thérèse shares her desire for reform, her need to find men for the male branch. She dissuades Jean from becoming a Carthusian and urges him to found with her the Discalced Carmelites, that is to say the Reformed Carmelites who are called discalced or discalced because they wear sandals and not shoes. She asks him to complete his studies first, with the permission of his superiors.

The foundation in Duruelo

John therefore returned to Salamanca and in 1568, once his studies were finished, encouraged and protected by Teresa of Avila, he opened the first convent of Discalced Carmelites with two other brothers in a small remote village called Duruelo. There Jean changes his name: he is now called Brother Jean de la Croix and it is under this name that he will become universally known. At that time, John of the Cross imposed terrible penances on himself: fasting, hair shirt, etc. This excess of mortification did not please Teresa of Avila who tried to moderate her young disciple and simply make him observe the rule of Carmel, already quite demanding in itself. Later, John of the Cross will recognize that these excesses of austerity were not desirable. He even wrote in La Nuit Obscure: “These are animal penances, towards which, like animals, we allow ourselves to be drawn, deceived by the desire and the satisfaction that result from it. »

A spreading order

New foundations are born in Pastrana and Alcala. The small convent of Duruelo moved for its part to Mancera de Abajo. Vocations come in large numbers. In the meantime, in 1671, Thérèse of Avila was appointed superior of the convent of the Incarnation in Avila with the task of reforming it. This is the convent where she began her religious life. Convinced that a successful reform requires the presence of good spiritual directors, Thérèse obtains that Father Jean de la Croix and a colleague come to help her in Avila in 1672. For 3 years, Jean de la Croix will remain in Avila as spiritual director of the sisters. Thérèse and Jean also use this period to refine the rule. As spiritual director, John of the Cross does wonders. Thérèse relied on John of the Cross for the foundation of the Carmel of Segovia in 1574. She also wrote her famous Interior Castle at this time when he was her director.

But soon the situation changed. The shod Carmelites (that is to say the Carmelites of ancient observance) are jealous of the success of the reformed brache. Thus a coup is organized: John of the Cross is kidnapped by an armed troop on December 2, 1577. He is taken secretly to a convent in Toledo where he is put in jail. They want to force him to give up the reform – without success. He gets whipped every week, he’s cut off from any outside news, he barely sees the light of day. But this time in prison and all this suffering made John of the Cross take a new spiritual step. He ends up obtaining paper and writes his poems and the famous Spiritual Song. After 8 months of incarceration, he managed to escape on August 17, 1578. He took refuge in the convent of the Discalced Carmelites of Toledo. From this moment, he will exercise different responsibilities and found various monasteries. He also wrote his masterpieces La Montée du Carmel, La Nuit obscure, and La Vive Flamme d’amour, which made him a great mystical theologian and also the prince of Spanish-language poets. At the end of his life, he had to face criticism, slander and jealousy from his fellow Discalced Carmelites. How sad, isn’t it, to see such things in our Church where we are all supposed to walk towards holiness! He is advised to be wary of certain people, but he replies that it is better to be deceived than to lose his purity of heart. At this moment, he hears the voice of Jesus on the cross asking him: “John, what do you want for all the labors you have endured for me? » And Jean answers : « to suffer and to be despised for you. »


He died on the night of December 13 to 14, 1591 after having asked that the Song of Songs be read to him one last time, which was at the heart of his spirituality. John of the Cross was beatified by Pope Clement X in 1675 and canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726. He became a Doctor of the Church in 1926 with the title of Doctor of Spiritual Theology or Doctor of Mysticism. He exercised a great influence on a number of saints, among whom we can cite in the first rank Saint Thérèse of Lisieux who considers him “the saint of love par excellence” and Saint John Paul II.

John of the Cross | 1RCF Belgium