Travel through Spain where St. John of the Cross lived out his life more than 400 years ago.
* Visit Fontiveros where he was born
But throughout this pilgrimage the glimpse of St. John that we are most looking for is one of the divine union that burned in his heart and about which he sang.
St. John of the Cross
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Come wander with us through Spain in search of John of the Cross, the great mystic and poet, dead for more than 400 years. We will travel to many of the places where he lived out his life, but what we are most looking for is a glimpse of the divine union that burned in his heart and about which he sang.
John was born in 1542 in Fontiveros, a town lost in the vast high plains of Castille. He was the youngest son of a poor family of weavers, and a chapel now marks the spot on the Calle de Cantiveros where he was born. He was baptized at the Church of St. Cyprian, and played in the streets, like the boys do today, with his brothers Francisco and Luis.
But death soon carried off his father, leaving the family in bitter poverty. They moved to the bustling market town of Medina del Campo where great trade fairs were held that drew merchants from all over Europe to see the riches of Spain and her empire in the New World. Here John grew up on the Calle de Santiago, studied humanities with the Jesuits, tended the sick at one of Medinas many hospitals, and in 1563 joined the Carmelite friars at the Monastery of Santa Ana.
After his novitiate the Order sent him to study philosophy and theology at the famous university at Salamanca. John was an excellent student, but his chief interest lay elsewhere. He gave himself over to a life of prayer and penance, and the reading of the masters of the interior life. We can imagine him here in the corridors of the university, a small, quiet man unnoticed among the jostling throngs of students that came from all over Spain.
By 1567, the year of his Ordination, he was in crisis. He longed to give himself more fully to the life of prayer. Perhaps he was already tasting of an interior union with God. He decided he would leave the Carmelites and join one of the strictest and most retired of Orders, the Carthusians.
At that moment he met Teresa of Avila who had already begun the Reform of the Carmelite sisters, and longed to do the same for the friars. She convinced John that he could assuage his thirst for a deeper spiritual life by becoming one of the first friars of the Reform.
There was something in the wide plains and sky of Castille that spoke to John of the infinite. Not far from Fontiveros someone had given Teresa a little ramshackled house in a tiny hamlet called Duruelo, and decorated with crosses and skulls, and with gaps in the walls that let snowflakes drift in, it was to become the first house of the Reformed Fathers.
Duruelo is still a quiet and forgotten place, save for the Carmelite sisters who keep vigil there, but on a cold night that rings with silence, we can go to the little chapel that marks the birthplace of the Discalced Carmelite friars, and almost hear John whispering of the joy of leaving all behind to find the Beloved.
John and his companions would pray and work, and go off to the little villages nearby to minister to the people. It was the life that John had wished for, but it was not to last. He was in demand elsewhere to help shepherd the growing Reform.
In 1572 Teresa was back in Avila, whose walls, no doubt, were soon to inspire her to think of the soul as an interior castle, and write one of her most famous books. She was trying to bring the Reform to her old convent of the Incarnation, and she called for John to come and help her by becoming its confessor and spiritual director. He lived first at the Carmelite monastery, and would walk down the little valley to the convent, but later, as the tension grew between the Order and the growing Reform, he moved to a little house next to the Incarnation. John had a special gift that sprang from his own inner life. He could gently, yet passionately, and without compromise, point out to people the way to go forward in their own interior journeys to God, and now, among the hundred and thirty sisters of the Incarnation, he had an ample opportunity to exercise it. It was at Avila, as well, that he made the only drawing that has come down to us, a drawing that sprang from a vision he had of Christ crucified.
By 1577 the tension between the two factions of the Carmelite Order had reached the point of violence. One night in early December his brothers in religion kidnapped him and carried him off to Toledo. The winter of his soul was about to begin.
The beautiful Toledo of El Greco crowned the hills above the Tajo River, but John never saw it. He was dragged in by night, blindfolded, and thrown into a narrow cell in the Carmelite Monastery, with only a small loophole high on one wall to give him light. The monastery was perched on the cliffs overlooking the river, and perhaps he could hear its rushing waters, or when he was led from his cell, caught a glimpse of the Alcántara Bridge and the Castle of San Servando.
Months went by, and harassed and tormented to give up the Reform, John grew thinner and sicker, and began to think that everyone had forgotten him, and he would die alone in his miserable prison. He entered a time of deep interior darkness, a dark night of the soul. But deep in his spirit he began to experience a wonderful closeness and presence of God, and out of the depths of his spirit where this secret union with God took place, magnificent poetry began to well up.
"Where have you hidden, my Beloved, leaving me groaning? Having wounded me you fled like a deer. I went out after you calling, but you had gone."
John realized that after nine months he was growing weaker and weaker, and if he did not escape, his death would be almost inevitable.
One night he loosened the lock on the door of his cell, and with a rope made from strips torn from his blanket, lowered himself to the ground.
It is possible today to trace the route that he took through the city. The convent of the Augustinian nuns next to the monastery, whose garden he landed in, up the hill to the hospital of Santa Cruz, where he was later to take refuge, through the Arco de la Sangre, and into the Plaza de Zocodover. Some time before dawn he took refuge in the entranceway of a building, and as the day began he made his way down Nuñez de Arce Street to the convent of St. Teresas sisters, who hid him.
But all this took place at night, a night that was to fuse with the darkness he had suffered, and the dawn of a new life of union with God in his spirit. Later he was to express this wonderful interior and exterior escape in his great poem, "The Dark Night."
"One dark night
In that wonderful night
Oh, night that guided me
We came to Andalucia in the spring, hoping for another glimpse of John of the Cross in a land where he lived for ten years after escaping from prison in Toledo.
We discovered a countryside far different than that of the austere Castille that he loved so much. And in that contrast we found a symbol of his inner life.
We can pick up St. Johns writings and fail to see that all his talk about privation, denial and nothingness is not meant to crush the least sigh of the human heart, but to let it experience more fully the mystery of love. It is in Johns poetry and his love of nature that we can see something of his rich, exuberant inner life that convinced him that all the suffering he had undergone was a small price to pay to draw closer to that union with God.
John came as Superior to the simple country monastery called El Calvario, and far from intimidating his brothers, he endeared himself to them by his keen eye for what was bothering them, and he would take them out into the fields, and tell them to go apart for a while and find God in the beauty of nature.
Nor did he forget the sisters who had played such a large role in his life up north. Every week he would walk over the mountains to Beas de Segura and carry on his ministry of spiritual direction. He would give them short sayings about divine love, and draw pictures of the Mount of Carmel from which the Order traced its origins, and explain to them how they could scale the Mount of Perfection.
It was out of these small beginnings that his writings began to grow, and in this setting the lines from his Spiritual Canticle took on new resonances. From the banks of the Guadalquivir River to the dawn over the hills of El Calvario when the birds burst into song, all of nature can try to speak to him of the Beloved he had sung about in Toledo.
My beloved, the mountains
Before a year had passed John was drawn from his seclusion once again by the demands of the growing Reform. He went to the nearby university town of Baeza, and was plunged into a whirlwind of activities that was going to consume the next decade of his life. In turn he was to be the Superior of the houses in which he lived, and the Vicar Provincial of Andalucia, obliged to travel about the country founding new monasteries and convents, and caring for the ones already established. He directed the studies for the Carmelite students at Baeza, and he had a growing ministry of spiritual direction that began to reach beyond the friars and sisters and embrace the lay people of the town, as well. And in his mind and heart he began the long process of reflection that was to lead to the writing of his major prose works.
When John arrived in Baeza it was a city larger than Avila or Salamanca, and it was deep in the grasp of a spiritual enthusiasm that had penetrated all levels of society. The Holy Week processions of Baeza and nearby Úbeda capture today something of the atmosphere of those long ago times. There were catechism schools for children, who sang their lessons in the streets, university students who, when they heard of a bad example being given in the marketplace, would rush from their classroom to put it aright, with their professor at their head and all of them singing songs of Christian doctrine. And there were crowds of priests and nuns and friars, and more than a thousand lay women given over to a life of recollection. It was a world where visions and revelations and events thought miraculous or diabolical abounded. And mixed with this spiritual ferment were rumors and alarms of Alumbrados, or Illuminists, who were said to be given over to interior prayer to the detriment of external religious practices, and to be thirsty for raptures and ecstasies. And the agents of the Inquisition periodically swept through the town, questioning the innocent, the falsely accused, and the bewildered. It was in this setting that John found himself much in demand as a confessor and spiritual director, and this was the foil against which he was developing his profound ideas on mystical union and the path to reach it. No knowledge that comes through the senses or imagination, or even the natural working of the intellect, he tells us, can serve as a proximate means of union with God, but only faith, a faith that is animated by love. Later, in the Ascent of Mount Carmel, in response to the question of whether it is good to seek God by means of visions and locutions, he writes, "God could respond as follows: "If I have already told you all things in my Word, my Son, and if I have no other Word, what answer or revelation can I now make that could surpass this? Fasten your eyes on Him alone because in Him I have spoken and revealed all, and in Him you shall discover even more than you ask for and desire."
It was to the fabled city of Granada that John moved in 1582, and continued his life of intense activity and devotion to prayer. Here he not only took charge of the Carmelite monastery at Los Mártires, which is now a garden, but redesigned and rebuilt it, and added an aqueduct that brought water from the nearby Alhambra.
One Christmas, caught up in the joy of the season, he picked up this statue of the Child Jesus and danced.
He ministered to the Discalced sisters of the city, and in all of this, found time to write his four great prose works: The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night, The Spiritual Canticle, and The Living Flame of Love. Did he walk through the gardens and palaces left by the Moorish kings, murmuring the lines with which in these years he completed his poem, "The Spiritual Canticle?"
"Let us rejoice, Beloved,
Finally in 1588 John was sent back to Castille to Segovia. There he was to travel less, and write hardly at all, but he was still Superior of the monastery, and deeply involved in its construction. And he still played an active role in governing the Reform.
The setting of the monastery of Segovia had a special charm for him. He loved to take his place among the workmen and toil among the stones, and build his cloisters. And he delighted in hiding himself in the caves on the hillside where the crows soared and glided. It was there he would lose himself in prayer and gaze out on the beauty of the countryside, and the Alcazár.
Perhaps it was here that he came the closest to living out what he had written in one of his great poems:
"Oh, living flame of love
It was in Segovia that John had another vision of Christ crucified in which Jesus asked him what he desired. John replied, "Lord, give me trials to suffer for You that I may be despised and held in no account." His wish was soon to be fulfilled. A General Council was held in Madrid, and John emerged without a single office. He was sent south again to the country monastery of La Peñuela, and lived there as a simple friar in prayer and penance, gathering chickpeas in the garden. One day a fire broke out and threatened to burn down the monastery. John knelt before it, and it turned back. A rabbit, terrified by the commotion, jumped into his lap.
Soon John fell sick and needed to be sent to town for medical treatment. "Take me to Úbeda," he requested, "rather than Baeza." For it was in Baeza that he had left many friends, and he wanted to end his life in obscurity and self-forgetfulness.
He received a cold welcome from the Prior of the house in Úbeda, and was assigned one of the poorest of the rooms, but as the weeks went by, and his illness grew worse, he won over not only the Prior, but the whole town, as well, which heard of his humble acceptance of his terrible suffering.
Finally, one night John asked for the Song of Songs to be read, and as the bells for Matins began to toll at midnight, he said, "I am going to recite them in Heaven." And kissing a crucifix he said, "Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit." He died in the first minutes of the new day of December 14, 1591, and in the dark hours of the night the people of the town began to gather to do him homage.
He was buried in Úbeda, and later his body was transferred to Segovia where it is still to be found today.
Just who was this little friar? He wanted to be forgotten, but his writings and his story have spread around the world. He wanted to guide his brothers and sisters in the Carmelite Order in the ways of divine union, but he became a guide to so many more who through him can catch a glimpse of the mystery of love about which he sang.
How to Order
A Complete List of Books, DVDs and CDs