Why is St. John of the Cross Called St. John ‘of the Cross?’

If you have never spent time reading the works and life of St. John of the Cross, here’s where to start.

Francisco de Zurbarán, “St. John of the Cross,” 1656
Francisco de Zurbarán, “St. John of the Cross,” 1656 (photo: Public Domain)

There was a span of time after I entered the Church in 2012 where I was pretty confused by the saints. Specifically, I was confused about their names. A saint named after where they are from made total and complete sense: Augustine of Hippo, Thérèse of Lisieux, and so on. And the ones I thought I understood in plain titles, I didn’t realize I had entirely misjudged. St. John of the Cross was one of these. 

“Okay. Easy enough with my Bible knowledge,” I said to myself. “There was one apostle present at the crucifixion, so St. John of the Cross was the saint who was at the cross. So that’s just what Catholics call him.” 

Of course, I was hilariously wrong, but I wouldn’t learn this until years later. Eventually, someone recommended The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Ávila, and in reading this wonderful work of the Spanish mystic, I connected the lines between her and her co-founder of the Discalced Carmelites. From there, I moved from an appreciation for the Spanish saint to utter devotion to his works. 

If the reader has never spent time reading the works — not just the life — of this literary genius, be encouraged. 

His most famous work is surely Dark Night of the Soul. It is, in fact, a poem never named by the saint. Some of the book touches on the trials of life and the Christian virtue of fortitude. Others believe the book refers to clinical depression. I like to think that the book portrays the journey of a soul from obscurity and anxiety to loving peace and spiritual perfection. It is filled with hopeful messages, but for me, the warnings and clever presentation of the spiritual side of deadly sins and attitudes make for one of the most self-revealing reads of any saint. He has a way, like no other, of convicting readers, to be honest with themselves and spiritually self-aware, but not accusatory or judgmental.

Dark Night is a top-three, desert-island type of book every Catholic must read. Hopefully, as soon as possible! Searchers will find free versions for Kindle or other PDF copies, and there is no shortage of print copies available for cheap.

Another great text that’s equally accessible for Catholic readers is his Ascent of Mount Carmel. Here is where we see a bit more of the saint’s life and experiences in his own words; not as an autobiography like that of his mentor St. Teresa, but as a spiritual treatise on union with Christ through the ascetical life — the metaphorical Mount Carmel. Here, also, we see more details on the “dark night,” privations in search of spiritual fulfillment. 

The other masterpiece is his Spiritual Canticle, based on another poem that John did not give a title. In fact, he made and memorized a 30-stanza poem while jailed for nine months in horrid conditions. Years later, after preaching these stanzas, he wrote them down and was quickly asked to write a commentary. Like many of the works of another Counter-Reformation saint, St. Francis de Sales, he never meant his letter of spiritual guidance to be published. But to the benefit and enjoyment of countless souls, thank goodness they were. 

These three spiritual works are together considered, even by seculars, among the height of Spanish literature — a high accolade for the saint and another nudge to read his works with appreciation. Anyone interested in reading about his stunning life will find their reading time well spent. His story is full of heroic virtue and dreadful struggles. It’s also the story of a man with a tasteful sense of humor — the days after his escape from prison, he was at a nearby house telling funny stories and amusing the consciences of the faithful. Of course, he also demonstrated impeccable forgiveness to his oppressors, who, mind you, belonged to the very order he was attempting to reform. The version I enjoy is John of the Cross: Man and Mystic by Richard P. Hardy. 

And I think there is something special to mention. I was actually on to something close to the truth when I said that I thought this John was the same John that was at the cross to witness Jesus’s crucifixion. Yes, it can be said that he is known as “of the Cross” because of his spiritual seal for suffering in forgiveness, identifying well with Christ on the cross, but there’s another interesting reason I think is a bit more telling. After a vision he has of the crucifixion, in which his point of reference was from that of the Father, the First Person of the Blessed Trinity, he drew a remarkable sketch of what he kept in his mind: an overhead view of Jesus hanging on the cross. The image is striking and leaves a deep impression of the pain the victim surely suffered. Just as John was gifted in illuminating the minds of Catholics with a more lofty approach to spirituality, John captured a towering perspective of the suffering servant. 

St. John of the Cross, pray for us.