John of the Cross is one of the “greats” in the long line of saints who wrote and taught about what it is like to experience God.
An outstanding theologian, he was the confessor, coworker, and cherished friend of St. Teresa of Ávila. This Carmelite friar was also a poet and mystic who expressed both the ecstasies and the “dark nights” of the journey to God in some of the most beautiful poems in the Spanish language.
John was passionately in love with God, and he experienced God as being passionately in love with him. But he didn’t stop there: He was absolutely convinced that this is how God views every single person he created. And so, the great message of the life and writings of St. John of the Cross is that each and every life is an ongoing love story—the story of God inviting us to a deeper transforming relationship with him.
More than anything else, John’s life and his writings proclaim one central truth: God loves you passionately and without reserve. He is like a lover, a bridegroom who comes looking for space in your heart. Our challenge, then, is to let go of anything that stands in the way, and open ourselves to this passionate love.
Growing Up Poor. John was born in 1542 to impoverished parents in a small farming village in Spain. His father died when John was still a baby. A year later, an older brother died from malnutrition. When John was nine, his mother, Catalina, took him and her other remaining son to live in Medina del Campo, a bustling city northwest of Madrid. There, the family earned a hand-to-mouth living as weavers.
It was a hard life, but Catalina was an extraordinary woman who helped others while still taking good care of her own children. She passed on her deep compassion for anyone in need to both her sons.
John learned reading, writing, and the rudiments of various trades in a boarding school for orphans and poor children. As an adolescent, he became a sort of live-in nurse’s aide at a hospital for victims of the plague and venereal diseases. In exchange for this lowly work, he attended a local Jesuit college, where he became known for his diligence and intellectual gifts.
But it wasn’t all about hard work. John’s love affair with God was underway as well, and at twenty-one, he entered the Carmelite order. Sent to study at the University of Salamanca, John dove into Scripture, theology, and the writings of the Church Fathers. But after being ordained a priest, he decided to leave the Carmelites in search of a more solitary and rigorous life of prayer.
Enter Teresa. Meanwhile, Teresa of Ávila was beginning her mission to reform the Carmelite order and lead her sisters back to its original rule of regular community life, fasting, silence, and prayer. To do this, she established small convents and monasteries throughout Spain—in the process, arousing intense hostility from other members of her order.
The two saints-in-the-making met in 1567, when Teresa was looking for someone to lead a similar reform among Carmelite friars. Impressed with John’s love for God, she recognized a kindred spirit and won him over to her plan. Though she was twenty-seven years his senior, they became fast friends.
While John considered Teresa to be his mentor, she recognized him as her spiritual equal. “I am bringing you a saint for a confessor,” she once told her nuns. More lightheartedly, when the diminutive John (he stood only four feet eleven inches) and another friar committed themselves to helping her, Teresa quipped, “Now I have a friar and a half!” Such was their friendship that John kept a portrait of Teresa with him and exchanged poetry with her by letter. They sorely missed each other when separated for too long.
The Holier, the Gentler. John and two other friars soon began a reformed community in a ramshackle house not far from Ávila. He found the hard manual labor, the pastoral work in a neighboring village, and the peaceful rural surroundings perfect for his prayer life. As other men joined the reform, though, John moved on, becoming master of novices at a new monastery and then teaching at a fledgling university. Perhaps his biggest challenge was being named confessor and spiritual director to the more than 130 nuns at the “unreformed” convent in Ávila. Teresa had been asked to set things right there, as their life was highly disordered, with some nuns enjoying suites and servants and others living in destitution. To renew this badly divided and demoralized community, she knew she needed John’s help.
For the next five years, John lived in a hut at the edge of the property. He said Mass, heard confessions, taught catechism to local children, and gave spiritual direction to both nuns and lay people. In the process, he learned a great deal about God’s subtle way of influencing souls and helped Teresa herself to enter deeper into her prayer life. She found him an incomparable spiritual director. Gradually, so did most of the other nuns at the troubled convent.
One of them admitted that she had gone to John fearfully, thinking that because he had a reputation for holiness, he would be demanding and unsympathetic. But John told her that a confessor who is truly holy—which he insisted he was not—never frightens, because he has a deep knowledge of human weakness. “The holier the confessor, the gentler he is, and the less he is scandalized at other people’s faults.”
Dark Night. As the reform movement grew, it provoked the disagreement and anger of some Carmelite leaders. John stayed out of the wrangling, but he could hardly avoid the jealousy and tension surrounding his role as Teresa’s coworker. Tensions came to a head on December 2, 1577, when John was actually abducted and carried off to a monastery in Toledo. There, the unreformed Carmelites declared him a rebel and threw him into solitary confinement.
For nine months, Teresa had no idea where John was. She feared for his life—and with reason. His tiny cell was dim, airless, and lice infested, freezing in winter and stifling in summer. He was flogged, starved, taunted, and repeatedly told to forsake the reform. This time of physical and psychological abuse, when even God seemed distant, became John’s dark night of the soul.
But in the midst of his stark emptiness, John felt images flowing up from deep within: in the process of being stripped of everything, he was encountering God in a mysterious and even deeper way. “Living flame of love,” “secret ladder,” “absent lover,” “dark night,” “wounded heart,” “silent music”—John stored these images of yearning and finding in his heart, composing poetry even in his dungeon.
Finally one night, rather miraculously, John found a chance to escape. He made his way to a convent of reformed Carmelites, who treated his wounds and spirited him away from his enemies. Weak and shaken as he was, he immediately began writing the poetic masterpieces centered around the images welling up in him: The Dark Night of the Soul and The Spiritual Canticle, and later, Living Flame of Love. In these poems, he poured out his deepest awareness of God’s love.
John the Poet. Following a long and complicated process, the reformed Carmelites became an independent, self-governing community. Until his death in 1591, John devoted himself to overseeing its growth, as well as writing two books that have become spiritual classics: The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul.
Essentially, though, John’s books are extensive commentaries on his poems. He would probably advise us to start with the poems. Written mostly from John’s own perspective, they read like an autobiography and reflect John’s personality. More importantly, they draw us into the immediacy and power of his love relationship with God.
Like any great poetry, John’s poems require us to read receptively, letting the images penetrate our imagination and resonate with our own experience. John himself wrote that we should read them “with the simplicity of the spirit of knowledge and love they contain.”
As John was well aware, no words can fully express what it is like to experience God’s love. Still, through his poems, heart speaks to heart. The story of his spiritual journey shines out in a way that allows us to discover the passion and excitement of our own journey to God.
A Lover Seeking His Beloved. Everyone wants to be loved. Everyone wants to be transformed. And so John speaks to anyone who is looking for the greatest love of all. Though our own experience of God’s love may be different from John’s, each of us can benefit from his gentle guidance. After all, as John repeatedly wrote, God loves us far more deeply and far more passionately than we could ever love him. And in that love, he is always seeking us out, always looking for ways to capture our hearts.
Wayne Simsic is a writer who taught at Ursuline College in Ohio and was on the staff of The Cleveland Ecumenical Institute for Religious Studies.