John of the Cross: January 2003 Archives

Ascent of Mount Carmel II


In all humility, I offer these guiding questions for anyone for the benefit of any who can use them.

St John of the Cross
Study Guide for Ascent of Mount Carmel II

Read pages 123-122 Chapters 4-6. Be sure to annotate with your own heads. Numbers below refer to numbered sections of the text.

Chapter 4—Why you need to pass through a dark night of the senses to come to union with God.

1-2. Why are people attached to creatures unable to achieve union?
3 What does attachment to a creature cause to happen to a person?
4 John talks about being, beauty, grace and elegance, goodness, and wisdom and ability. What is his point in each case?
5 Compare and contrast the two paragraphs of this section. What must one do with human wisdom?
6-7 John continues his comparisons. Make a list of all the items John has compared and then note which of these is the cause of your greatest attachments. Which of these do you most prize?
8 What happens to souls in love with things of the world? Reflect for a while on the passages from Proverbs. Read it several times and write down what it says to you about people trying to grow close to God. Then read John’s explanation—how does it compare with yours?

Chapter 5—John offers biblical examples and further evidence for the necessity of the dark night of the senses..
1-2 John says over and over again, “Love produces equality and likeness.” Restate this in your own words. What do your attachments make you like?
3-4 What does the episode of manna in the desert mean in our lives? How are we like the Israelites? What do we need to do about it?
5-6 What is the chief lesson we are to gather from Moses on the Mount? What does it call us to do?
7 What is the purpose of ascending the mount? What must be accomplished for it to happen?
8 What happens to anything base that tries to dwell with God (for example the idol John mentions). What might be the effect in a soul of this? Would God do this to a soul? What implications does that have for us?

Chapter 6—The types of harm caused by attachments
1 What are the two forms of harm caused by attachments? (The word privative is an adjective meaning “depriving” or “causing one to lack.” What is the nature of this privative harm?
2 How can one add to an already full vessel? If something is filled to the very top, what must be done in order to add anything? If the substance being added is likely to destroy the vessel if it touches any of the previous substance, what must be done? What does this call us to?
3 How do appetites get in the way of the Lord?
4 What is more difficult for God creation or purgation? Why?
5-6 How is the soul wearing and tired by attachments and appetites? Name an example in your own life. What does this call us to?

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One of the most difficult aspects of the spiritual life is our constant backsliding. Now while I'm sure I'm not alone in this, I do know that many who walk this road have progressed far beyond me and what I say here is largely irrelevant. But those of us who are beginning, or even who are a bit progressed find that time after time we commit the same errors or sins regardless of our desire not to do so.

The only good thing about this is that it shows we are human. St. Paul tells us concerning himself, "The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." Most of us who return to sin return to a sensual sense. That is the appeal to the pleasure principle is largely responsible for much backsliding. It only makes sense. If a sin causes pain, anguish, or mental difficulty, one is unlikely to repeat it over and over again. However, if a sin gives rise to some form of pleasure, be it gustatory, sexual, or otherwise, then we will be inclined to repeat the sin, not for the sake of sinning but for the sake of pleasure.

St. John of the Cross is always regarded as a very cold and austere Saint--one who might have supported various practices of mortification. In fact, he warned his adherents against excessive mortifications, and charted a road that is a model of moderation and caution in this regard. He pointed out the value of not allowing yourself to have something you greatly desire in order not to feed the fires of the passion that can lead to sin.

Practices of penance and mortification are good in small degree (so long as they do not become obsessions) in that they train us not to seek out the pleasures in life and to accept those pleasures that come without actively seeking them. When we experience a moment of pleasure at a sunset, a concert, or in any of the various activities of life, we should appreciate it and let it go. Mortification allows us to do this to greater degree. In some sense, we train our bodies to be more grateful and more appreciative of the good things that come to us. Fasting, for example, has numerous spiritual effects, but for those of proper frame of mind and prayer, one of the benefits is that it teaches us to be detached from the sensual pleasure accompanying food. This is not to say we should not enjoy the food we have, but we should not seek it out to the exclusion of all else.

In the document "Penitential Practices for Today's Catholics" mortification is described as

radical self-denial and wholehearted giving of oneself to God that Jesus called for when he told his disciples, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me" (Mt. 16:24). More specifically, mortification is a form of ascetic discipline that involves denial of some kind of enjoyment in order to gain greater detachment from one's desire. The goal of mortification is fullness of life, not death--freedom, not enslavement.

The word itself suggest dark, medieval practices from the "bad old days" of the Ancient Church. Monks with flagelli, etc. But it need not be so, and indeed, in some cases such practices carried things to such an extreme that mortification became an end in itself.

During Lent we are often called upon to "give something up." In modern Church discipline this "negative" approach has often been replaced with "doing something good." However, the discipline of giving something up, is very beneficial, and the proper practice of it can lead to lifelong spiritual benefits. If the point of the discipline is not simply to deprive oneself of a known good in order to be deprived but to use that deprivation to move closer to the Lord Jesus, "giving something up" can be a very good discipline indeed.

The long and the short of it--if you find yourself in a recidivist cycle, consult your spiritual director. Find out how to gradually increase your detachment from the object of desire, and use the whole practice to put yourself more thoroughly into the arms of our Savior and Lord.

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Hearth and Home


Hearth and Home

After a brief sojourn in the spirited company of Mr. da Fiesole and St. Thomas at Disputations, I am glad to come home to St. John of the Cross--the familiar, the comfortable, and the comprehensible. I am in considerable awe of those who can derive more than intellectual stamina from the careful perusal of St. Thomas--it requires a makeup far different from mine. A sign of the great Grace of our Lord is the many mentors He has sent to us to serve the many different kinds of people that we are. St. Thomas, St. Francis, St. Benedict, St. Dominic, St. John of the Cross, St. Gaspar, and countless others all help those who seek God.

One of the reasons I am a Carmelite is that I have always enjoyed the gentle warmth and convivial company of St. John of the Cross, even when I don't completely understand all he is trying to tell me. Still, he always strikes me as a gentle father, ever patient but ever firm, allowing no deviation along the difficult road--a good and faithful aspect when you are ascending mountain paths without guardrails.

Returning to his company last evening, I took particular consolation (I know, I know, we're not be looking for consolations--but when they come, we can accept them) in this second paragraph of the Prologue.

from "Prologue" to The Ascent of Mount Carmel St. John of the Cross 2. Therefore, in order to say a little about this dark night, I shall trust neither to experience nor to knowledge, since both may fail and deceive; but, while not omitting to make such use as I can of these two things, I shall avail myself, in all that, with the Divine favour, I have to say, or at the least, in that which is most important and dark to the understanding, of Divine Scripture; for, if we guide ourselves by this, we shall be unable to stray, since He Who speaks therein is the Holy Spirit. And if aught I stray, whether through my imperfect understanding of that which is said in it or of matters uncollected with it, it is not my intention to depart from the sound sense and doctrine of our Holy Mother the Catholic Church; for in such a case I submit and resign myself wholly, not only to her command, but to whatever better judgment she may pronounce concerning it.

There is so much in this brief paragraph it is difficult to articulate it all. But ultimately what appeals to me here is the understanding of the limitations of human reason and experience in dealing with the things of God. While both are necessary and useful in their proper place, they are insufficient to give rise to the quality necessary for union with God. In fact, they become an obstacle to that Union if they are attachments. (Of this, I may speak from personal experience--how weak I am when I rely solely upon my intellect and experience.)

Any attachment, no matter how truly good the object, no matter how worthy the activity--this can mean an attachment to saying the Rosary, for example, or an attachment to praying before the blessed Sacrament--impede the progress of the soul in prayer. They do this because they are instances of disobedience, in a sense. God draws us on or in different directions, but we stubbornly adhere to our habits and our patterns.

Also here I see the great humility of a truly great mind that bows before the correction and teaching of Holy Mother Church, as indeed all the great Saints did and all the great heretics refused to do. It is wrong to insist upon your own way in any aspect of church life. For example, it is wrong to insist that one form of Mass is necessarily more holy and more complete than another. While our subjective experience may be better at one Mass than another, and while we may "feel" better, or recognize greater artistry and aesthetic appeal, if the form of Mass has been duly instituted by the Church and duly administered by the pastor, then we are in the presence of Jesus Christ in the Word and in the Eucharist. One Mass may seem to better honor Him, but He comes to us regardless of honor, still the Lamb of God, still the servant/master, still our Brother and our Lord.

Also, I see here the reliance on Holy Scripture inspired by the Holy Spirit and duly interpreted and understood in the context of the teaching of the Church, as a wonderful, salutary habit. Too often we rely upon our own resources. Even if we do not fully understand scripture (and there is no one on Earth who encompasses all the meanings and all the variations of scripture in their person) we can ask the Holy Spirit for guidance and read in His presence--all redounding to our benefit--so much so, in fact, that in the general grants of plenary indulgences, the active reading of scripture for at least one-half hour is one of three activities that can merit such an indulgence. More, the Church is so certain of the value of reading scripture that such a indulgence may be received once a day.

St. John of the Cross teaches us even when the intent is not so much to teach but explain. His Prologue, intending merely to outline the path up the slopes of Mount Carmel, actually sets the stage for much of what is to come. It encourages the habits necessary for the ascent, and it begins to instill in us the real desire to make the whole trek.

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This page is a archive of entries in the John of the Cross category from January 2003.

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