The junior partner in Teresa of Avila’s reformed Discalced Carmelite order was baptized Juan de Yepes y Álvarez (1542-1591). He was also of converted Jewish origins and from Avila, but he was 27 years younger, almost a son, and was far less high born.
John’s father, Gonzalo, had been an accountant to richer relatives who were silk merchants until 1529, when he married John's mother, Catalina, an orphan of a lower class. Gonzalo’s family rejected him as a result, and he had to go work with his wife as a weaver. Gonzalo died when John was about three years old, and things got worse for the family. His older brother Luis died two years after Gonzalo, probably of malnutrition given the family’s poverty.
The crisis led John, as the loss of her mother did Teresa, away from his likely path. He entered a school for poor children, mostly orphans, and got a basic education, mainly in Christian doctrine, as well as modest food, clothing and lodging. In return John had to work, first as an acolyte at a nearby monastery of Augustinian nuns, possibly the one in which Teresa lived briefly, then at a hospital, while he studied the humanities at a school run by the newly formed Jesuit order—which recognized the boy’s intellect.
In 1563, at about 19, he entered the Carmelite Order and took the name John of St. Matthias, professing final vows the following year, after which he was dispatched to Salamanca—Spain’s Oxford—where he studied theology and philosophy. John was ordained a priest in 1567, then indicated his intention to join the much stricter Carthusian Order, which stresses solitary and silent contemplation.
A journey from Salamanca to Medina del Campo, probably in September 1567, changed everything. He met the charismatic Carmelite nun Teresa of Jesus, as she was then known, who was in town trying to found the second Discalced Carmelite cloister, and she told him of her plans to reform the order.
She wanted to restore the purity of the Carmelites and the “Primitive Rule” of 1209 by St. Berthold, founder of order. The former Norman crusader had in 1185 established a hermit colony on Mount Carmel, near today’s Haifa, Israel. His rule was approved by the pope in 1226, but its observance had been relaxed by Pope Eugene IV in 1432.
The term “discalced” in the new order’s name was an essential element of the spirit of reform that animated Teresa, and later John. To be “discalced” means to be shoeless. The idea comes from Moses’ encounter with God speaking from what seemed to be a burning bush. In Exodus 3:5, God tells Moses, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Discalced orders go entirely shoeless or wear sandals, with or without socks, a custom introduced in the West by St. Francis of Assisi for men and St. Clare for women as a reminder to remain close to God.
Teresa’s plan included nearly constant choral recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours, official prayers marking and sanctifying the hours of each day. These prayers have been a public prayer of the Church since the 5th century. Embraced by many monastic orders and recalled in the Anglican service of Morning Prayer, they were prayed publicly throughout the Middle Ages and consist of psalms, hymns, readings and other prayers and antiphons, often chanted or recited responsively.
Her new rule called for the choir offices, study, devotional reading, Mass and long periods of solitude between Compline (night prayer, usually before retiring around 9 p.m.) and Prime (or “first hour,” early morning prayer, at about 6 a.m.). Total abstinence from meat was required, and a lengthy fast was observed, except Sundays, from the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14) until Easter.
For the friars, time was to be spent evangelizing the population around the monastery.
Returning to our story in Medina del Campo, Teresa asked John to hold off joining the Carthusians and follow her. After completing his studies in Salamanca, John traveled from Medina to Valladolid with Teresa, who was founding a convent there. After spending some time in Valladolid with Teresa and learning more about this new form of Carmelite life, John left to found a monastery, following Teresa's principles. It was established in 1568 in a donated run-down house in Duruelo, about midway between Ávila and Salamanca. On the day it opened John took the monastic name John of the Cross.
After founding many cloisters for men and women, Teresa went into seclusion and turned to writing, but she and John still managed to set up seven reformed monasteries between 1567 and 1571. In the following seven years she founded four more.
John became the first master of novices and filled various posts elsewhere until Teresa called him to Avila to be director and confessor at the convent of the Incarnation, where she was prioress.
Sometime between 1574 and 1577, while praying in the Monastery of the Incarnation in Ávila, John had a vision of the crucified Christ, which led him to craft a famous drawing of Christ “from above.”
John was ordered by his provincial to return to the house of his profession (Medina). He refused and was taken against his will to Toledo, where he was imprisoned for nine months in a narrow, stifling cell and tortured. In the middle of his suffering he experienced what he described as heavenly consolation, and some of his best poetry dates from this period. Once his views were accepted, he spent most of his time in the years that followed founding and running monasteries.
In 1576, the Carmelite order began to persecute Teresa and her friends. Officials forbade her to found additional convents, and the general chapter ordered her to “voluntarily” retire in one of her institutions. She obeyed and chose St. Joseph’s in Toledo. Her friends and subordinates didn’t get off so easily.
Teresa also rebounded from confinement when King Philip II intervened, halting Inquisition proceedings against her associates, and Pope Gregory XIII set her up as a special provincial for the new branch of discalced nuns. In the last three years of her life, Teresa founded four more convents.
Forty years after her death, she was canonized and later declared patroness of Spain. In 1970 Pope Paul VI named her a Doctor of the Church, along with Saint Catherine of Siena, the first women to be awarded the distinction. Teresa is revered as the Doctor of Prayer.
John learned of Teresa’s death while staying in the friars’ monastery of Los Martires, beside the Alhambra. Three years later he was elected Provincial Vicar of Andalusia and founded seven new monasteries in the region. In 1588, John was elected third Councillor to the Vicar General for the Discalced Carmelites, but that post ended after a dispute, and he was sent in 1591 to an isolated monastery in Andalusia. He fell ill and went to a nearby monastery for treatment, where he died at the end of that year, less than a decade after Teresa.
Close to a century later he was canonized; his feast day is December 14. The Church of England commemorates him on the same day as a “Teacher of the Faith.”
Teresa left a remarkable legacy in her spiritual writings, which include her autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus, her seminal work The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection.
St. John of the Cross is a leading poet in the Spanish language and authored some 2,500 poems. Two of them—the Spiritual Canticle and the Dark Night of the Soul—are deemed masterpieces for their style, symbolism and imagery.