St John Of The Cross


Jesuit College.

These early events allow us to see the foundations of John's personality and spirituality which would later influence the character of his spiritual direction. The early deprivation and hardship which he experienced can have crippling effects upon personal and spiritual growth. Yet the loving climate in his family home, adult interest, and the opportunity for an education made it possible for John to transcend these early hardships to achieve a creativity and productivity that would later be expressed in his mysticism, poetry, and apostolic activity.1

These early deprivations apparently conditioned John to look beyond the visible world to seek his happiness in "the sweet and delightful life of love with God."2 The hunger and struggle for human survival prepared him for the uncompromising asceticism which was his "road" to union with God and which prompted him one day to pray: "Lord, what I should like you to give me is trials to suffer for you, and to be despised


1John D. Spangler, "Becoming A Mystic: An Analysis of Developmental Factors According to the Murray 'Need-Press' Theory" (Ph.D. dissertation, Boston University, 1961.) In this important and suggestive dissertation, Spangler cites St. John of the Cross as an example of how home environment, adult guidance, and education are factors which enabled him to transcend his early deprivation to become a great mystic and thus avoid the psychologically crippling effects which this deprivation might otherwise have had upon his personality.

2Nl, Explanation, 1.


and esteemed as of little worth."l His own experience of loss, poverty, and sickness instilled within him a life-long solicitude for the poor and sick, as though he learned compassion from his own sufferings2 and was ready to pour out upon others a paternal love which was lacking in his own life.3 The training he received in his religion and in the humanities equipped him with a conceptual framework with which to interpret his religious experience and the ability to convey this interpretation clearly and convincingly to others. Thus, the desire for union with God, the demanding asceticism, the compassionate heart, the doctrinal orthodoxy and the logic and clarity of expression which would characterize his ministry of spiritual direction seem rooted in these early years.

Even if it be too much to suggest that these early experiences explain his later development as poet, mystic, apostle, and spiritual director, they clearly indicate that by the time he was 21, Juan's personality was organized around religion and a religious vocation was for him a consistent and predictable life project. But what type of religious life would he choose to follow? Don Alonso Alvarez hoped he might be ordained a secular priest to serve as


lVida y Obras, p. 301; Life, p. 268.

2Ruiz Salvador, Introducción a San Juan de la Cruz, pp. 16-17.

3Vida y Obras, pp. 41-42.


chaplain of the Plague Hospital, a position which would bring both the spiritual rewards of service to the poor and sick and financial security for himself and his family. The Jesuits were also a possibility. After four years in their college at Medina, he undoubtedly knew the challenge which a fellow Spaniard, Ignatius of Loyola, offered to his Company of Jesus to serve the Pope and the Church, a challenge which elicited such brilliant responses in other Spaniards like Francis Xavier and Francis Borgia. But he chose neither the secular clergy nor the Jesuits: rather, in 1563 at the age of 21, his four years course at the Jesuit college completed, he entered the Carmelite monastery of Santa Ana in Medina and assumed the name of Fray Juan de Santo Matía.1

Carmel and Theological Education

The Carmelite Order originated as a band of ex-crusaders living as hermits at the foot of Mount Carmel in the Holy Land and following an eremitical rule of life provided for them between 1206 and 1214 by Albert, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. With the Saracen rise to power in the Holy Land, the Carmelites began migrating to Europe in 1238 where they adopted a cenobitical or community form of life approved by Pope innocent IV


1The exact day on which Juan de Yepes received the Carmelite habit is not known. One guess is that it was February 24, the feast of Saint Mathias which also accounts for his new name, Juan de Santo Matía. See Fr. Bruno, St. John of the Cross, ed. Benedict Zimmerman (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1932), p.16, Collected Works, p, 17.


in 1247. Now officially a religious order, the Carmelites expanded throughout Europe founding monasteries in the British Isles, the Low Countries, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. Due to the results of the Black Death (1347-1351), the Great Schism (1378-1417), and the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), the Carmelite rule was officially mitigated in its original austerities regarding fast, abstinence, and solitude by Popes Eugene IV in 1432, Pius 11 in 1459, and Sixtus IV in 1476.1

From their beginning, the Carmelites were especially dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Juan de Yepes apparently chose to join them for this reason.2 The Order's eremitical roots and mystical traditions may also have appealed to Juan's religious aspirations.3 These two factors--Marian devotion and the contemplative life--thus appear to be the basis of Juan de Yepes' entry into the Carmelite Order.4

After one year of novitiate or introduction into the life of the Carmelite Order at Medina, Juan was sent to


lBede Edwards and Rudolf Hendriks, The Rule of Saint Albert (Aylesford and Kensington, England: Carmelite Press, 1973), pp. 11-30.

2Vida y Obras, p. 45.

3Bruno, St. John of the Cross, p. 26.

4Ruiz Salvador, Introducción a San Juan de la Cruz, p. 19.


Salamanca--a distance of 50 miles--to begin studies in preparation for the priesthood. The University of Salamanca in the 16th century was the intellectual center of Spain and a leading university of Europe. Its faculty included such famous scholars as Fray Luis de León, Mancio de Corpus Christi, Juan de Guevara, Gregorio Gallo, and Enrique Hernández. The student enrollment of nearly 7,000 included representatives from every part of the Iberian peninsula. Various religious orders conducted their own colleges in conjunction with the University, enabling their students to attend the university while taking courses within their own college. The Carmelites maintained the College of San Andrés in Salamanca. Juan arrived here late in 1564 and lived for four years attending classes at both the university and the college.

The revival of scholasticism was at its height during Juan's years in Salamanca. The writings of Aristotle formed the basis of learning in the college of arts, the works of St. Thomas in the college of theology. Although Aristotle and Thomas were the intellectual guides of the University, professors did not slavishly adhere to the letter of their teachings. These served rather as starting points. A lecture might begin with a reading from a text of Aristotle or Thomas and then the professor would proceed to give his insights on the subject at hand, many of which might diverge markedly from the quoted source. The structure of the


Carmelite College of San Andrés was similar to that of the University. According to the Constitutions of the Order, the teachings of Aristotle and Saint Thomas as interpreted by the Carmelite scholastics John Baconthorp and Michael of Bologna formed the basis of instruction, although lecturers in the college also enjoyed the freedom to propose their own views. With this freedom of inquiry in both the university and in the college, the students were exposed to a wide diversity of opinions including those of Plato, Averroës, Avicenna, and Scotus.

Little is known for certain about Juan de Santo Matía during his years in Salamanca. His name appears on the matriculation register of the University as an Arts student in 1564-65, 1565-66, and 1566-67 and as a Theology student in 1567-68; beyond this we can only surmise as to his courses and teachers.1 In the College of San Andrés, John was appointed prefect of studies in 1567, a position similar to that of a graduate assistant which was given to the best students and entailed teaching class, defending public theses, and assisting a major professor in the resolution of scholastic disputations.


lFr. Bruno reconstructs the probable teachers, courses, and subject matter followed by Saint John at the University of Salamanca (St. John of the Cross, pp. 34-40) and Vilnet discusses John's exposure to the controversies surrounding Sacred Scripture at Salamanca in Bible et Mystique chez Saint Jean de la Croix (Bruges, Belgium: Desclée De Brouwer & Cie; Etudes Carmélitaines, 1949), pp. 18-31. See also, Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1951), pp. 127-43.


Despite the lack of exact information, we can see the effect of the Salamanca years upon John's later theories of spiritual direction. He apparently wrote a treatise which has been lost on the nature of contemplative prayer, indicating an early interest in the problems of the spiritual life. The debates in the University concerning the proper interpretation of Sacred Scripture undoubtedly influenced the manner in which he used biblical texts to support his own theories of the spiritual life.1 Both his methodology in explaining the spiritual life and his theories about the nature of God, of man, and of their relationship bear the mark of scholasticism. At Salamanca, John may also have been exposed to the theories of Enrique Hernández on melancholia which influenced his own later observations on psychopathology in the spiritual life.2 And, finally, the spirit of free inquiry which pervaded Salamanca was not lost upon John who would later draw upon a variety of sources beyond the Scriptures and his own personal experience to explain man's ascent to God.


lBarnabas Mary Ahern, "The Use of Scripture in the Spiritual Theology of St. John of the Cross," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 14 (January 1952):6-17.

2The influences upon John's thinking regarding psychopathology is an extremely interesting and important question, but one that is too complex to enter here. Any investigation of this subject should include the two following sources: Hernández, Opus . . . Utile atque Necessarium cuique Philosopho, Theologo, atque Medico (Salamanca, 1543) and Andre Velázquez, Libro de la Melancolía . . . . (Sevilla, 1585). I am indebted to Eulogio Pacho, O.C.D., for these references.


It is indeed symbolic of his later intellectual development that we have no record of John ever returning to Salamanca after the completion of his studies there in 1568. Although he would later be directly involved with academic affairs for short periods at Alcalá and Baeza, the intellectual achievements of Juan de Yepes, future Mystical Doctor of the Church, grew primarily out of his personal experience of religious life and pastoral activities and not out of a university career.

At Salamanca he acquired valuable intellectual tools that served him well when he later formulated his own synthesis of the spiritual life. But the predominant interest and eventual direction of his life were already clear during his student years. Shortly after his profession of religious vows in the Carmelite Order and just before his arrival in Salamanca in 1564, he obtained permission from his superiors to follow the primitive Carmelite Rule of Innocent IV, as it existed prior to the 15th century papal mitigations. At the College of San Andrés, his own personal life of solitude and austerity made him singular among his fellow students. And when the time came to leave Salamanca, Juan de Santo Matía desired to transfer from the Carmelite Order to the Carthusians in the hope of finding a more contemplative life, a step he may well have taken were it not for one woman, a Carmelite nun from Avila named Teresa of Jesus, whom he met for the first time in Medina del Campo in 1567.


St. Teresa and the Reform of Carmel

Teresa de Ahumada was born of an aristocratic Castilian family in the City of Avila on March 28, 1515.1 At the age of 20., she entered the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation in her native Avila. After 20 years in this convent, she underwent a profound religious conversion which created in her a desire "to follow the vocation for a religious life which His Majesty had given me by keeping my Rule with the greatest possible perfection."2 In 1562, she and three other nuns who shared her vision left the Incarnation with the permission of their religious superior and the local bishop and established in Avila a convent in honor of Saint Joseph where they pledged themselves to follow the primitive Carmelite Rule in the eremitical spirit of "our holy Fathers of past days, the hermits whose lives we attempt to imitate."3 Following this move, she adopted the name, Teresa of Jesus.


1A detailed account in English of the life of Teresa of Avila may be found in William Thomas Walsh, Saint Teresa of Avila (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1943).

2Saint Teresa of Jesus, Life, Chap. 32, pars. 8-9, in The Complete Works of St. Teresa of Avila, 3 vols., translated and edited by E. Allison Peers (London and New York: Sheed & Ward, 1944-46), 1:218-19.

3Saint Teresa of Jesus, Way of Perfection, Chap. 11, par. 3, in Complete Works, 2:48. Although she intended to follow the ancient rule of Saint Albert, it was in fact this rule as mitigated by Innocent IV in 1247 that she actually followed. See Edwards and Hendriks, The Rule of Saint Albert, p. 35.


Teresa's original plan was to establish only one small convent for women in Avila. However, the success of her experiment at Saint Joseph's coincided with the plans of the Father-General of the Carmelite Order, the Italian John Baptist Rossi, to introduce the reforms for religious decreed at the Council of Trent to the Carmelites of Spain and with King Philip II's desire to reform religious life throughout his realm. By 1567, Teresa had permission not only to found other convents for women according to the primitive Rule, but also to establish in Castile two reformed monasteries for Carmelite friars. In September of that year, she arrived in Medina del Campo to open her second convent and to search for suitable Carmelites for the first reformed monastery of friars.

Meanwhile, Fray Juan de Santo Matía had completed his study of the arts and been ordained a priest in Salamanca. Returning to Medina del Campo in the summer of 1567 to celebrate his first Mass in his home town before his family and friends, he met Teresa for the first time in September or October. His name had been suggested to Teresa as a possibility for the reform of the friars and she arranged to talk with the young priest. During their meeting, Teresa explained her plans to establish two monasteries according to the primitive Carmelite Rule. John, in turn, revealed his desire for greater solitude and his intention to join the

pp 40-50

Return To Index