Today is the feast day of Saint John of the Cross who is known for his work with St. Teresa of Ávila in restoring the strict observance of the original Rule of the Carmelite Order. He is also known for his poems and writings about the experience of mystical union with God.
St. John was born the youngest of the family in a small community near Ávila in Spain. His parents were poor silk weavers. His father died when he was young. John, his two brothers and their widowed mother struggled with poverty. John worked at a hospital and went to school from 1559 to 1563. On 24 February 1563 he entered the Carmelite order. The following year (1564) he made his vows as a Carmelite, and moved to Salamanca where he studied philosophy and theology.
John was ordained a priest in 1567 and then travelled to Medina del Campo, where he met the charismatic Teresa de Jesús (Teresa of Ávila). Teresa persuaded John to help her, as she was facing great resistance in trying to restore the primitive strict rule of the Carmelite Order.
John, still in his 20s, worked as a helper of Teresa until 1577, founding monasteries of the reformed Carmelite rule. The reformation process was resisted by a great number of Carmelite friars, some of whom felt that Teresa’s version of the Order was too strict. The followers of John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila called themselves the “discalced”, or barefoot Carmelites.
On the night of 2 December 1577, John was taken prisoner by his superiors in the unreformed Carmelites, who had launched a program against John and Teresa’s reforms. John had refused an order to return to his original monastery, on the basis that his reform work had been approved by the Papal Nuncio, a higher authority than his Carmelite superiors. John was jailed in Toledo, in a tiny stifling cell barely large enough for his body. He suffered greatly during this imprisonment, but it was during this same time that he received many divine consolations, and wrote some of his finest spiritual poetry.
John managed to escape nine months later on 15 August 1578. After returning to normal life, he continued with the care of communities of the new Discalced Carmelite order.
John died on 14 December 1591. He was canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726, and was declared a doctor of the Church in 1926 by Pope Pius XI. His main writings, The Dark Night of the Soul; The Ascent of Mount Carmel; The Living Flame of Love; The Spiritual Canticle, as well as 26 poems and several letters, are a source of guidance and inspiration for those seeking to live a life of mystical prayer.