An important and fascinating figure of the Counter-Reformation, John (December 14) is one of the 35 Doctors of the Church and formed the Discalced, or barefoot, Carmelites alongside Teresa of Avila. He was a poet and prose writer of outstanding talent, and his writings on the soul are still considered among the most compelling works of Spanish literature.
John was born in 1542 just outside Avila, the son of a wealthy accountant from a converso family (descended from Jewish converts) who was shunned after marrying a widow of lower social standing. John’s father died when the boy was seven, and such was their poverty that his elder brother died of malnutrition. John received food and education from a church school and, after becoming an acolyte to Augustinian nuns, he worked at a hospital and then learned humanities at a school run by the newly established Society of Jesus. After studying theology at Salamanca University, he hoped to join the Carthusians.
In his mid-20s, he met Teresa, who had plans for reforming the Carmelites. John had just been ordained and was deeply attracted to the Carthusians, mainly because he liked their habit of silence. Teresa persuaded him to postpone his plans and joined him in reintroducing the zeal she thought had been lost. But reform wasn’t easy, and in 1577 some Carmelites even took him captive, tortured and imprisoned him, a time he used to write his work Spiritual Canticle. Eight months later, he managed to escape through a small window. He was nursed back to health and returned to his reforms, which he carried out until his death 13 years later.
This article first appeared in The Catholic Herald magazine (12/12/14)