John was born in Fontiveros in Spain on June 24th 1542. He was the youngest of three boys born to Gonzalo de Yepres and Catalina Alvarez, though the second boy died in childhood. Gonzalo came from a wealthy family but was disinherited when he married the orphaned Catalina. He died when John was very young and after his death the family experienced extreme poverty. Catalina worked as a weaver, going from place to place, trying to get enough work to survive. Life was precarious but there was much love in the little family, John would later call his brother his greatest treasure. When John was nine they settled in Medina del Campo and when he was in his teens he got work in a hospital. He showed great compassion for the sick and dying and the administrator of the hospital was so impressed with him that he offered to pay his fees at the Jesuit College nearby. John was an excellent student. When he was 21 John joined the Carmelite Order and was sent to the University of Salamanca to further his studies. In July 1567 he was ordained a priest and returned to Medina. In September that same year he first met Teresa of Avila, she was staying in Medina and looking out for friars that might join her Reform of Carmel, as she had by this time received permission to found a house for Friars. This meeting was very significant for John as it came just at the time when he was considering leaving the Carmelites to join the Carthusians, because he wanted a more disciplined life. Teresa’s reform offered him that without leaving Carmel.
Teresa took John with her to Valladolid to spend time with the nuns there so that he could see their style of life and become imbued with their spirit. On November 28th 1568 John, together with Fr. Antonio, moved into a small, almost derelict house, in Durelo and the reform of the Friars was inaugurated. They spent much time in prayer but also taught others to pray and ministered to the country folk living round about, preaching and teaching catechism.
John lived in Durelo for over three years until Teresa called him to act as confessor to the nuns in the Monastery of the Incarnation, where she had been elected Prioress. Teresa and John supported each other.
Unfortunately distrust had developed between friars in the older branch of the Order and those in Teresa’s Reform and some of the Friars opposed to the Reform arrested John in December 1577 and imprisoned him in Toledo. He was badly treated but wrote some of his poetry during this time. The following August he escaped through a window and was hidden by the nuns in Toledo until he could leave the city and get back to his own Discalced Friars. During the next ten years John ministered in Beas, Beaza and Segovia and worked for the spread of the Reform.
In 1590 there were disagreements within the Order and John was again the object of opposition, this time from his own friars. In August 1591 John went happily to the solitude of La Peñuela but the next month he developed a fever due to inflammation of his leg. He was ordered to seek medical help either at Baeza or Ubeda. He chose the later because no-one knew him there. On September 28th he made his last journey, but he was not welcomed at Ubeda. The Prior was a difficult character who resented John’s reputation for holiness as well as the expense he was bringing on the monastery. John’s leg ulcers got worse and a new tumour developed on his back. On December 13th John asked to see the Prior and begged his forgiveness for all the trouble and expense he was causing. The Prior was completely changed, he begged forgiveness from John and left the room weeping. That same evening John announced that he would be singing Matins in Heaven. He died repeating the words from the psalm, ‘Into your hands O Lord, I commend my spirit’.
John is considered the most important mystical writer in the Catholic tradition and his poetry is accepted as superb among Spanish literary critics.
John was canonised by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726 and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1926 by Pope Pius XI.
His Feast Day is celebrated on December 14th