“If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23)
“For we walk by faith, and not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7)
KEY PRELIMINARY POINT # 1: Saint John of the Cross states, “All the goodness [of the things created by God], in comparison with the infinite goodness of God, may be described as wickedness. For there is naught good, save only God,” and, “All the wealth and glory of all creation, in comparison with the wealth which is God, is supreme poverty and wretchedness” (Saint John of the Cross, Book I, Ascent of Mount Carmel). The underlying starting point of John of the Cross is thus: God is All in All. Therefore, we were created to set our hearts on God.
KEY PRELIMINARY POINT # 2: Saint John of the Cross emphasizes the nearness of God, who is “nearer to us than we are to ourselves.” In The Spiritual Canticle he makes this point in a strikingly beautiful way: “Oh, then, soul, most beautiful among all creatures, so anxious to know the dwelling place of your Beloved so you may go in search of him and be united with him, now we are telling you that you yourself are his dwelling and his secret inner room and hiding place. There is reason for you to be elated and joyful in seeing that all your good and hope is so close as to be within you, or better, that you cannot be without him. Behold, exclaims the Bridegroom, the kingdom of God is within you [Lk. 17:21]. And his servant, the apostle St. Paul, declares: You are the temple of God [2 Cor. 6:16]. It brings special happiness to a person to understand that God is never absent….” (Stanza 1; emphasis added). Therefore, the desire for union with God is greatly aided by the discovery that God dwells within my baptized soul!
1. We are made for union with God, a process which begins with baptism and which is meant to grow in intimacy and love throughout our life.
2. This process of growing ever closer to God is in direct response to the great commandment: to love God with our whole heart, mind and soul and with all our strength (see Matt 22: 37-40).
MORTIFICATION OF THE SENSES (Lower Faculties)
EXAMPLES: If God could take the zeal and love we have for the passing and perishable things of this world, and apply that zeal and love to Himself (God being the one, true good), the result would be hearts on fire in the service of the Lord. John of the Cross refers to this change of heart as a “transformation” of desire. In this transformation, we begin to love God with our whole heart and soul (thus fulfilling the great commandment), whereas our love for the passing things of this world wanes (and we use them primarily in the service of God). This readjustment of our affections is something God is attempting to carry out in our lives whenever our love for some object or pleasure impedes our love for Him. “He who has God has everything.” “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul” (Mark 8:36). One example: the amazing transformation of desire that took place in Saint Ignatius of Loyola. He took all the zeal, energy and love he had in being a soldier and nobleman and transferred it to the service of God. St. Paul had the same type of zeal and determination for life displayed by Ignatius. God saw what a good job Saul was doing going after new Christians, and He must of thought, “I need that guy on my side.” So He knocked Saul off his horse and set Paul’s heart on the love of Christ. Paul’s return to the Lord was prodigious. No one worked harder, and suffered more, to advance the church. Is there anything in our lives that we potentially love more than God (or prevent us from growing closer to God)? Is there anything in our lives that provides more security to us than God? Do we have idols that impede our worship of God? Do we understand that the only retirement account of any value is Heaven? These disordered affections need to be uprooted, for they ultimately impede us from loving God and growing closer to Him.
A QUOTE FROM SAINT JOHN OF THE CROSS: “Hence, we call this nakedness [this mortification of appetites] a night for the soul, for we are not discussing the mere lack of things; this lack will not divest the soul if it craves for all these objects. We are dealing with the denudation [emptying] of the soul’s appetites and gratifications. This is what leaves it free and empty of all things, even though it possesses them. Since the things of the world cannot enter the soul, they are not in themselves an encumbrance or harm to it; rather, it is the will and appetite dwelling within that causes the damage when set on these things” (Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Book One, Chapter Three). Saint John of the Cross mentions that even a small, seemingly harmless attachment to some pleasure or novelty can impede the soul’s advancement if not mortified. In short, this purification is comprehensive: you are scrubbing clean all your inordinate desires and attachments – all of them! (and St. John of the Cross provides some rather strong guidelines to accomplish this goal). A simple example: you are attached to late night news shows which prevent you from praying the rosary and from examination of conscience. How many amusements and trivial pursuits keep us from meditation, deep prayer and adoration, thus impeding our union with God?
7. The active night of the senses prepares us for the passive night of the senses. The passive night of the senses involves God’s own action upon the soul in question. As the person begins to strip away his inordinate sensual attraction to the things of this world, thus getting rid of the “old-self,” especially through prayer, meditation and self-denial, God then allows a profound period of spiritual aridity to beset the believer, the ultimate purpose of which is to effectuate an even more powerful purification of our inordinate passions and desires, especially as these vices begin to manifest themselves on a spiritual level (as in craving for spiritual delights and pleasures). As the believer perseveres through this “dark night,” where no consolation of God is experienced, but not wanting to turn back to the futility of his old ways, a breakthrough ultimately occurs whereby, through sheer grace, the believer begins to experience the interior presence of God and makes the transition from meditative (discursive) prayer to contemplative (supernatural) prayer, thus moving from the purgative stage of the journey to the illuminative stage (from beginner to proficient). This process may take a few months or many years.
MORTIFICATION OF THE SPIRIT: OF THE UNDERSTANDING, MEMORY AND WILL (Higher Faculties)
“We are now going to treat of the second part of this night, which is faith; this
is the wondrous means which, as we said, leads to the goal, which is God.”
(Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II, Chapter II)
8. The crucial importance of FAITH, HOPE AND LOVE! Saint John wants us to thoroughly cleanse the faculties which sense, know, desire, understand, remember, imagine and will. In short, John of the Cross wants to completely clean house! And when our spiritual house has been set in order, and swept clean of all the encumbrances that so impede union with God, we will begin to walk by faith, hope and love (the theological virtues). And so a deeper purification is still needed, which brings us to the active and then passive night of the spirit (see note on active purification below the end of this note). John of the Cross points out that the imperfections of the lower faculties, namely, the senses, although now purged, cannot be completely purged unless the higher, spiritual faculties of the understanding, memory and will are also purged. “The stains of the old man still remain in their spirit like rust that will disappear only under the action of a purifying fire” (Father Garrigou LaGrange). Although Saint John of the cross spends a lot of time discussing the defects still present in proficients, one might summarize by saying that egoism and pride are deeply embedded in the human spirit. “They must be purified from every human attachment to their judgment, to their excessively personal manner of seeing, willing, acting, from every human attachment to the good works to which they devote themselves. This purification, if well borne in the midst of temptations against the three theological virtues, will increase tenfold their faith, their confidence in God, and their love of God and neighbor” (Father Garrigou-LaGrange). This purgation or purification of the spirit, of the understanding, memory and will, is accomplished in the following manner:
Understanding is to be replaced by faith
Memory is to be emptied and forgotten and replaced by hope
The will is to be emptied of all desires save that of loving God with all our heart, mind and strength
In essence, we are going to let the Holy Spirit lead us. In Saint John’s own words, the understanding is purged in “the darkness of faith, the memory in the emptiness of hope, and the will in the nakedness and absence of every affection.” This sort of transformation is necessary, John maintains, for those seeking mystical union with God. And even though we may not reach that high degree of union in this lifetime (“the unitive stage”), the principles laid down by Saint John are still of tremendous value in that we should learn to be very distrustful of our limited, human knowledge (and walk by faith); and we need to escape being bogged down in our past memories (some which harm and distract us) and look forward with hope to one day being in the presence of God; and, finally, we need to redirect our will to loving God with all our heart, mind and strength. The theological virtues were placed in our souls at baptism, and they function to allow the Holy Spirit to direct our lives. This active process of “letting go of all that is not God,” as stored in our understanding, memory and will, prepares us for the passive night of the spirit, ultimately leading to betrothal and union with God. The passive night of the spirit (which I am barely touching upon) is an experience of “utter desolation,” where only the “light of pure faith” is able to preserve the believer from despair (until finally, and in stages described by mystical theologians, an overwhelming experience of union with God takes place). Saint John of the Cross describes it in the following manner:
“Poor, abandoned, and unsupported by any of the apprehensions of my soul (in the darkness of my intellect, in the distress of my will, and the affliction and anguish of my memory), left to darkness in pure faith, which is a dark night for all these natural faculties, and with my will touched only by sorrows, afflictions, and longings of love of God, I went out from myself.
… My intellect departed from itself, changing from human and natural to divine. For united with God through this purgation, it no longer understands by means of its natural vigor and light, but by means of the divine wisdom to which it was united. And my will departed from itself and became divine. United with divine love, it no longer loves in a lowly manner, with its natural strength, but with the strength and purity of the Holy Spirit; and thus the will does not operate humanly in relation to God. The memory, too, was changed into eternal apprehensions of glory. And finally, all the strength and affections of the soul, by means of this night and purgation of the old self, are renewed with divine qualities and delights.”
(The Dark Night, Book II, Chapter IV, as cited by Larry Cooley in The Way to Ultimate Meaning in the Mystical Theology of Saint John of the Cross).
9. In a very simplified manner (relying on Father Garrigou-LaGrange), we may say that these higher intellectual and spiritual faculties have been purified “in their depths” by this dark night of trial and suffering which elevates to an extraordinary degree the infused, loving contemplation of God, and all the amazing benefits which flow from such an elevation of union with God. The highest level of union with God the soul can attain to by the purification of this dark night is called the transforming union, of which Father Garrigou-LaGrange states: “St. John of the Cross describes the transforming union as the state of spiritual perfection, the full development of the grace of the virtues and the gifts: ‘The perfect spiritual life,’ he says, ‘consists in the possession of God by the union of love.’ The transforming union is, therefore, most intimate; it brings with it great, inalterable peace, at least to the summit of the higher faculties.” Overall, these successive purifications place “our house in order”, the ultimate effect of which is profound union with God and, as Ralph Martin points out, a proper and much richer use and appreciation of the things of this world for the love of neighbor and the greater glory of God.
PRACTICAL NOTE: As Father Garrigou-LaGrange demonstrates, the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, and the intellectual gifts of the Holy Spirit (Knowledge, Wisdom and Understanding, and really all seven gifts of the Holy Spirit) are operating at a high level at these higher levels of the spiritual journey, as God, in essence, is now leading the soul. Thus, prayer to the Holy Spirit for an increase in faith, hope and love, as well as for the seven gifts, is crucial. Also, since our natural intellectual powers are so prone to error, distrust of our own opinions is crucial. What we need is the Holy Spirit’s Wisdom, and a cautious distrust of our own ideas and opinions which are so prone to error.
Tom Mulcahy, M.A.
Image: Saint John of the Cross by Anonymous artist 17th Century (at Wikipedia). Public Domain, U.S.A.
Personal note: There is a lot more to the spiritual theology of Saint John of the Cross than the bare-bones outline presented here (entire topics, like the difficulties presented to the soul by purported supernatural phenomena, and many other topics, are not even touched upon). This post provides, at best, a bird’s eye view of his spirituality (and, as a summary, no doubt has defects and deficiencies). Saint John of the Cross is not easy to read. For a more detailed explanation of his spirituality, see Dr. Susan Muto’s two books, John of the Cross for Today: The Ascent and John of the Cross for Today: The Dark Night.
Note on Active Purification: With respect both to the active purification of the senses and spirit, see Father Garrigou-LaGrange’s essays in Volume I of The Three Ages of the Interior Life (where he relies on a number of great spiritual writers). These essays are entitled as follows: “The Active Purification of the Senses or of the Sensible Appetites; The Active Purification of the Imagination and Memory; The Active Purification of the Intellect; The Active Purification of the Will.” All the faculties of a human being, then, are actively placed under observation for active purification (a prelude to the passive purifications carried out by God as sheer grace, which cannot be merited but only prepared for).
Sources: Ascent of Mount Carmel, translated by E. Allison Peers (Triumph Books); Dark Night of the Soul, translated by E. Allison Peers (Doubleday);The Collected Works of Saint John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (ICS Publications); an essay on John of the Cross by Mary E. Giles in Great Thinkers of the Western World (HarperCollins); an internet essay, “The Way to Ultimate Meaning in the Mystical Theology of Saint John of the Cross,” by Larry Cooley; Christian Perfection and Contemplation by Father Reginald Garrigou-LaGrange (TAN Books); and Ralph Martin’s audio presentation on Saint John of the Cross available at renewalministries.net
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