John of the Cross (1542-1591) appears within the chorus of late medieval mystical writers with especial prominence. The intensity with which he speaks concerning the Dark Night impresses upon the reader the conviction that John is uniquely acquainted with the experiences he describes. His determination to abandon all images in prayer, both sensory and conceptual, is exceptional when compared to the approach to prayer shared by many of his contemporaries.The question then presents itself: what experiential and literary sources served as the inspiration for his profound and articulate teachings on the Dark Night? The pursuer of this inquiry immediately encounters a formidable barrier: John did not leave behind the intimate and detailed account of his life as did his close acquaintance, Teresa of Avila (1515-1582). In his writings, John only rarely cites his sources and betrays no great reliance on any particular tradition other than Holy Scripture. Nonetheless, several biographies of John appeared only a few decades after his repose, supported by eyewitness accounts. From these, a picture emerges of the intense spiritual life that John experienced and that undoubtedly shaped his thought. In addition, certain observations can be made regarding the influence that John’s extensive education made upon his teachings. John’s lyrical image of the Dark Night remains uniquely his, but it is an image set upon a historical and theological framework of which it would be quite beneficial to become more familiar.
Juan de Yepes, who would later take the name John of the Cross, was born in 1542 in the small town of Fontiveros. His childhood was spent in abject poverty. His father, Gonzalo de Yepes descended from a wealthy merchant family. However, his marriage to Catalina Alvarez in 1529, an orphan of the working class, resulted in Gonzalo’s family cutting all ties of support. Gonzalo was forced to adopt his wife’s trade of weaving and to rely on the meager income it brought to support his family, which numbered three boys, John being the last. Gonzalo died shortly after John’s birth. His widow tried in vain to gain assistance from his wealthy relatives. In 1548, John’s older brother, Luis, died, likely of malnourishment. The same year, Catalina and her two remaining sons moved to Arevalo. In 1551, she moved to the bustling market town of Medina del Campo to find work in its many weaving shops. Here, the nine-year old John was sent to a catechism school for the poor. His aptitude and zeal for learning attracted the attention of a rich patron, Don Alonso Alvarez, who had him sent to the College of the Children of Doctrine, a grammar school administered by the Jesuits.
At the Jesuit College, John studied Greek, Latin, rhetoric, and philosophy. Among his teachers, was the esteemed young Jesuit master, Padre Juan Bonifacio (ca. 1538-1606), who took John’s education under his special tutelage. When he had finished his education in 1563, Don Alonso desired that John become a chaplain of the Medina Hospital, where he was administrator. One would have expected John to readily accept this lucrative position, or at least to continue under the auspices of the Society of Jesus. However, at the tender age of twenty-one, John entered the Carmelite order, taking the name: John of Saint Matthias.