St. John of the Cross was born Juan de Yepes Álvarez, (June 24, 1542-Dec. 14, 1591), in the humble farming village of Fontiveros, Spain. “Fontiveros” means “true spring.” St. John was a Carmelite friar and priest, a mystic, and a major figure of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.
St. John’s writings and poetry, including to Mount Carmel, Dark Night of the Soul, and A Spiritual Canticle, are considered to be the summit of mystical Spanish literature. Because of his powerful influence on the Christian tradition of mysticism, our Church proclaimed him a Doctor of Mysticism, along with St. Teresa of Avila.
St. John and St. Teresa of Avila helped renew the Order of Carmelites, challenging them to be true to the spring of life that is contemplative prayer. Many in the Order felt threatened by his challenge to truth. Amid the conflicts of his day, this reform eventually split the Carmelites into two branches: his reform becoming the Discalced Carmelites. From 1575 to 1577 tensions increased between the two branches of Carmelites.
This division was so deep that it led to St. John’s kidnapping and imprisonment. He spent nine months in a tiny cell, during which time he was beaten three times per week. It was during this dark time that he wrote much of his mystical poetry, including the Living Flame of Love. The darkness and rejection did not dampen or define his spirit.
Eventually St. John escaped his imprisonment and spent the remainder of his life sharing and explaining his experience of God’s love. Instead of anger and resentment, his imprisonment and harsh treatment produced the mystic who would say, “Where there is no love, put love – and you will find love.”
The core of St. John of the Cross’ teaching is “nada, nada, nada!” Basically, it means that “nothing, nothing, nothing” other than God will define us – as God alone is the true spring of life and source of all goodness and love. St. John believed that true holiness leads to humility, the knowledge that all is grace and gift, and that life is not about individual needs.
St. John shows us how God strips our ego of trying to make ourselves the center of our lives. It flows from the recognition that everything comes from God for the benefit of all humanity. All true conversion comes down to acknowledging that “life is not about me!” It is only through emptying ourselves that we can see that what is impossible for us is possible through God.