María Teresa Morgan
St John Vianney College Seminary
Come Thanksgiving and Christmas, Publix’s advertisements portray family gatherings around a lavish table, reminding us of the importance of familial bonds as well as of cherished moments with loved ones. But the ads also elicit conflicting emotions: we feel the absence of the ones who “have gone before us,” we become more aware of others who, by reason of poverty, distance, immigration, divorce, family estrangements, or whatever other misfortune has befallen them or us, are prevented from celebrating in the warmth of family. Not bad for a Publix advertisement, for these universal experiences are underlined in Amoris Laetitia: the invitation to reflect on the joy and beauty of the family (AL 1), the realization that different realities affect family relationships (AL 57), and the exhortation to become aware of and to reach out to those in need (AL 183, 197, 201, 324).
Saints are living books for their lives portray, in concrete and personal ways, the meaning of discipleship. It is encouraging that Post Vatican II hagiographies, following the directive of Sacrosanctum Concilium #23 and #92, are generally devoid of extraordinary elements that previously embellished the lives of the saints, presenting instead more historically sourced accounts that are realistic and relatable. As such, we learn much by engaging in the spiritual practice of reading saints’ biographies, for we find that they were not unlike us, that they also were allotted the parcel of joys, struggles and tragedies that come with the human condition. This reflection presents the life of St John of the Cross¹ from the perspective of selected themes found in Amoris Laetitia.
Throughout this presentation we will encounter, embedded in his story, issues such as spousal and parental love (AL chapters 4, 5 and 9), the “sting of death” at the passing of a spouse or a child (AL 253-254), unemployment (AL 25), rejection by family (AL 166), hunger, homelessness, poverty, migration (AL 44-49), and single parenthood (AL 252). For every event in the saint’s life I will refer the reader to a corresponding passage in the Apostolic Exhortation. Though I touch briefly upon these, my purpose is to portray in a tangible way through the life of this great mystic, the “mosaic” (AL 57) of diverse family experiences that are addressed in Amoris Laetitia. My intent is also to honor the memory of John of the Cross’ mother, Catalina Alvarez and, in memorializing her, to acknowledge all those women who bear, alone, the burden of the love and joy of family. I will first consider John of the Cross’ parents, who under adverse circumstances exemplified the love that sustained the saint’s life (AL 119, 314).
¹ My sources for the saint’s biography are twofold: Crisógono de Jesús, O.C.D.,Vida y Obras de San Juan de la Cruz; Doctor de la Iglesia Universal (B.A.C., Madrid, 1964), and Federico Ruiz Salvador, O.C.D., Introducción a San Juan de la Cruz; el hombre, los escritos, el sistema (B.A.C., Madrid, 1968). Whenever I provide less known details of the saint’s life, I will footnote the references.
John of the Cross (1542-1591) was born Juan de Yepes in Fontiveros, Spain, a town between Avila and Salamanca. His father, Gonzalo de Yepes, probably came from a judeoconverso family in Toledo², and his mother, Catalina Alvarez, also a toledana, was probably a morisca orphan³ who had been taken in by a widow. Like every other love story, theirs is unique in its own way, for they married because they loved one another and, in doing so, they gave everything up for the sake of that love. The de Yepes family was a well to do hidalgo family, and Gonzalo was employed as an accountant for his uncle. Catalina was a weaver whose poverty, social class, and morisca origins were the last straw for the de Yepes family who, strongly opposing the union, disinherited and rejected Gonzalo. Devoid of other options, he joined his wife Catalina in the work of a weaver.
John of the Cross probably had few memories of his father, for he died when John was a toddler. But it would be difficult to imagine his mother not telling him stories about his father, about the love Catalina and Gonzalo shared with each other and with their three children. We may well construe the ways in which his parents’ love influenced John of the Cross’ emphasis on the primacy of love and led him to venture out into his nights “sin otra luz y guía/ sino la que en el corazón ardía” (Noche Oscura, III). That foundational love provided John with a basis of stability that sustained him through the many tribulations that followed (AL 66, 90). To these misfortunes I now turn my attention.
Amoris Laetitia points out how economic, political and social situations lead to conditions that have devastating effects in the life of a child (25, 26, 45, 46, 49). When I discuss Lazarillo de Tormes with my students, a novel published in 1544, merely two years after John of the Cross’ birth, one of the topics that comes up is the economic and social crisis that led to the ravages of homelessness, hunger and migration in 16th century Spain. John of the Cross could have become another Lazarillo for his childhood is marked by penury, orphanhood, migration, the death of his older brother from malnutrition, and the callous rejection from his father’s family. We ask then, what made the difference? I believe it was the providence of God, the love of his parents (AL 314) and, after his father’s death, the devoted love and “dogged heroism” (AL 118) of his mother Catalina.
Shortly after John’s birth, Gonzalo became sick; his long and painful illness exhausted the family’s meager savings, and his death plunged the family into destitution. Catalina, faced with the premature loss of her spouse, found herself with no resources to provide for her three children, Francisco, Luis and John.
²Regarding the “enigma” of John of the Cross’ ancestry see: Jose Vicente Rodríguez, O.C.D., “Raíces y Primeras Secuencias” in San Juan de la Cruz; La Biografia,” https://1library.com. Although John of the Cross’ Jewish ancestry cannot be definitely proven, scholars such as Elizabeth Christina Wilhelmsen and Jose C. Gómez-Menor, point to a document from the archives of the Inquisition in Torrijos, identifying Gonzalo and Elvira de Yepes among those “rehabilitated” (from Judaism) by the Inquisition. Since these are the names of John of the Cross’ paternal grandparents, the authors leave no doubt that the persons mentioned in the archives of the Inquisition refer to John of the Cross’ grandparents.
³Jose Carlos Gómez-Menor, https://realacademiatoledo.ed, The author in his detailed and scholarly research about the lineage of John of the Cross’ parents, traces the morisca origins of Catalina Alvarez. See: Gómez-Menor, “Raíces Históricas de San Juan de la Cruz” (Toledo; Ediciones Trébedes, 2011) pág. 22.
After Gonzalo’s death the young widow embarked in one of the two migrations that marked John’s childhood. The first one was from Fontiveros to Torrijos and then to Gálvez, seeking two wealthy paternal uncles of the children, in the hope that the de Yepes family would be moved to provide some assistance to them. John was about two years old at the time and she probably had to carry him in her arms part of the long journey.⁴ The door of the de Yepes was shut to them and, not finding help from Gonzalo’s family, she returned to Fontiveros, where Luis died from malnutrition. Amoris Laetitia mentions rejection as a painful and destructive event in the life of children (AL 166). John of the Cross must have suffered greatly from the abandonment by his father’s family and from witnessing his brother’s death as a result, in part, of their neglect.
Some four years after her return to Fontiveros and seeing there was no future for them in the town, Catalina migrated again with her two surviving children to Arévalo (1548), where she experienced the same destitution, and then to Medina del Campo, a more prosperous center of trade where she hoped to find a market for her weaving. The city had a large population living in poverty but the “cofradías benéficas” offered assistance with food and temporary shelter. Once more, privation and lack of resources followed Catalina and her two children to their new home. John, her youngest son, had known hunger since his birth and, fearing that he would suffer the same fate as Luis, she placed him in the Colegio de la Doctrina, a type of orphanage where children would be housed, fed and instructed in a trade in exchange for some work on their part. Of this time in the Colegio, we find that John helped in the sacristy of the convent of the Magdalenas and served as an altar boy. He was also trained as a tailor as well as in woodworking and painting, but “in none of these he succeeded.”⁵ One can read between the lines the sense of failure and frustration hidden in this statement.
We see that poverty, migration and rejection from his father’s extended family, marked John of the Cross’ childhood. As previously stated, these same factors are presented in Amoris Laetitia as situations that deeply affect families. Federico Ruiz Salvador, along with other biographers, believe that the key to John of the Cross’ night, and to his “nadas” hearken back to these childhood experiences.⁶ But as opposed to taking him down a road to resentment, cynicism and dejection (AL 119), these experiences uncovered the path of ascending “la secreta escala” (Noche Oscura, II) to God (AL 315, 316). Crisógono de Jesús points to the experience of a close and loving nuclear family as well as to the fact that the family, poor as they were, sheltered, cared for, and begged on behalf of children who were abandoned so as to provide for them⁷ (AL 324).
What followed the Colegio de la Doctrina was a more prosperous time for John of the Cross. He went on to work at the Hospital de la Concepción, known as the “hospital de las bubas”, that tended to the poor and to syphilitic patients.⁸ There, John found that caring for the sick was more akin to his gifts and inclinations than tailoring and woodworking. The director of the hospital, Alonso Alvarez de Toledo, encouraged John to pursue an education as a pupilo in a Jesuit school, where he excelled in his study of the classics. Alvarez de Toledo was hoping that John would become a priest and serve as chaplain to the hospital, but he decided to join the Order of Carmel.
⁴Ruiz Salvador, 14.
⁵Crisógono de Jesús, Vida y Obra de San Juan de la Cruz, p. 31,32.
⁶Federico Ruiz Salvador, O.C.D., Introducción a San Juan de la Cruz, p. 16
⁷Crisógono de Jesús, Vida y Obra de San Juan de la Cruz, 40.
One would think that in his religious order John would find a positive experience of family, but that was not to be. No doubt there were extended periods of joy and peace during his 28 years as a Carmelite. After all, this is the religious tradition that granted him “a double portion” of the spirit of Elijah (2 Kings 2, 9), the prophet considered by Carmelites to be their founder. And, as a member of this religious community, John of the Cross parted the waters of ineffability with Elijah’s cloak (2 Kings 2, 13,14) and wrote some of the greatest mystical works in Christianity, as well as poems of unsurpassed beauty in the Spanish language. But one must not gloss over the unbelievable suffering that some members of his Order inflicted upon him. I will now proceed to mention two key events that frame his experience in the religious family of Carmel along with his response of love that Amoris Laetitia says “endures all things “, and sees “God’s light shining beyond the darkness, like an ember glowing beneath the ash” (AL 114).
Joining Teresa in the reform of Carmel, John was caught in the tangle of byzantine laws that governed certain aspects of religious life in post Counter Reformation Spain. In December of 1577 John was blindfolded and forcibly taken from Avila by the friars of his Order and a band of armed men and imprisoned in the conventual jail of the Carmelites in Toledo. He spent nine months locked in a windowless cell, given spoiled food that caused dysentery, and lashed three times a week in the refectory by his religious brothers on the charge he was a rebellious friar. Some of the wounds inflicted then never healed.
The strange thing is that during his imprisonment in a dark narrow cell, John composed not the Dark Night, but rather 31 stanzas of his longest poem, the Spiritual Canticle, the one filled with love and rejoicing in the Beloved (stanza 36, Canticle B), the one with luminous images of mountains, flowers, “resounding rivers,” “quiet music” and “sounding solitude” (stanzas 14, 15); the poem that we may truly call “the joy of love.” By August of 1578 John became convinced he had to break out of jail and trusted that Our Lady would help him to flee.⁹ She did. On the eve of the Assumption of Mary he escaped by jumping from a window using a rope he had fashioned from scraps of fabric. He did so while his Carmelite brothers were heavy with sleep allowing John to break free from his prison, “en la noche dichosa… en secreto que nadie me veía…” (Noche Oscura I, III).
After his daring escape and fearing for his life he withdrew to Andalusia, putting a safe distance from his captors. There he continued his indefatigable work of the reform of the Carmelite Order, and dedicated time to writing in the midst of his administrative duties and charitable work. In 1580 the acrimonious strife between the O.Carm, (of the Ancient Rule) and the O.C.D. (of the Primitive Rule) came to an end through the efforts of Philip II, and the Discalced Carmelites were granted independent jurisdiction.
⁹I have always enjoyed this subversive image of Mary!
John of the Cross’ mother Catalina, with whom he was close all his life, died in 1580, he and his brother Francisco remained close until the end of his life. Some time after Teresa’s death in 1582 and toward the end of John of the Cross’ life, the Discalced Carmelite Vicar General, Nicolás Doria, motivated by unfettered ambition, sought to change Teresa’s vision so as to impose his own seal in the reform of Carmel. John objected to his revisionary program and Nicolás Doria and his sympathizers went after John with a vengeance. The very Order he had helped to reform and for whose sake he had suffered imprisonment and persecution, rejected him at the end. The plan was either to expel him from Carmel or to send him to the New World as a punishment. Mercifully, he died before these measures could be carried out. It must have been extremely painful. During this last rejection from his religious family he lamented with the line of Psalm 69: “I have become an alien to my brothers, a stranger to my mother’s sons” (Carmel is the Order of Mary). In a letter of July 6, 1591 to María de la Encarnación he wrote: “ … do no let what is happening to me, daughter, cause you any grief… Think only that God ordains all, and where there is no love, put love, and you will find love…” (See related passages in AL 116, 118).
Amoris Laetitia is not an abstract document. The Apostolic Exhortation gathers the responses and findings of the two-year Synodal process on Families presenting the ideals of love found in “the domestic Church”, always in the context of the complex situations that families face today (AL 2-4). Some of our contemporary issues are not unlike those that St John of the Cross faced during his life. His story is not only fascinating, but his witness inspires and encourages us to persevere in the way of love, a love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Cor13: 7; AL 90).