St John Of The Cross


Carthusians. In her characteristically persuasive way, Teresa pointed out that he could satisfy his desire for solitude without leaving Carmel. He could fulfill the original inspirations of his religious vocation--desire for a contemplative life and devotion to Mary--in the reformed monasteries she envisioned for the friars. John agreed to consider her proposal provided he would not have to wait too long for her plans to become a reality.

John returned to Salamanca and completed his theological studies by the following spring. He was then assigned to the monastery of Santa Ana in Medina. When he arrived back in Medina during the summer of 1568, Teresa had already accepted the offer of Father Antonio de Heredia, superior of the Carmelites in Medina, to join the Reform and the gift of a small farmhouse in Duruelo in the diocese of Avila to be the friars' first monastery.

While awaiting the final approbation to begin at Duruelo, Teresa took John with her on August 9th to Valladolid to open her fourth convent for women. There, in conversations with Teresa, he learned her vision for the reform of the friars and planned its beginning. He observed firsthand the way of life followed by the sisters in the new convent. Acting as confessor to the small community, he gained his first experience in the spiritual direction of Teresa's spiritual daughters, an office she had projected for the reformed


friars.1 When permission for Duruelo finally came through, Teresa was satisfied that John was ready for the new life of the Reform. At the beginning of October, one year after their first meeting in Medina, Teresa sent John to Duruelo to prepare the farmhouse for occupancy. In a letter to a friend, she writes of John at this time:

...small in stature though he is, I believe he is great in the sight of God. We shall certainly miss him sorely here, for he is a sensible person and well fitted for our way of life, so I believe our Lord has called him to this work. There is not a friar but speaks well of him, and he lives a life of great penitence, though he entered upon it so recently....

...I have been greatly encouraged by the spirituality and the virtue which the Lord has given him, at so many difficult times, and I think we are making a good beginning. He is very much given to prayer and most intelligent.2

John had the farmhouse ready for monastic living by November 28. On that day, the first Sunday of Advent, 1568, the Carmelite superior of the Province of Castile, Fray Alonso González, offered the inaugural Mass and three friars --Juan de Santo Matía, Antonio de Heredia, and a deacon named Fray José--then renounced the mitigated Carmelite Rule of Eugene IV and committed themselves to live in the future according to the primitive Carmelite Rule of Saint Albert as


1Bruno, St. John of the Cross, pp. 55, 72, 152.

2Saint Teresa of Jesus. Letter to Francisco de Salcedo, no. 10, September, 1568, in The Letters of Saint Teresa of Avila, 2 vols., translated and edited by E.Allison Peers (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1950), 1:52-53.


corrected by Innocent IV. As a symbol of his new way of life, John took a new name: John of the Cross. The daily schedule established in the monastery emphasized silence, prayer, and penance, together with the apostolic ministry of preaching and hearing confessions in the neighboring farm villages.1 Wearing a religious habit of coarse wool and going about barefooted, the new friars became known as the "Discalced."2

The following spring, Father Provincial appointed John of the Cross novice master with responsibility for introducing new members into the Carmelite life according to the primitive Rule. During the two years John held this office, he personally guided the two novices who came to Duruelo and assisted in formulating formation policies for the ten novices at Pastrana, the second monastery of the Reform founded in 1570 and later to become its official novitiate.

By 1571, The Reform had enough new-members to warrant


lBefore joining Teresa's Reform, both John of the Cross and Anthony de Heredia planned to enter the Carthusian Order in search of greater solitude for prayer. Although eremitical in origin, the Carmelite rule adopted at Duruelo was fundamentally mendicant, combining the contemplative life with active ministry. Thus, it was not the uninterrupted solitude of the charterhouse that John found in the friars' Reform. There would be periods of solitude; but so also would there be considerable time spent in such activities as apostolic ministry, travel, and administration of the Reform.

2Literally, "without shoes." This term was used in the 16th Century to refer to reformed branches of older orders (e.g., the Discalced Franciscans). See Edwards and Hendriks, The Rule of St. Albert, p. 34.


its own college of ecclesiastical studies. The fathers chose Alcalá de Henares, an old Moorish city with an excellent university located midway between Madrid and Pastrana, as the site of the college and John of the Cross as its first rector. Entrusted with the spiritual and intellectual development of the Discalced students, John attempted to inspire in them an attitude which characterized his own student days at Salamanca and is expressed in an aphorism attributed to him at this time:

religioso y estudiante,
religioso por delante.
a religious and student,
but primarily a religious.

Beyond this, we know little about his activities as rector. Apparently, he did not teach in either the college or the university, although he acted as confessor and spiritual director in the local Carmelite convent and heard confessions of lay persons, including a university student who later joined the Reform.1

While at Alcalá, John went for a brief period to Pastrana to handle a dangerous development in the novitiate caused by an intemperate young novice master who imposed humiliating and physically harmful penances on the novices. Along with the public disgrace this brought to the Reform; these practices threatened to drive the novices out of the


lBruno, St. John of the Cross, p. 118.


Order and to discourage future prospects from entering. An austere and penitential person himself, John also understood the discretion counseled by the ancient Carmelite Rule and succeeded in establishing this principle at Pastrana.l This experience undoubtedly influenced John's ideas about the role of penance in the spiritual life and a decade later, when writing the Dark Night, he condemned excessive bodily penance as a form of "spiritual gluttony," a "penance of beasts" which promotes vice rather than virtue.2

As these developments of 1568 to 1572 were unfolding among the Discalced friars, Teresa was busy elsewhere in Spain founding new convents for women according to the primitive Carmelite Rule in Toledo, Pastrana, Salamanca, and Alba de Tormes. 3 In July, 1571, the Apostolic Visitator, Pedro Fernández, ordered her back to Avila as superior of the Incarnation to restore religious observance in the convent where she had previously lived for 27 years. Poverty had caused such material and spiritual deterioration in the


1Albert of Jerusalem concluded the primitive Carmelite Rule in the following words: "Here then are the few points I have written down to provide you with a standard of conduct to live up to; but our Lord, at His second coming, will reward anyone who does more than he is obliged to do. See that the bounds of common sense are not exceeded, however, for common sense is the guide of the virtues." (Translation by Bede Edwards in Edwards and Hendriks, The Rule of Saint Albert, p. 93).


3St.Teresa of Jesus, Book of the Foundations: chaps. 15-20, in Complete Works, 3:69-103.


Incarnation that in 1567 the Carmelite Father General forbade the acceptance of novices for fear they would starve to death.

To assist her in this delicate task, Teresa arranged to have Fernández appoint John of the Cross official confessor of the convent. Teresa, who considered her part in the reform of the friars to be a "greater grace" than that of founding monasteries for nuns,1 had specially prepared John for his work with the friars. Now, faced with reform of 130 hungry women, many of whom intensely and vociferously resented her being placed in authority over them without their vote or consent, Teresa's own immediate needs forced her to call the young friar to her aid, apparently without regard for what his loss would mean to the friars.

Sometime after April, 1572, John assumed his duties at the Incarnation, hearing the weekly confessions of the 130 nuns, offering their daily Mass, and tending to their spiritual needs. Although Teresa had assured the nuns that "I am bringing you, ladies, a saint for confessor,"2 John still faced the initial resistance the nuns naturally felt for Teresa's hand-picked confessor, a man whose reputation for personal asceticism also caused them to fear he would impose his austerities on them. Gradually, his skill and


lIbid., p. 69.

2Vida y Obras, p. 98; Life, p. 71.


gentleness won their confidence and respect. He took a personal interest in each nun and often wrote out brief spiritual maxims to help remind them of the truths of the spirit.1 During this period, he remarked that "the holier the confessor, the gentler he is and the less he is scandalized at other people's faults, because he understands man's weak condition better."2 As early as September, 1572, Teresa reported in a letter to her sister that "The Discalced friar who hears confession here does much good. He is Fray John of the Cross."3

John's ministry eventually spread beyond the Incarnation to other religious and laity with effective, though often costly, results. One lovely young nun of Avila, after going to confession to John for a short time, gave up a questionable relationship with a rich gentleman of the city who, in retaliation, physically attacked him one evening after he left his confessional. In another case, John discerned the work of the devil in an Augustinian nun with a reputation for divinely infused knowledge of the Sacred


lJohn continued throughout his life to write these brief maxims for his spiritual sons and daughters. These maxims, many of which are collected in his Sayings of Light and Love and Maxims and Counsels (see Collected Works, pp. 653-54 and 666-82), contain the seminal ideas which are developed at greater length in his major doctrinal treatises. See Vida y Obras, pp. 249-50; Life, pp. 222-23.

2Vida y Obras., pp. 102-3; Life, p. 75.

3Vida y Obras, p. 99; Life, p. 71.


Scriptures. He then exorcised her, an exhausting ordeal which lasted several months. This was the first of two known exorcisms he performed while in Avila, leading Teresa to believe that God had granted him the "grace to cast out devils from persons possessed."l On another occasion, he traveled fifty miles to Medina del Campo to evaluate a Carmelite nun thought to be possessed by the devil. After a short time with the nun, he concluded that melancholia, not the devil, was the cause of her condition.

But John's greatest challenge as a director during these years was Teresa herself who was 27 years his senior, an experienced mystic and already the author of two books on the spiritual life. For two years--from the summer of 1572 when John arrived in Avila until October of 1574 wnen Teresa left her post as prioress--the Mother Foundress opened her soul to the young confessor. Apparently undeterred by her experience and authority, John guided Teresa during these months when she reached the height of her spiritual life, the mystical marriage with her Lord Jesus.2

His first decade in the Carmelite reform brought John valuable experience in spiritual direction. From the be-


ILetter to Madre Inés de Jesús, No. 43, March, 1573, in Letters, 1:115.

2Vida y Obras, p. 106; Life, p. 78; Bruno, St. John of the Cross, pp. 127-28. See also Saint Teresa's Spiritual Relations, No. 35, in Complete works, 1:351-52.


ginning, the guidance of souls was his primary occupation. At Duruelo, Pastrana, Alcalá, and Avila he devoted himself almost entirely to the spiritual welfare of Carmelite friars and nuns, religious of other orders, and lay persons. He encountered the varied phenomena of the spiritual life which required discernment of spirits. He learned the value of gentleness in a confessor and the importance of discretion in corporal penance.

John's most valuable experience during this period, however, was his personal association with Teresa of Avila. An extraordinary personality highly favored by God, Teresa was then at the zenith of her religious career. She recognized in the young priest from Medina a promising contribution to her Reform and personally influenced his decision to remain in the Order of Carmel. She shared with him her own vision of life according to the primitive Carmelite Rule and prepared him for the role he was to play among the friars. She took him with her an three foundations of convents for Carmelite women and encouraged her daughters to reveal their souls to him. When faced with the renewal of the convent of the Incarnation, she called him to her side as confessor to the community. Above all, she entrusted herself to John's direction at a time when God favored her with sublime graces, allowing him to observe firsthand a Christian soul at the height of its spiritual ascent.


In return for his devoted service to her and the Reform, Teresa held John in highest regard. She delighted as much in his intelligence as in his holiness, calling him her "Little Seneca" after the ancient Spanish philosopher. When she left the Incarnation in 1574, she considered him an accomplished director. She saw him again only on several brief occasions before she died in 1582. Her opinion of him as a confessor was thus formed on the basis of their years together at the Incarnation. In 1578, writing to the superior of the Beas convent in Andalucia where John had recently begun as confessor to the community, Teresa stated:

. . . I assure you, my daughter, since he left us I have not found another like him in the whole of Castile, nor anyone else who inspires souls with such fervor to journey to Heaven. You would never believe how lonely I feel without him. Consider what a great treasure you have in that saint, and see that all the sisters in your house talk to him and tell him about their souls. They will see what good it does them and will find themselves in every way greatly advanced in spirituality and perfection, for our Lord has given him special grace for that purpose . . . .

I can assure you I should be glad if I had my Father Fray John of the Cross here, for he is indeed the Father of my soul and one of those with whom it does me most good to have converse. Treat him with complete frankness, my daughter, for, I assure you, you can behave with him just as you would with me and he will satisfy you fully in your needs, for he is very spiritual and has great experience and learning. He is sorely missed here by those who were brought up on his teaching. So give thanks to God for having ordained that you shall have him so near you. I am writing to tell him to attend to your wants, and he is

pp 50-60

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