St. John of the Cross was born John de Yepes, in 1542, near the Spanish city of Avila. His father, a silk weaver, died when John was young, and his mother Catalina struggled to provide for her children. John was very good at school, but was unable to successfully learn a trade as an apprentice. Instead, he worked in a hospital for the poor, and studied at a Jesuit college in Medina del Campo.
John entered the Carmelite order in 1563. He had already been living a severely ascetic life, so he received permission to live according to the original rule of the Carmelites, which focused on solitude, silence, poverty, work, and contemplative prayer.
In 1567, John was ordained as a priest, and was considering taking vows as a Carthusian, when he met St. Teresa of Avila. During the 1560s, St. Teresa, who was a Carmelite nun, began a movement to return the Carmelites to the strict observance they had originally followed. She asked John to help her lead the reform.
John changed his name from John of St. Matthias to John of the Cross, and, accompanied by two other men, he began reform work in 1568. He was in charge of a group of recruits to the “Discalced Carmelites,” so called because they wore sandals instead of regular shoes as a sign of their poverty. He spent five years as the confessor at a monastery in Avila that St. Teresa led.
In December of 1577, John was imprisoned in a tiny cell for nine months, during a dispute over his assignment in the order. He was regularly flogged publicly and subject to harsh punishments, but during this time, he wrote the poetry that would become his spiritual writings.
John escaped in August 1578, and resumed his work. Over the next 10 years, he wrote spiritual teachings, including “The Ascent of Mount Carmel” and “The Dark Night of the Soul.” But he lost his leadership within the order due to conflicts, and spent the last years of his life in ill health and mistreated.
John died on Dec. 14, 1591, 9 years after St. Teresa of Avila. He was brought closer to God throughout his life by his trials and sufferings, and his writings echo this, teaching us to love God above all things.
Soon after St. John’s death, he was recognized for his spirituality and wisdom. He was beatified in 1675, canonized in 1726, and named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI.