Church built on the home of John of the Cross in Fontiveros

When undertaking our spiritual journey with John of the Cross we must not feel burdened by thoughts of the impossibility of making even the first steps. We are not struggling to move forward step by step. Rather we must be aware that God is drawing us to divine life. So, John urges us to have an attitude of confident response, for “God is the principal agent in this matter, and . . . acts as the blind man’s guide who must lead it by the hand to the place it does not know how to reach” (F. 3.29). The primary activity for us who seek God is not to place any obstacles in the way of God’s work of drawing us to union in love. So, this year, as we reflect on John’s call and challenges, let us take courage. Our responsibility includes letting God draw us in small steps, never allowing ourselves to go back, never overdoing it at first—just moving steadily and consistently in the one direction that matters. In these efforts, John can be our guide. “Our goal will be, with God’s help, to explain all these points, so that everyone who reads this book will in some way discover the road that they are walking along” (A. Prologue.7).

1. We all know that beginnings are always hard.
2. We have probably tried before and not done too well. Let us just move slowly, peacefully, confidently, step by step.
3. Teresa of Avila spoke about making this journey with “a determined determination.”
4. Let us pray for perseverance in sticking with this commitment to journey with John for a year.

• Half-hearted responses will not help you on this journey.
• Remember Jesus’ stories about a man who started to build a tower and couldn’t finish it, and a king who started a war and couldn’t get organized. Make sure you desire to finish a job that you want to start.

• Pray for others who begin this journey with John in these readings and reflections.



Travels with John of the Cross–Ubeda

My wife and I have traveled a lot to the places linked to John of the Cross. We recently went to Ubeda where John died. However, we first stopped in Baeza, where John had opened a house of studies for the friars, close to the old university. There he resided from 1579-82. In Baeza John wrote part of “En una noche oscura” (the Dark Night poem), and some of the ascent of Mt. Carmel. When John of the Cross became ill towards the end of his life, he was sent to Ubeda, in the province of Jaen, for treatment. At first he was made unwelcome in the monastery by the prior, Francisco Crisostomo. whom John had corrected earlier in life. When other friars reported to the provincial about John’s mistreatment, the provincial, Fr. Antonio Heredia, the first companion of John in the reform, came to Ubeda to rectify this mistreatment.

The entrance to the monastery in Jaen where John of the Cross died

The entrance to the monastery in Jaen where John of the Cross died

We entered the monstery of discalced Carmelites through the same door through which John was brought on September 28, 1591, suffering from fever and inflammation of his leg. John suffered much in those days in Ubeda. His health deteriorated and he died at Midnight December 14th 1591. He was 49 years old.


John's room or cell in the Monastery of Jaen

John’s room or cell in the Monastery of Jaen

The monastery’s museum contains the room where John died, the table on which his body was prepared for burial, the chapel where his funeral took place and where he was briefly buried from his death in 1591 to May 1594, when his body was transferred to Segovia.

The monastery Church

The monastery Church


A portrait of the burial of John of the Cross

A portrait of the burial of John of the Cross



Elsewhere the museum shows episodes from John’s life, using the actual items associated with John whenever possible, such as a table where he sat to give spiritual direction. There are also relics, writings of John, artistic portrayals of his life and teachings, and art and books inspired by John.

A statue of John in the center of the town of Ubeda

A statue of John in the center of the town of Ubeda

Visiting Ubeda was both a fascinating and moving experience for us.

The Importance of Place (A reflection by Helen Doohan)

          Growing up in Brooklyn, with its city streets, diverse neighborhoods, crowded homes, and noisy environment, made my travel to the Midwest of the United States a striking experience. I saw first hand the fields of grain, white and ready for harvest, and only then did I fully understand the biblical imagery. A later visit to the Holy Land confirmed in me the need to experience a place, its culture and its people in order to truly understand the written word and to tap into the spirit of the writer.


Church built on the home of John of the Cross in Fontiveros

           Traveling through Spain, especially the northern part, offered me a clearer perspective into John of the Cross and his writing. His use of images, similes and metaphors come from the places he knew. The vast desert areas, dry and barren, where light and darkness form bold contrasts, account for John’s use of day and light, darkness and night to describe the spiritual journey. The fields, rich and fruitful, ready for the harvest meet basic needs and then some. The trees and vines, mountains, rivers and streams all find a way into John’s poetry. Cities like Segovia with its aqueduct, churches, shops and many streets, Salamanca which was John’s place of study, Toledo where John was imprisoned, Avila where he met with Teresa and began the reform, Medina del Campo where he worked as a boy and celebrated his first Mass as a priest, cities large and small with their people, art, culture and hardships affect John’s approach to his life and ministry.


The view from John’s monastery in Segovia

           I have been blessed to experience these wonderful places today and I ask myself which images were most important to John? Why darkness when there is so much light in certain seasons? How did John tolerate the loneliness of prison when he appreciated nature and people so much? Is his interpretation of Scripture colored by his daily life and the wonder and beauty of Spain? Is his expansive view of the Church and the reform of Carmel conditioned by the vastness of the land? And why is there such an emphasis on love in his writings?

In the evening of life you will be judged on love.

           Places are important both then and now but in order to be affected by them we need to truly see, smell and taste their richness. The open spaces must permeate our bones, the beauty of the environment fill us with wonder and the unending and enveloping sky move us to the transcendent. For us, as for John, these aspects of our world are seen as a gift of God and a gift of love.

John of the Cross and Toledo


Toldeo, the Alcantaran Gate. Just beyond this bridge John was in prison.

Toldeo, the Alcantaran Gate. Just beyond this bridge John was in prison.

John arrived in Toledo in December 1577 and would spend nine months in the prison there. Toledo was a beautiful city, until recently the nation’s capital. It stands on a hill, with the river Tagus flowing around it; it gives the impression of openness to the sky, an architectural masterpiece where the renaissance of the north meets the Moorish influences of the south; the Mudeja reminds travelers that the Moors conquered Toledo as far back as the tenth century. The Carmelite monastery was quite close to Toledo’s great castle and at the same time not far from the river Tagus. John’s tiny cell had only a small slit for a window. Here John suffered the deepest darkness of spirit, doubt, and uncertainty, even though of his trials he later wrote, “Well and good if all things change, Lord God, provided we are rooted in you” (S. 34). Here John was immersed in darkness and could hear only the rhythmic flow of the river. Here he wrote “By the streams of Babylon” and also the poem “For I know well the spring that flows and runs, although it is night.” He wrote the latter around the feast of Corpus Christi—a wonderful expression of Trinitarian theology and spirituality that culminates with the gift of the Eucharist. Possibly around Christmas, John wrote the nine romances that describe the history of salvation as a project of God’s love for us, culminating in the mother, Mary, who gazes in wonder at the world turned upside down as God gives self to us in love. Although John’s experience in Toledo was one of abandonment, cruelty, and total lack of love, he nevertheless wrote the first 31 verses of the love song, the Spiritual Canticle that describes the eager search of a bride for her lover. In a dark night, John was fired by love’s urgent longings. Although John was only in Toledo for nine months—nine long and painful months, nevertheless, it is the place that captures the agony and the ecstasy of John of the Cross.


In the footsteps of St. John of the Cross: Fontiveros

Church built on the home of John of the Cross in Fontiveros

Church built on the home of John of the Cross in Fontiveros

I have always enjoyed travelling in Spain and visiting the places of John of the Cross. The first time was when I was in university and went to Spain in the summers to teach English to some Spanish students. Since then I have returned with my wife, Helen and traveled first in the south, especially in Andalusia and later on a couple of occasions throughout Castile. I would like from time to time to share with you some of our travels so you too can keep in your mind the places in which John lived as you read and study his wonderful teachings.

Fontiveros is situated on the Castilian plateau, about thirty miles from Avila. At the time of John’s birth it had about 5,ooo inhabitants. It is still a small town now just off the main interstate from Avila to Salamanca. My wife and I visited the town and enjoyed connecting with the place of John’s birth.

John of the Cross was born in 1542 in Fontiveros, a town of about 5000, just northwest of Avila. His parents, Gonzalo de Yepes and Catalina Alvarez, scraped together a livelihood from weaving silk scarfs. Sadly, soon after his birth Juan’s father died and then his older brother, Luis, who had suffered from malnutrition. This left his mother, Catalina, with her other two sons, Juan and Francisco, without adequate income to support our young family.

His father, Gonzalo, came from a family of wealthy merchants, but they were unwilling to offer  any financial support because they thought Juan’s father, Gonzalo, married below his status when he chose my mother, Catalina, whom he loved, instead of some other woman who would bring additional wealth and status to the extended family. So, Catalina and her family were put out on the streets by those who could and should have helped us. Catalina faced disappointment from those around her; she gained no financial support from where she might have expected it. The only thing to do was uproot the family, leave the tombs of her loved ones in Fontiveros, and endure the hardships of travelling here and there in search of employment. Very soon in life John experienced the tragedies of unemployment and uprootedness; experiences common to so many today.

Statue of John in the Main Square of Fontiveros

Statue of John in the Main Square of Fontiveros

Fontiveros is still a quiet place, but one can see the churches that Catalina must have known and then see the little church built over the birth home of John. The parish church where John was baptized also contains the tombs of his father, Gonzalo de Yepres and his brother, Luis. The people of Fontiveros were clearly proud of their saint and excitedly showed us around their little town.

I have always found it important to be in the places where John was so that I could see what may have influenced him. In his later life he is influenced by by the places in which he lives while at the same time influencing them himself. In the case of Fontiveros, John was only here as a baby, and was never really a part of the town. However, don’t tell the locals that! He is their saint and they are proud of him. When we asked directions from three young children they were thrilled to take us to John’s home and clearly were proud of their saint.

In the footsteps of St. John of the Cross–Medina del Camp

The great town square of Medina del Campo

The great town square of Medina del Campo

John’s mother, Catalina, moved her family to Medina del Campo, a Castilian town of about 30,000, a favorite of Isabella, the Catholic Monarch, who died here in 1504. This was the family’s third and final move, for in Medina they found work and food and immersed themselves in charitable activities for the needy. John lived here for thirteen years, from age nine to twenty-two (1551-64). Around this time, Catalina sent young John to one of Medina’s so-called Catechism schools, boarding schools where orphans learned a trade and were fed and clothed by the support of generous benefactors. Later, John moved to Conception Hospital and showed considerable ability and interest in hospital ministry, both in his dedicated and loving service of the patients and in begging for financial support for the hospital’s many needs. John also learned excellent administrative skills from Don Alonso Alvarez de Toledo, the gentleman who gave his wealth and life to the service of the hospital. At 17, while continuing his work at the hospital, John began studying at the nearby Jesuit College, where he showed significant success at school work and developed a love for study. Although given little time for school work, John delighted in studying at night, and began to feel at home in the experiences of the night.

A statue that the people of Medina del Campo set up to honor John of the Cross

A statue that the people of Medina del Campo set up to honor John of the Cross

During this time, Catalina and her extended family continued to struggle in poverty, but always shared the little they had with others, less fortunate, including abandoned orphans. Catalina had trained Francisco and John well; both were experts in the service of the poor, sick, and needy; and these qualities would remain with John throughout his life. He learned that accumulation of material goods has no real value; whatever you have can become a source of richness. Their move from self-centeredness to other-centeredness became the model for John’s own life. Moreover, Catalina and Francisco had the gift of helping people to find satisfaction in giving and responding to the needs of others, a lesson John would never forget. They taught John the importance of simple, honest, dedicated work, purity in relationships and love, and the enriching values of family and friendships.

The convent founded by Mother Teresa where she interviewed John of the Cross, asking him to help lead the reform of the friars.

The convent founded by Mother Teresa where she interviewed John of the Cross, asking him to help lead the reform of the friars.

Inside the monastery is the tomb of John's mother, Catalina.

Inside the monastery is the tomb of John’s mother, Catalina.

John returned to Medina del Campo to celebrate his first Mass.

The Church where John celebrated Mass, part of the previous Monastery of St Anna, now no longer owned by the Carmelites.

The Church where John celebrated Mass, part of the previous Monastery of St Anna, now no longer owned by the Carmelites.

John of the Cross’ continuing challenge

The Cathedral of Segovia which was being built during John’s life

My wife and I have just returned from a visit to the places of John of the Cross in northernSpain. It was a wonderful trip that gave us chance to appreciate John a little more. It was particularly encouraging to see many lay people for whom John is a significant challenge in their spiritual lives.

John insists that we are people transformed by faith, and the most immediate consequence of faith is our conviction that there is more in life than meets the eye; there is a world that is not immediately apparent. Our experience of faith teaches us that there are two horizons to life, and they are intimately linked. We discover in ourselves a zone that naturally yearns for transcendent reality, and we live at this level of mystery, where we are enthralled by enduring truths. Everything we think and do is transformed by this awareness of a relationship between our everyday life and a realm of life that gives meaning to this one. John speaks about this true life. “I no longer live within myself and I cannot live without God, for having neither him nor myself what will life be? It will be a thousand deaths, longing for my true life and dying because I do not die” (Stanzas of the soul that suffers with longing to see God, v. 1). Again, here, life is judged and given a new meaning by a horizon of life beyond this one.

Through the dark nights that John describes we are longing to find our true lives, and John teaches us that as people of faith we should naturally identify with the transcendent. John gives the impression of being someone totally dedicated to all that he is doing here in this world while at the same time being elsewhere, enjoying life on another horizon. This requires a spirit of reflection and a hunger for silence. When we emerge from tranformative silence we have an ability to view the world through a different lens that can change everything for us. Deep within each of us there is a yearning for union with God. John insists that this process of discovering the potential for growth that lies within us includes distancing ourselves from the accumulation of religious devotions and entering with simplicity into our own hearts. We seek the richness of life not by adding on more religious practices but by touching ultimate goodness and love that lie within us. Appreciating God’s gift of love (see “Romances”) and encountering the everlasting call of God in our own hearts, we then see that our faith experience guides the course of life. We need to pay attention to the connections between our own yearnings for fulfillment and the call of another realm of life. As we journey through life we catch a glimpse of a horizon of life beyond this one. This is one of the foundational experiences of our spirituality. The world in which we live only has meaning because of a realm of life of which we catch sight from time to time. We are not journeying in the unknown, even when we journey through the dark nights, for we can still feel a certain companionship of our God who draws us to divine life (II DN 11, 7).

Dr. Leonard Doohan is an author and workshop presenter
He focuses on issues of spiritual leadership. He also has a special interest  in John of the Cross
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We left Medina del Camp and travelled north to Tordesillas where we spent the night. The town was in full swing of a major fiesta with all the people in traditional dress. We went on to Salamanca the following day.

Statue of John of the Cross in Salamanca

A magnificent University city, we parked our car on the opposite side of the bridge that led to the Carmen de Abajo, the College of San Andrés, where John stayed as a student while he attended classes in the University of Salamanca. We took the same path he did up to the University, passing the wonderful Dominican Church of San Esteban. Walking around the corridors of the university and into the very classrooms where John studied was both interesting and exciting, especially seeing the old classroom of Luis of León.

Luis of Leon’s Classroom

Salamanca was beautiful, the Cathedral magnificent, the Plaza Major just delightful, the streets and buildings, many of which existed in John’s time here, gave a feel for what it must have been like when he lived here in 1564-68.

Our destination was now Avila, but we had two more stops to make on our way there, Alba de Tormes where Teresa died in 1582 and where she is now buried. John met Teresa here in 1571. It looks as if there are plans for a larger basilica in Alba de Tormes which would be a more appropriate center for pilgrims. We then traveled to Fontiveros where John was born.

Church built on the home of John of the Cross in Fontiveros

Fontiveros is still a quite place, but one can see the churches that Catalina must have known and then see the little church built over the birth home of John—he was born here around 1542. The parish church where John was baptized also contains the tombs of his father, Gonzalo de Ypres and his brother, Luis. We left Fontiveros to travel to the wonderful city of Avila.

Medina del Campo


After a couple of days in Segovia we went on to what was to be one of the highlights of our trip, a visit to Medina del Campo. While I had visited many places connected with John, I had never been here and always wanted to do so; John lived here from 1551-64, the longest time he spent in any place. The young man in the tourist office knew all the places linked to John but recommended that we go straight away to the Carmelite monastery; the current one still containing some of the original Santa Ana. It turned out to be a great suggestion, since there we met Fr. Juan Jésus who was actually having his lunch when we arrived. When we apologized for interrupting him he said that for him priority must always go to people and their needs, and he could eat lunch later. He took us everywhere and seemed to be able to open doors literally and figuratively all over the city. We first went to the chapel where John of the Cross celebrated his first Mass with his family in the summer of 1567. The chapel was built on the site where the monastery ofSanta Ana stood. Part of the original building is now a bar and the chapel is owned by a private family who does not want to spend maintaining it and will not let anyone else do it either. It contains two large paintings showing John receiving the habit on the Carmelites in 1563. A year later he would also make his first profession in this monastery. Fortunately they do allow the Carmelites to open it for visitors.

We walked around the town, saw where the Jesuit college that John attended used to stand, the little well where tradition suggests John was saved by the Madonna. We then arrived at the Carmelite monastery, the second foundation of Mother Teresa ofAvila, and we were taken to the room where Teresa met John of the Cross in 1567 and interviewed him regarding the possibility of him leading the reform of the male branch of Carmel. This is an enclosed community of nuns and we could see where John sat, speaking to Teresa through the grill. Since Fr Juan Jésus knew that my wife and I both wanted to see the tomb of John’s mother, Catalina, which was inside the enclosure and therefore off limits to visitors, he spoke with the Mother superior who kindly opened the enclosure to allow us to go inside. This was very unusual and quite a privilege, and the noisy opening of bars, keys, and enormous wooden doors gave emphasis to the unusual nature of the visit.

My wife has never been inside a monastery enclosure, and I have on just three previous occasions for which I needed the permission of the local Bishop. This gave us chance to see Catalina’s tomb and then to also see the room from Teresa’s side where she met John of the Cross. Having spent a pleasant conversation with the Mother Superior and one of the nuns, we left, grateful for their kindnesses. Just a short distance down the street was the Augustinian convent of St Mary Magdalen where John used to work in the sacristy and assist at Mass when he was a boarder atPlagueHospitalon the opposite side of the street, now private residences. Unfortunately the monastery was closed since the nuns were singing office. Yet again, a few words from Fr Juan Jésus and the doors opened and in we went to see a place, so well preserved—almost as it was—and that spoke so well of John’s time here as a young boy. As we walked back to the car to say our farewell and express our gratitude to our new friend, Fr Juan Jésus, we passed a private home and bar which used to be the Carmelite monastery prior to the confiscation of religious properties by Juan Alvarez Mendizábal in 1835-37.

Visiting Castille, especially Segovia

The tomb of John of the Cross in Segovia

The year I finished a manuscript for a book on John’s Dark Night, my wife and I decided to visit the places in Castile connected with the life of John of the Cross. On a previous occasion, after finishing my first book on John, The Contemporary Challenge of John of the Cross, we had visited many of the places frequented by John in the south of Spain, particularly in Andalusia. We were excited about our new trip; I had been to Castile on a previous occasion when I taught English one summer to a group of students in Logrono, and then took the opportunity to move south to Avila, Segovia, and some of the surrounding places. My wife and I decided to drive from Italy where we lived at the time, and we ended up driving about 3500 miles, over a period of eighteen days. We drove through varied and wonderful country in Spain—mountains, valleys, badlands, and Montana like areas, fertile farming areas, orchards. We had left Manresa and decided to stop at El Pilar in Zaragoza, a major marian shrine—what a wonderful place, as was the beautiful San Seo. We arrived in Segovia from Soria on April 22nd. We had stopped in Ciudad de Osma with its wonderful cathedral, public areas, and walking places. Then we moved on to Segovia with its magnificent buildings.

As we approached the city, the weather was beautiful and Segovia was at its best, exciting, wonderful, and truly magnificent. Our hotel was just outside the city, but we went in immediately, and like all visitors to Segovia were awestruck at its Roman aqueduct—a truly brilliant work of human creativity. Then we walked through the main streets, focusing on the places that existed in John’s time, trying to think how he felt surrounded by such beauty and wealth—the Cathedral, churches, plazas, and buildings of wealthy families and nobility.

The Cathedral of Segovia was destroyed in 1521 during the Comuneros War and the new one constructed under the inspiration of Charles V and dedicated to the Assumption of Mary and to St Frutos, the patron of Segovia. The work began in June 1525, seventeen years before John’s birth, and it was not completed until many years after his death. John would have seen the early progress of what became the last great Gothic Cathedral in Spain. From the Cathedral it is a short and easy walk to the great Alcazar of Segovia, dating back to the twelfth century.

This magnificent castle looks like something you would see in a children’s book, and in fact was one of several that Walt Disney visited as the basis for his castle in Disneyland. This was one of the favorite residences of the monarchs of Castile, and it was from this place that Isabella the Catholic left to be proclaimed Queen in the main square of Segovia in 1474. From the walls of this splendid palace and fortress we could look down on the river Eresma in the valley below and immediately see the Monastery of Discalced Carmelites where John had been prior. In the late afternoon we made our first visit to John’s former community and spent time in reflection at his tomb. It was a simple but wonderful space. We also saw the tomb of Dona Ana of Penalosa, one of John’s disciples and the person to whom he dedicated both the poem and commentary, the Living Flame of Love.

The next day we returned to Segovia, stopping first at the church of San Lorenzo, built in the twelfth to the thirteenth centuries and known to John. We then went on to the splendid fifteenth century monastery of Santa Maria del Parral and the community of Hieronymite monks. Not far from the monastery we entered the Church of the True Cross, originally constructed by the Templars in 1208, it is now under the patronage of the Knights of Malta. We passed the Carmelite Monastery and moved on to the sanctuary of Nuestra Senora de la Fuencisla, built in the sixteenth century on an original shrine of the thirteenth century, known to John, to honor the patron of the city and surrounding lands. We then returned to spend time at John’s tomb and reflect on some of the central reasons for our visit. After lunch in the old Jewish quarter we wandered around the city again visiting some of the churches that John must have known. Later that evening we returned to view John’s monastery from the city walls and then to go outside the monastery to look up at the illuminated Alcazar, truly picturesque and magnificent. You feel a different spirit in this city, reflective, artistic, and historical.