St. John of the Cross (originally Juan de Yepes y Álvarez 1542-91) was a Spanish mystic born in Ávila.
As a Carmelite monk, he and St. Teresa of Ávila founded the Discalced Carmelites.
In Toledo he was imprisoned in 1577, but he escaped and became Vicar Provincial of Andalusia (1585-87).¹
Today, St. John of the Cross is best known in Catholic and contemplative Christian circles as the author of the Christian spiritual classic, Dark Night of the Soul.
In this introspective account St. John writes from personal experience about the delights and dejection involved in his own path of spiritual purification.
The work is reminiscent of another Christian classic, The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis. And it is often cited by Jungians and other contemporary seekers as justification for long periods of feeling lousy, alienated and/or depressed (Carl Jung, himself, used an alchemical metaphor to describe depression as the nigredo—a stage of inner darkness).
While it seems that the spiritual life can involve initial periods of psycho-spiritual darkness and confusion, we should remember that, like St. John indicates, this is usually only a stage. With healthy-minded mysticism, as William James would have put it, some kind of inner “daylight” and meaning should emerge after a period of profound confusion, despair and seeming meaningless.
However, the two states may continue to alternate to some extent through the course of one’s new life. Christian seekers use another metaphor for the negative states, calling them periods of “dryness.” This comes from the idea that the Holy Spirit is experienced as a kind of pure and clean spiritual “water” from above.
St. John was canonized in 1726 and his feast day is on December 14th.
¹ This is well described at Wikipedia:
On the night of 2 December 1577, John was taken prisoner by his superiors in the calced Carmelites, who had launched a counter-program against John and Teresa’s reforms. John had refused an order to return to his original house, on the basis that his reform work had been approved by the Spanish Nuncio, a higher authority than John’s direct superiors in the calced Carmelites. John was jailed in Toledo, where he was kept under a brutal regimen that included public lashing before the community at least weekly, and severe isolation in a tiny stifling cell barely large enough for his body. He managed to escape nine months later, on 15 August 1578, through a small window in a room adjoining his cell. (He had managed to pry the cell door off its hinges earlier that day). In the meantime, he had composed a great part of his most famous poem Spiritual Canticle during this imprisonment; his harsh sufferings and spiritual endeavours are then reflected in all of his subsequent writings. The paper was passed to him by one of the friars guarding his cell.
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