St. John of the Cross (1542-1591)

Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

Artist's Narrative:
San Juan de la Cruz

As a child, John of the Cross grew up in extreme poverty in the slums where Islamic converts or their descendants lived in northern Spain. One of his brothers died of malnutrition, and John suffered from rickets, which kept him from growing any taller than 5 feet. The great mystical poetry that he wrote as an adult was strongly influenced by the Moorish love ballads that he heard throughout his youth.

After joining the Carmelite Order, he met St. Teresa of Avila and became a part of her reform movement. He worked to reform his order for nine years, and was then arrested by Carmelites opposed to the reform and imprisoned for nine months in the tiny guest latrine of a friary in Toledo. The stench there made breathing difficult, and his body became infested with worms. He finally escaped at night through a window by climbing down a makeshift rope, but not before he had composed some of the world’s most beautiful mystical poetry.

Working again among the reformed houses, he was eventually exiled to a remote friary when extremists opposed his more moderate position. There he soon became very sick, but was refused proper food and medical care by the local superior, who bore him a grudge. He died just before midnight December 14, 1591.

In this icon he holds a ball of flames, and flame also arises from his head, as a symbol of the divine love that filled his soul -- love he described as living flames in his poetry. The inscription by his head is Arabic for St. John of the Cross, and honors the Arabic heritage he received from his mother. The inscription at the bottom is the same, but in Spanish, written in the old Latin letters that were in style in his day.

His feast day is December 14.


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