St. John of the Cross--Counsels on Discipline and Love


St. John of the Cross--Counsels on Discipline and Love

At the end of the first book of The Ascent of Mount Carmel St. John of the Cross gives a magnificent set of directions for those who seek union with God. The whole point of the first book is that one must enter into the first Dark Night, called the active night of the senses. The active night is so called because it requires of the person some movement of will in order to accomplish entry. (In other words, it is not Quietist--waiting around for a stunning revelation to smack you upside the head.) It is the dark night of the sense because it aims first to purify the physical senses and data input, as it were. It deals with the sensual side of the human being, and the entry of sense information into the soul.

When talking about this with the Carmelite group on Saturday there was a collective gasp as they at last got the point--this is neither easy, nor pleasant, nor is it in accord to what we are taught by society and the world around us--and yet, it is utterly necessary as a first step forward. In sections 6-13, St. John gives some advice about how to enter into this first dark night. First, prior to any of this, one must have cultivated an active and fruitful prayer life in the ordinary mode--that is, Liturgy of the Hours, Mass, and other devotional and meditational prayers. So St. John of the Cross assumes a commitment to moving toward union for God, and he speaks of people who have all these prerequisites as "beginners" in prayer.

Next his practical advise follows in the translation by E. Allison Peers. I recommended this list as a daily examen for the members of the Carmelite community with the main question being--where did I do these things, where did I depart from this advice.

Ascent of Mount Carmel--Book I, Chapter 13, Section 6

Strive always to prefer,
not that which is easiest, but that which is most difficult;
Not that which is most delectable, but that which is most unpleasing;
Not that which gives most pleasure, but rather that which gives least;
Not that which is restful, but that which is wearisome;
Not that which is consolation, but rather that which is disconsolateness;
Not that which is greatest, but that which is least;
Not that which is loftiest and most precious, but that which is lowest and most despised;
Not that which is a desire for anything, but that which is a desire for nothing;
Strive to go about seeking not the best of temporal things, but the worst.
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.

Now, what St. John of the Cross says here is that one must cultivate the mindset that seeks these things. However, there are two things he DOES NOT say that are commonly attributed to him. He does not say that material things are bad and to be avoided, and he does not say that one should go out of one's way to avoid these things if they are sent. By that I mean that we are to accept all things in God's will, but as a matter of discipline, when we are given a choice, we should choose according to these guidelines to gradually separate us from our attachments to physical things and sensations. What John is doing here in giving practical instruction on the words of St. Paul, "I know how to be rich and I know how to be poor." We are to know how to be each without being attached to either. That is to say, when good things come our way, we are to accept them gratefully as gifts from God and be equally grateful when the opportunity comes to let them go. I illustrate it with a little "parable" from my experience here in Florida. One day I looked out my back window and a Sandhill Crane couple and baby were strutting around the back yard as though they owned the place. This was a richness sent from God. The proper attitude to it is not to shut my eyes and wish it away or pretend it does not exist, but to thank God from the bottom of my heart for this blessing and then not to seek to lengthen it by, say, making a cage and putting these noble and magnificent birds in it. I praise God and let the gift go as easily as it comes, relishing the moment, grateful for the grace, and open to the movements of God's will. It is Job's famous statement, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed by the Lord."

That is the attitude we are to cultivate, not to seek to lengthen the pleasure of the experience, not to try to "own" it, but to allow it to happen, accept it gratefully, and allow it to pass, accepting all from the hand of God equally. But with our modern mindset and with society's encouragement, we are a people who must own and contain. We cannot let things go.

One person in the group brought up an interesting point, she said, "But as a mother with two small children, I really want those periods of quiet and respite that allow me to regenerate and be a better mother later." I pointed out to her that her desire for quiet was likely to make her unquiet. The need for the time of regeneration would be likely to engender short-temperedness and other negative qualities, because we seek rather than accepting what comes. There would be nothing wrong with using quiet time that comes to us to regenerate, but it is in seeking it that we go wrong, because then it becomes a driving goal--when we do not achieve it we are diminished, tired, angry, frustrated, and less capable of being ourselves. I noted that the saints seemed to work tirelessly, dawn to dusk, without complaint, without request for rest, though they undoubtedly could do with some. And they did this because their hearts were always seeking what God desired. They did not desire for themselves anything other than what God would give them. Their longing was always to demonstrate in the fullness of their being their tremendous love of Christ.

So, St. John of the Cross is training us to be saints. The question is, are we willing to accept the training? Are we willing to assume the "yoke that is easy, the burden that is light?" If so, we can boldly start to practice these disciplines, seeking always not to indulge the senses, but to indulge so far as we are able to discern it God's will, and to separate ourselves from the deep attachments that keep us as spirits in bondage unable to rise to the heights the Father wishes to give us.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on June 9, 2003 10:22 AM.

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