Parsing the Counsels of St. John of the Cross


Parsing the Counsels of St. John of the Cross II

Strive always to prefer, not that which is easiest, but that which is most difficult; . . . Strive thus to desire to enter into complete detachment and emptiness and poverty, with respect to everything that is in the world, for Christ's sake.

It seems best to quote not just the counsel but the ultimate goal. Many of the counsels are perfectly obvious. One doesn't need to explain what the statement "Strive to prefer not that which is easiest but that which is most difficult." It's meaning is perfectly transparent; however, the reason for it may not be. This sounds like making things difficult for yourself for no particular reason--which is why I quoted the end of the counsels as well. The goal is detachment from self--detachment from the nexus of selfishness and self-centeredness that comprises most people.

The first step is detachment from our own preferences and complacency. If you look at the entire list of counsels (included in this post) you will see that everyone of them is a call to action. They require us to abandon passivity and make some sort of effort. This is odd, because most people seem to think that St. John of the Cross was about inaction--allowing things to flow over one and pass away. That is also true. This is a paradox that others can explain better than I, but I suppose it is best to say that even allowing things to flow over one is an active practice because one must sometimes push them off and speed them on their way.

Why all of this emphasis on action, activity, and comfortlessness? The answer is simple and we have all experienced it. In times of turmoil, upset, and emotional overflow, we find it far easier to turn to God for help and solace, to think about Him frequently, and even if we do not pray coherently, we offer up petitions and cries for help. During the "good times" we are far too inclined to forget that God has provided the good times. We pay lip service, and I'm sure many do thank God sincerely, but good times tend not to elicit the depth of response. Part of what St. John is doing in the counsels is recommending that we always be ready to stir the pot. Detachment is not a passive exercise--it takes great determination, strength of will, and an endless supply of strengthening grace. To be able to achieve it, we must flex muscles we rarely use. St. John tells us how. He tells us not to seek comfort, where we are inclined to rest on our laurels and allow things to move as they will, but always to seek out work and the harder way.

It is interesting, but St. John's way even makes sense psychologically. All of our experts tell us that when we are stressed or angry we should engage in some vigorous physical activity or exercise. No matter the reason, such activity tends to disengage us from thoughts about ourselves and direct us toward our activity. We move out of the center and toward other things. St. John's goal is to make sure that God is Who we are moving toward. Thus when he makes all this advice that sounds wearisome and dreadful, our reactions are those of people on the outside looking in. When I hear about the life of a Saint from a Saint, I don't hear endless complaints about toil and effort and endless fruitless labor. I hear statements like, "Something beautiful for God" or "Small things with great devotion" or any of a number of phrases that show us that detachment and work for the Lord is the greatest of pleasures--that only in service to Him are we truly refreshed and relieved of the cares of this world. This servitude makes us free, this service gives us true rest. In the world we must be both Martha and Mary, for though Mary has the better part, it is only the effort of Martha that make it possible. So, to rest in the better part we must work in our wills and in our world.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on June 12, 2003 8:07 AM.

Holiness Is Not an Option was the previous entry in this blog.

Reflections on the Strait Gate and the Narrow Way is the next entry in this blog.

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