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John of the Cross

Table of contents
1 Introduction
2 His life
3 Literary Works


St. John of the Cross''

Saint John of the Cross was a Spanish Carmelite friar, born on June 24, 1542 at Fontiveros, a small village near Avila.

He is renowned for his cooperation with Saint Theresa of Avila in the reformation of the Carmelite Order and for his writings; actually, he is considered the summit of mystical Spanish literature, both for his poetry and for his studies on the growth of the soul (in the christian sense of detachment from creatures and attachment to God).

His life

Between his birth and 1563, he lived in different Castilian villages, ending in Medina del Campo on 1551, where he studied from 1559 to 1563 humanidades at the Jesuit school. There, in 1563 he entered the Carmel Order, adopting the name Fr. Juan de Santo Matía.

The following year (1564) he proffessed as a Carmelite and moved to Salamanca, to study at the University and at the Colegio de San Andrés. This stay will influence all his later writings, as at the University there was Fray Luis de León teaching biblical studies (Exegesis and Hebrew and Aramaic), who was one of the main experts in Biblical Studies then and had written an important and controversial translation of the Song of Songs into Spanish (translation of the Bible into the vernacular were not allowed then in Spain).

He was ordained a priest in 1567. That same year he met Saint Teresa de Jes&uacte;s, who immediately talked to him about her reformation projects for the Carmelite Order also among the friars. The following year, on 28 November, he started this reformation at Duruelo together with Fr. Antonio de Jesús de Heredia. The following years, until 1577 he works as a helper of Saint Teresa, founding monasteries around Spain and taking active part in their government. These foundations and the reformation process was contested by a great number of Carmelite friars, which explains the following events. To differentiate themselves from the non-reformed communities, the friars and nuns following St. John and St. Teresa call themselves the "discalced" and the others the "calced" Carmelites.

The night between 3 and 4 December 1577 he is taken prisioner by the calced in Toledo, where he is kept in a rigurous regime (including public lashing before the Community at least weekly and a severe isolation) until he runs away on 15 August, 1578. He composed great part of his most famous poem Spiritual Canticle during this imprisonment, and his sufferings and spiritual endeavours then can be hinted in all of his writings.

After returning to his normal life, he went on with the reformation and the founding of monasteries until 1591, when he dies on the 14 December.

His writings appear for the first time in 1618. In 1675 he is beatified by Pope Clement X and in 1726 he is canonized by Benedict XIII. In 1926 he was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pius XI.

Literary Works

St. John of the Cross is reputedly the summit of mystical Spanish poetry, and one of the main poets in Spanish. Although his complete poems add up to less than 2500 verses, two of them -The Spiritual Canticle and Upon a gloomy night are among the best poems ever written in Spanish, both from the formal stylistical point of view and their rich symbolism and imagery.

The Spiritual Canticle is an eclogue in which the soul (represented by a bride) is searching for Christ (who appears as the bridegroom), her anxiety at having lost him and their joy at the rejoinder. It can be seen as a (free) Spanish version of the Song of songs at a time at which translations of the Bible into vernacular were forbidden.

Upon a gloomy night narrates the journey of the soul from her bodily jail to her union with God. It happens during the night, which represents the hardships and difficulties she finds in getting detached from earthly links and reaching the light of the union with her Creator. There are several steps in this night, which are related in successive stanzas.

St. John wrote also three treatises on mystical theology, two of them concerning the two poems above, and supposedly explaining the meaning of the poems verse by verse and even word by word. He actually proves unable to follow this scheme and writes freely on the subject he is treating at each time. The third work, Ascent of Mount Carmel is a more systematic study of the ascetical endeavour of a soul looking for perfect union with God, and the mystical events happening along the way. These, together with his Sayings of Love and Peace and St. Teresa's writings are the most important mystical works in Spanish, and have deeply influenced later spiritual writers all around the world (and non-spiritual, as T. S. Eliot).