It fell to Friar John of the Cross to live in historical circumstances that offered him rich possibilities which spurred the full development of his faith. During his lifetime (1542-1591), an intense and creative religious age begins in Spain, Europe, and America. It is the age of the evangelical expansion of the Catholic Reform. It is also a time of accord, of ruptures in the unity of the Church, and of internal and external conflicts. The critical juncture urges a response. The Church holds a great Council to teach and reform, the Council of Trent. She evangelizes a new continent, America. She invigorates the Christian roots of an old world, Europe.
These situations and events mark out the context in which the life of John of the Cross unfolds. He spends his childhood and youth in extreme poverty and has to make his way by working with his hands in Fontiveros, Arevalo and Medina del Campo. He follows a Carmelite calling and receives a higher education in the halls of the University of Salamanca. Immediately alter a providential meeting with Saint Teresa of Jesus, he embraces the Reform of Carmel and begins a new form of life in the first convento of Duruelo. The first male Discalced Carmelite, he shares the ups and downs and difficulties of his religious family as it comes to birth. Imprisonment in Toledo, the solitude of El Calvario and La Penuela in Andalusia, his apostolate in the monasteries of nuns, and his work as Superior weather him. His mature personality emerges in a lyric outpouring of poetry, in his written commentaries, in his simple conventual life, and in his itinerant apostolate. Alcala de Henares, Segovia and Ubeda are names which evoke the fullness of his interior life, of his priestly ministry, and his spiritual magisterium.
This rich experience enables him to face the state of the Church of his time with an open attitude. He is aware of what is taking place. In his writings he alludes to heresies and errors. At the end of his life he offers to go to Mexico to preach the Gospel. He is preparing to carry out his purpose when sickness and death cut him short.
John de Yepes’ response to the grave spiritual needs of his time is to embrace a contemplative vocation. He is not washing his hands of his human and Christian responsibilities. On the contrary, in taking this step he is committing himself to living with full awareness the very heart of the faith by seeking the face of God, by listening to His word and putting it into practice, and by surrendering himself to the service of his neighbor.
John shows us that the Christian can find complete fulfilment in the contemplative life. The contemplative does not limit himself to spending long stretches in prayer. The companions of the Carmelite Saint and his biographers give us a dynamic picture of him. As a youth, John learned to nurse the sick and to lay bricks and stones and to work in the orchard and adorn the church. As an adult, he discharges responsibilities in government and formation, attentive always to the spiritual and material needs of his brethren. He goes on long journeys by foot in order spiritually to assist his sisters, the Discalced Carmelite Nuns, for he is convinced of the value of their contemplative life for the Church. His attitude may be summed up by a basic conviction: It is God and God alone that gives value and meaning to every activity, “For where God is unknown, nothing is known” (6).
His special vocation as a contemplative Carmelite enabled him to serve the Church and her needs in the best way through his life and writings. And so Friar John lived in the company of his brothers and sisters in Carmel in prayer and silence, in service and sober simplicity and renunciation which were steeped in faith, hope and love. With St. Teresa of Jesus, he realized and shared the fullness of the Carmelite charism. Together they continue to be in the Church eminent witnesses of the living God.