from Ascent to Love
We cannot sufficiently stress the need for emotional control, especially today when the reaction to emotional repressions of the past has caused the pendulum to swing the other way. In certain circles feelings are taken as all-important. An enormous amount of attention is given to them with the result that people are very conscious of how they feel and quick to think they have an absolute right to feel 'well'. . . . It seems to me that sooner or later each of us has to learn to put up with painful emotions, pay little attention to them, get on with doing what we have to do, attending to our neighbours' welfare, putting all our trust in God. We who know Jesus can surely afford to feel insecure--if we do! We can afford to feel fragile, fearful. Surely these painful emotions can be an opportunity for pure trust. . . .
We find it hard to give up the idea that there is a magic answer somewhere, that it must be possible to get this burden off our backs. We have deep conviction that we are being wronged: our environment is wrong, our companions are responsible; if we had a different job, if this person was not around, if,if, if. There is no answer but facing reality. Do we not see that the truly happy people are not those who have spent themselves avoiding life’s difficulties, seeking escapes and alleviations, trying to control life so as to provide a secure base for the ego, but those who have done battle with themselves, who have tried, not to change the world but to change themselves, to adapt, to accept, to bend, to die. It is a strange thing that one of the hardest things some people are asked to do is precisely to stop being miserable, to choose to be happy in a world of limitations, the world that really is, not the world of make-believe! We prefer to cling on to self-pity, self-contempt, self-recrimination. At least it is safe. It means I cannot be disappointed and no one can blame me for not expecting too much of myself or of life. Such an attitude is an escape from living and loving. It is an egocentric prison.
What I love about Sr. Ruth's book is that she details certain points at which the modern psyche so completely diverges from the "weltanschauung" of St John's time that we must be careful about how we follow his advice. That the emphasis on HOW to go about things has shifted a bit, even though the things we must be about remain eternal.
I also like the head-on confrontation with the common complaints, experiences, attitudes, and actions of the present day. I cannot tell you how many people I know who have knowingly or unknowingly bought into Robert Schuller's "be-happy" or "prosperity" gospel. As a society we long to feel good about ourselves. We seek to make the road as smooth and painless as possible. Sometimes this means that rather than helping the poor myself, because I can't possibly fit it into the schedule of a busy family life, I give money to let others help the poor. Giving money is a very, very good thing to do, especially to legitimate agents who can reach into places too distant for me to touch. However, that does not remove the necessity for me to substantively help the poor in the place where I live. It does not remove the obligation for serving in soup kitchens or helping the St. Vincent de Paul society at my church.
There are other attitudes. "I am Christian and God promised Christians a happy life." Now, I doubt anyone says this quite so boldly; however, it seems to be an underlying attitude. As soon as I run up against a snag, it's time to flee. I shouldn't be inconvenienced. I certainly shouldn't be harmed or caused distress.
St. John of the Cross suggests that the remedy is to choose the most unpleasant tasks--to inure oneself to the idea that we are not promised a bouquet of roses. His chief modern explicator St. Thérèse of Lisieux has quite a different take on the matter. She tells us that life deals quite a few bad hands as it is--it isn't up to us to make our hand worse, but rather play the hand we are dealt with as much joy and fervor as if it were the ultimate winning hand--because, in point of fact, it is. So Thérèse tells us that we don't have to use the discipline and the calice to mortify ourselves--life offers ample opportunities. (As one who died so young she did not experience all the opportunities of old age--but I think the rigors of tuberculosis are quite sufficient to make what she had to say a living reality.) For Thérèse, we don't have to go out and look for trouble, we can find it in the person of the old nun down the way whom no one likes and at whom Thérèse makes a special effort to smile and be pleasant--not because Thérèse felt any marvelous love for this woman, but she nevertheless trained her will to act in love to all.
Our modern world has rigors all its own--pains, pressures, fears, hurts, losses. When faced with one of these we can either choose to flee (the course I know I most often take) or to face them as God's intent for the moment and be strengthened by living the moment and deriving from it the grace God has offered. This is not to promote a kind of false stoicism, but rather to acknowledge as the Buddha did that life is suffering, pain, and hardship (in some large proportion). If we flee these, we flee life itself. We flee the strengthening that comes through testing and endurance, we flee the opportunity for abandonment and trust. That is not to say that we should not take steps to alleviate what suffering we can; however, the reality is that no matter how much pain is removed, there will always be something left that we will either endure or flee. It is better for us to endure it, not because suffering in itself is good or because God wants us to suffer, but because God has allowed it and through it and through our reliance on Him graces will accrue.
If we are paying attention, Thérèse tells us, life offers enough opportunities for mortification and for uniting our sufferings to those of Jesus on the Cross. We needn't go out and seek more. And Thérèse is, in many ways, the "modern" voice of St. John of the Cross. She has taken his teaching and distilled it into a more-or-less modern context. (Although truthfully, even her time is quite distant from our own in many very important ways.) What Sr. Ruth emphasizes in her work is that the truth of St. John of the Cross endures even if some of the methods might be better suited for his own time rather than our own. However, it is necessary to separate the kernel from the hull, because we would tend, on our own, to discard both. The practice is outmoded so the teaching must be perishable. What St. John of the Cross teaches endures--whether the practices he enjoins are meant to be taken for our own times is up to the individual with the help of a spiritual guide to find out. But the truth of the way of self-denial, of taking up our crosses, is not one that originated with St. John of the Cross--he was, perhaps, one of the greatest of its explicators, but the truth is eternal. As with Holy Mother Church--the doctrine is eternal but subject to growth and reinterpretation through time, but the discipline is for the time and it may vary from age to age without any reflection upon the eternal verities in which She is grounded.