John of the Cross: June 2003 Archives

Talk About Dismaying


Talk About DismayingIn my study of The Ascent of Mount Carmel I was sent by footnote to the first few chapters of Dark Night of the Soul The first chapter of this great work will require greater explication and discussion at another time, because right now I wish to make a public confession, hoping that it will help me amend my behavior. In the third chapter of the first book we have the following description:

from Dark Night of the Soul Book 1, Chapter 3 St. John of the Cross

MANY of these beginners have also at times great spiritual avarice. They will be found to be discontented with the spirituality which God gives them; and they are very disconsolate and querulous because they find not in spiritual things the consolation that they would desire. Many can never have enough of listening to counsels and learning spiritual precepts, and of possessing and reading many books which treat of this matter, and they spend their time on all these things rather than on works of mortification and the perfecting of the inward poverty of spirit which should be theirs. Furthermore, they burden themselves with images and rosaries which are very curious; now they put down one, now take up another; now they change about, now change back again; now they want this kind of thing, now that, preferring one kind of cross to another, because it is more curious. And others you will see adorned with agnusdeis and relics and tokens, like children with trinkets. Here I condemn the attachment of the heart, and the affection which they have for the nature, multitude and curiosity of these things, inasmuch as it is quite contrary to poverty of spirit which considers only the substance of devotion, makes use only of what suffices for that end and grows weary of this other kind of multiplicity and curiosity. For true devotion must issue from the heart, and consist in the truth and substances alone of what is represented by spiritual things; all the rest is affection and attachment proceeding from imperfection; and in order that one may pass to any kind of perfection it is necessary for such desires to be killed.

[emphasis added]

He hit the nail on the head for me. I am so often wrapped up in reading about spiritual matters and trying to take counsel from one and all that I end up putting relatively little of it into practice in a relatively remote and mild way. Yes I pray. And yes, I think I'm praying as I read these books seeking to mend my ways and my life. But the reality is, at least in part, I do what I do to avoid prayer and quiet time with God. He frightens me, not because of who He is, but because of who I am. Approaching Him, I feel like the Cowardly Lion approaching the Wizard of Oz. I don't know what I expect, except perhaps that it is likely to be painful, unpleasant, and difficult. My expectation have not been met most of the time, but there are times, sometimes long times, when they are. I say this with full intent of accusing myself and with certain knowledge that it may alienate some. I pray that you do not think less of my mentors or of the great Saints who have guided me because I am such a feeble reflection of their guidance and goodness. The passage just before that which referred me to the Dark Night has one of the most famous of St. John of the Cross's metaphors and I put it here to complete the picture.

from The Ascent of Mount Carmel Book 2, Chapter 5 St. John of the Cross

6. In order that both these things may be the better understood, let us make a comparison. A ray of sunlight is striking a window. If the window is in any way stained or misty, the sun's ray will be unable to illumine it and transform it into its own light, totally, as it would if it were clean of all these things, and pure; but it will illumine it to a lesser degree, in proportion as it is less free from those mists and stains; and will do so to a greater degree, in proportion as it is cleaner from them, and this will not be because of the sun's ray, but because of itself; so much so that, if it be wholly pure and clean, the ray of sunlight will transform it and illumine it in such wise that it will itself seem to be a ray and will give the same light as the ray. Although in reality the window has a nature distinct from that of the ray itself, however much it may resemble it, yet we may say that that window is a ray of the sun or is light by participation. And the soul is like this window, whereupon is ever beating (or, to express it better, wherein is ever dwelling) this Divine light of the Being of God according to nature, which we have described.

7. In thus allowing God to work in it, the soul (having rid itself of every mist and stain of the creatures, which consists in having its will perfectly united with that of God, for to love is to labour to detach and strip itself for God's sake of all that is not God) is at once illumined and transformed in God, and God communicates to it His supernatural Being, in such wise that it appears to be God Himself, and has all that God Himself has. And this union comes to pass when God grants the soul this supernatural favour, that all the things of God and the soul are one in participant transformation; and the soul seems to be God rather than a soul, and is indeed God by participation; although it is true that its natural being, though thus transformed, is as distinct from the Being of God as it was before, even as the window has likewise a nature distinct from that of the ray, though the ray gives it brightness.

8. This makes it clearer that the preparation of the soul for this union, as we said, is not that it should understand or perceive or feel or imagine anything, concerning either God or aught else, but that it should have purity and love -- that is, perfect resignation and detachment from everything for God's sake alone; and, as there can be no perfect transformation if there be not perfect purity, and as the enlightenment, illumination and union of the soul with God will be according to the proportion of its purity, in greater or in less degree; yet the soul will not be perfect, as I say, if it be not wholly and perfectly bright and clean.

I think I say enough when I say the passage was written for me and it seems that I need to make a major investment in some spiritual Windex.

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Incrementally, the discussion continues. Please bear with me. As people bring up points, it seems that there is more to say.

Today's point--detachment is not a comfortable or easy exercise.

Below a commenter says that "it is easy to slip from detachment to indifference when it is difficult for you to form attachments anyway." Part of that statement evokes a certain misunderstanding of what detachment is. First to repeat: the point of detachment is to love God and the love of God needs some expression. That expression is found in love of neighbor and self. Proper exercise of detachment becomes a discipline of self-giving.

The desire or habit of not forming relationships is an attachment itself. There is something that has proven successful about not forming relationships. So detachment forces one out of this stable mode and into the mode of loving God through loving neighbhor. Love without works is dead (as St. Therese implies). And Jesus tells us, if we love Him, we will keep His Commandments. One of His commandments is feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. When becoming detached from our own preferences and our own desires, the road to indifference is a temptation, but not when the way of detachment is clearly the way of the cross.

Detachment is uncomfortable. It is a source of constant unease. It is constantly against the grain. If we would rather not become involved, then we are attached to the concept of non-involvement. And it is from this that we may have to work particularly hard to escape.

This is where detachment becomes really difficult. It's hard to identify what the attachments are. Sometimes they are defense mechanisms so thoroughly ingrained we can't see them. Sometimes they are participation in a really good thing. For example, if you absolutely must go to a Latin Mass--you wrench your schedule, the schedule of your friends and family, and generally discomfit and discombobulate everyone and everything around you in the search for a Latin Mass, that is a pretty certain sign of attachment. If you go to a Mass in English that, except for being in English, is otherwise properly conducted and carp about the music, the way the prayers are said, whether one is standing or kneeling, etc.--you are probably attached. When you cannot see Jesus for want of your preferences, attachment is indicated. John of the Cross says that even when you prefer your food prepared a certain way and will not eat otherwise, that is an attachment. (Obviously this is aside from doctor's orders. In fact, the unwillingness to follow a doctor's orders with respect to food indicates attachment.)

So, one of the difficulties is identifying the attachments. That is where prayer, patience, and focus help. If our eyes are on Jesus and we truly love and adore Him, everything else fades into the distance. Jesus truly becomes Lord of our life, and detachment from created things is a natural corollary. We might start by working at detachment, but unless our eyes are firmly set on Christ and Him Crucified, we will quickly lose our way.

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In this counsel we hear the echo of the great St. Francis of Assisi:

Strive always to prefer. . . Not that which is consolation, but rather that which is disconsolateness

Always keep in mind that introductory phrase of the counsels--it is critically important. "Strive always to prefer" is an explicit injunction to habit of mind, training in thinking, feeling, and doing. In this case it is not a command to go out and make yourself miserable. As in all things, when we have a choice of spending time with those who are mourning and grieving, who are hurt and wounded, or those who are "making merry," we should prefer to spend time with those who are hurt. When we have a choice between hard work and leisure, we should prefer the hard work. When we have a choice of working with great emotional satisfaction and having our work constantly criticized and demeaned, we should choose the latter. Why? Again the refrain--because it is a discipline that teaches us to value our work for what it really is. It teaches us to let go of anything connected with us and let it rise to praise God. When we are enormously attached to our work we can only do as well as we can do. When we let go of it, we let it rise to God in splendor and He perfects the work--perhaps even unto the salvation of souls.

Why disconsolateness? Because the lack of emotional reward and even emotional hardship causes us to lean more heavily upon Him who bears our burdens and carries us over the difficult track. When we take great satisfaction and contentment in our work and our lives we are less inclined to look at Him. When we are downcast and not focused on ourselves we look at the Face of Glory and in it have some great respite from our Earthly trials.

Prefer always to serve without notice, to serve those who are unappreciative, to serve without emotional reward, to seek out those who grieve and mourn, those whom we find less pleasant company, and like St. Thérèse bestow upon them a small benediction--a smile, a handshake, a hearty good morning, some sense of that person being welcomed. Do not seek to rest in pleasant and easy emotions, but seek to work through rough periods and to put everything into God's hands. In not seeking consolation we attain the very greatest consolation there is--God Himself.

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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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Not that which is most delectable, but that which is most unpleasing;

I'm starting with the second of the several counsels I posted yesterday. I'm starting with this because it is in many ways one of the easier ones to discuss both in terms of requirements and results.

Here St. John of the Cross advises us to cultivate an attitude of mind that allows us to make small mortifications of the flesh in order to discipline our wills not to seek out sensory delights. This is one of the most obvious because it is one in which most of us indulge ourselves. Let us start at the most basic level--when we are presented with choices, in food, for example, we are not to choose that which most pleases us and which delights the taste buds, but that which we would prefer not to eat. Now, first, reiterate the reasons for this choosing. Food that is well-prepared and that tastes good is NOT sinful, nor is it wrong to delight in such food. And if our host should place such food before us, we should in good fellowship and with a sense of Christian Harmony partake of it to some extent less than gluttony. However, when we are presented with a choice, it is better to choose the thing we less like to eat and to offer that choice to God as a small sacrifice, and to ourselves as a small advance on where we were. That is, by depriving ourselves of, say, Beef Wellington, and eating instead say lima beans and corn bread we perform a small mortification that actually helps others indirectly and that tries to rein in the rampaging horses that are appetite and desire.

What John seems to emphasize is that each choice can be made to discipline desire and to offer glory to God. The Buddhists call a similar approach to things "mindfulness." Father de Mello referred to it as Awareness. We need to be aware of our choices and to take control of them--not merely to be disciplined, but as a voluntary offering to the Lord who offered everything to us. We must gratefully accept all things from His hands, and to the extent possible, offer them back to Him. We do this in the small things. St Thérèse is often misunderstood when she speaks of "small things with great devotion and love," but this is exactly what she refers to. Every day we have innumerable choices, and each choice should be made in such a way as to direct our attention to God. Everything we eat, everything we do, even everything we choose to look at. It is an austere way and a way of much discipline and small sacrifice, and yet, I cannot but think that it is a way arrayed in costliest finery--more splendid than gold and jewels, more marvelous than the most beautiful orchids, because it is a way paved with the Blood of Christ Himself and with the Blood of all the Martyrs in Flesh or of the Spirit who followed Him. It is a "little way" of Martyrdom to the enticements of the world, that robes us in the richest raiment possible.

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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 is the part of the book that must be remarkably unpopular with the Thomists of the world--and which on the surface may seem to make no sense whatsoever. But that lack of sense is more a matter of misinterpretation and misrepresentation than it is a reality of the teaching of St. John of the Cross. And it does make sense when you pause to think about it.

It is important to bear in mind that St. John DOES NOT indicate that there is anything wrong or bad about intellect, mind, or study. But he does affirm quite clearly and with no possibility of demurral that there comes a point in the road to Union with God when this apparatus presents a far greater hurdle than it does a help. And it is at this point that it must be abandoned entirely. Not that we forget what we learned or refuse to use our minds, but rather that the insistence on answers, on knowing, and on having everything explained is abandoned in favor of the journey in "the Dark Night of Faith."

Ascent of Mount Carmel VI
Beginning of Book II

Read pages 154-162 (Chapter 1-4). St John of the Cross is beginning his discussion of the Dark Night of the Spirit. Book I dealt with the necessity of the Dark Night of the Senses. Each of the Dark Nights has two phases, one that we contribute to by effort of will, called the Active Dark Night and one that we do not do anything to contribute to, in which God acts as surgeon and doctor—the passive Dark Night.

Chapter 1
1. What is “the sheer grace” referred to in line 3 of the poem?
What is the secret ladder? Why does John use this image?
Why was the soul “disguised?” What effect does this have?
What does St. John mean by the last line of this section? Why is it important?

2. Why is the journey in darkness secure?
What is the darkness?
Why is “the house now all stilled?”
What is required of the soul to achieve a union of “simplicity and purity and love and likeness?”

3. Why is the darkness of stanza 2 darker than the Dark Night of Stanza 1? What does this indicate?

Chapter 2
1. Describe the three “parts” of the dark night. What does each consist of? What is the final arrival place?

2-3. What does the first night refer to? The second? Why is the second darker?

Chapter 3
1-2. Why is Faith a darkness? Read these two sections slowly, carefully, and several times. Explain them in your own words.
3. What does faith do in the soul?
4. Explain how the Dark Night of Faith gives the soul light.
5-6. Read these passages carefully. How does the dark night of faith give knowledge? How certain is that knowledge?

Chapter 4
1-2. Why must the soul “perfectly and voluntarily empty itself?”
3-4. How must the soul seek Union with God advance?
5. What does entering the road to union require of the soul? What do the many “modes” St. John refers to mean?
6. What should the soul’s desire and aim be?
7-8. Explain what St. John means when he says, “By blinding one’s faculties along this road one will see light. . . “ How will this happen?

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