Carmelite and Domincans--Trying Again


Therese seems a bit irritated at the post below called "Domincans and Carmelites," perhaps correctly so--sometimes my fumbling repetitions and articulations are aggravating; however, I am striving to come to understanding myself and to balance the words of St. John of the Cross with the understandings that others have conveyed. Many times it is imprecision in my language that is the source of the frustration. I am a better poet than I am essayist and so sometimes I do not say precisely what I mean and so I try once again. And I must thank Therese for forcing me to this labor, for only in so doing do I straighten out the crooked places in my own head and finally begin to come to a real understanding of St. John of the Cross and the radical nature of his teaching on prayer and Union.

St. John of the Cross would certainly note that prayer and reading scripture and study are all good, meritorious and fine things. But he would also note that there comes a point in devotion (I haven't reached it yet) where study, particularly, but perhaps certain aspects of the other things can become obstacles to the greatest Good. The things themselves are not obstacles, but our inordinate desire to do them in the ways we have done, stand in the way of progress toward God. That is not that study becomes bad, but it becomes an obstacle because we are not willing to change what or how, but continue in our same plodding way. Thus the DESIRE to study stands in the way of the desire for Union. We would prefer to study than to really approach the royal throne.

Many deny that this may happen. They see that all study will inevitably lead to God. (At least this is how I read some statements defending intellectual pursuit.) Therese points out rightly that St. John of the Cross would stand against "Study for Study's sake." But he would also stand against the desire to study weighed against the desire for Union, and this is where constant discernment is necessary. St. Thomas Aquinas spent much of his life in study, approaching nearer and nearer the throne of grace as his studies carried him. His famous statement "all my words are as straw," is not a statement that the study was futile. I read that as the realization that he had reached the end of where study alone could take him, he relinquished the desire to continue as he had done and crossed the threshhold to divine Union--although I am certain that he must have experienced something similar throughout his life in order to progress so far. I see St. Thomas realizing not that study is bad, but that true Union with God requires laying down everything, just as Christ did, to approach the Throne of Grace.

Perhaps I read too much into this short statement, but I truly believe that it was this experience, in part, that shaped much of John's spirituality. Study is not bad--it is a good, a positive good. However, when the desire for study outweighs the desire for union the desire becomes an obstacle. It can become an obstacle for others when they are inclined already to study more than to pray. When reading books about spirituality becomes the predominant mode of discourse rather than direct encounters with our loving God, study has gone astray. It is not bad, but our desire for it is disordered and thus an obstacle.

On a personal note: I have reached this stage relatively earlier than many because study presents a temptation for me that may be greater for me for others because others are more properly focused. As an example, in my early twenties, I took it into my head that I would become a great hiker and outdoorsman. To achieve this goal, I read every book there was about hiking and doing things in the outdoors, but never set a foot outside.

I know I am not unique. There are a great many potential Fausts out there. I know further that there are many who are not aware that study can become an end in itself--not bad, but not the highest good. And so I continually try to say--study is good. Knowing the beloved is essential, but watch that study does not replace prayer, that it does not become a desire to "dissect God" and know how He works, rather than a desire to convey to all people the workings of God. This never seemed to get out of hand with St. Thomas Aquinas, because he seemed to accept when it should end. However, if we chose to look, we would probably find a great many for whom the desire for study became the end and an obstacle to the divine union they might otherwise have achieved.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on May 2, 2003 8:27 AM.

Ascent of Mount Carmel Study Guide V was the previous entry in this blog.

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