|John the Beloved rests on the Bosom of Christ|
ContentsI. The adultery of abandoning the Bosom of Christ by seeking respite in the world's bosom; and the struggles experienced in prayer as a consequence
II. The abandonment of the path of perfection that leads directly to heaven, in favour of the path of imperfection that leads directly to purgatory
IV. St. John of the Cross on the possible causes behind hardships in prayer and three principal signs by which one may discern if one is undergoing the purgation of the night of the senses
VII. Exhortation to abstain from worrying over one's struggles in prayer; and the first and second dispositions the soul ought to possess during prayer in general, particularly during desolation
VIII. The third disposition: a humble and contrite heart
|“The Miraculous Lactation of St. Bernard.” The statue came to life and squirted milk from the Virgin Mary's breast onto the St.Bernard's lips. Artist: Alonso Cano, A.D. 1650, Fisheasters.com|
Note: Herein the term desolation shall be utilised not merely to describe the cyclic hardships one experiences in prayer and the spiritual life; but the struggles experienced in prayer in general -at all and any stage of the spiritual life. Thus whilst the following paper distinguishes between the natural hardships of desolation in the particular sense and the supernatural hardships of the 'Dark Night' (this work deals primarily with the first purgation of this night: that of the sense), the term desolation itself, unless context makes it appear otherwise, will be utilised in the universal sense to apply to both these forms of hardship.
"But since these aridities [by which he refers to the hardship of dryness in prayer] might frequently proceed, not from the night and purgation of the sensual desires aforementioned, but from sins and imperfections, or from weakness and lukewarmness, or from some bad humour or indisposition of the body, I shall here set down certain signs by which it may be known if such aridity proceeds from the aforementioned purgation, or if it arises from any of the aforementioned sins." (DN I:IX, 1). The prime of these sins he lists as the seven deadly sins in regards to spiritual things; a summary of which shall be made, followed by a summary of the three signs which this section is principally concerned with.
Spiritual Pride- "As these beginners feel themselves to be very fervent and diligent in spiritual things and devout exercises, from this prosperity (although it is true that holy things of their own nature cause humility) there often comes to them, through their imperfections, a certain kind of secret pride, whence they come to have some degree of satisfaction with their works and with themselves." (DN I:II, 1).
Spiritual Avarice- "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 (meaning: an unjust complaining or whining) because they find not in spiritual things the consolations [that is the sensible delights] that they would desire. Many can never have enough of listening to counsels and learning spiritual precepts, and of possessing and reading books which treat of this matter...they burden themselves with images and rosaries which are sometimes very curious and showy; now they put down one, now take up another; now they change about, now change back again; now they want this thing, now that..." (DN I:III, 1). Indeed such persons seek the gifts of God more than they do God Himself.
Spiritual Luxury- "For it often comes to pass that, in their very spiritual exercises, when they are powerless to prevent it, there arise and assert in the sensual part of the soul impure acts and motions, and sometimes this happens even when the spirit is deep in prayer, or engaged in the Sacrament of Penace or in the Eucharist. These things are not, as I say, in their power; they proceed from one of three causes...There are also certain souls of so tender and frail a nature that, when there comes to them some spiritual consolation or some grace in prayer, the spirit of luxury is with them immediately...[so that] their humours are stirred up and their blood is excited at the least disturbance..." (DN I:IV, 1, 5). This imperfection if not assented to by the will, remains an imperfection yet not a sin. By it one's sensuality is stirred; what one must do is ignore such stirrings as is recommended by Teresa of Avila. Those with this weakness are inclined to revel in the luxury granted them by spiritual possesions, rather than in the Spirit. Thus he continues to say: "Some of these persons make friendships of a spiritual kind with others, which oftentimes arise from luxury and not from spirituality." (DN I:IV, 7)
Spiritual Wrath- "By reason of concupiscence which beginners have for spiritual consolations, their experience of these consolations is very commonly accompanied by many imperfections proceeding from the sin of wrath; for, when their delight and pleasure in spiritual things come to an end, they naturally become embittered, and bear that lack of sweetness which they have to suffer with bad grace, which affects all that they do; and they easily become irritated over the smallest matter -sometimes, indeed, none can tolerate them...[Others] are vexed with themselves when they observe their own imperfectness, and display an impatience that is not humilty; so impatient are they about this that they would fain be saints in a day." (DN I:V, 1, 2).
Spiritual Gluttony- "For many of these, lured by the sweetness and pleasure which they find in such exercises, strive more after spiritual sweetness than after spiritual purity and discretion...[this] gluttony which they now have makes them continually go to extremes, so that they pass beyond the limits of moderation within which the virtues are acquired and wherein they have their being. For some of these persons, attracted by the pleasure which they find therein, kill themselves with penances, and others weaken themselves by fasts, by performing more than their fraility can bear...you will find that many of these persons are very insistent with their spiritual masters to be granted that which they desire..." (DN I:VI, 1,3). These persons seek sensible delight and sweetness instead of seeking to love and give glory and praise to God. So it is that they regard worthwhile prayer that which brings them sweetness and tickles the fancy of their own will; and this is a most immature outlook, typical of such souls.
Spiritual Envy- "With respect to envy, many of them are wont to experience movements of displeasure at the spiritual good of others, which cause them a certain sensible grief at being outstripped upon this road, so that they would prefer not to hear others praised; for they become displeased at others' virtues and sometimes they cannot refrain from contradicting what is said in praise of them." This is contrary to the holy envy of charity, which, comprises of "grief at not having the virtuous of others, yet also joy because others have them, and delight when others outstrip them in the service of God" (DN I:VII, 1).
Spiritual Sloth- "Beginners are apt to be irked by the things that are most spiritual, from which they flee because these things are incompatible with sensible pleasure. For, as they are so much accustomed to sweetness in spiritual things, they are wearied by things in which they find no sweetness. If once they failed to find in prayer the satisfaction which their taste required (and after all it is well that God should take it from them to prove them), they would prefer not to return to it; sometimes they leave it; other times they continue unwillingly. And thus because of this sloth they abandon the way of perfection [the Bosom of Christ]... for the pleasure and sweetness of their own will [that they suckle from the bosom of the world], which they aim at satisfying in this way rather than the will of God." (DN I:VII, 2).
If the sins and imperfections are the cause behind one's hardship experienced in prayer, these according to St. John of the Cross, are the root causes. Yet if such imperfections are not the prime cause behind one's struggle in prayer, it may be because one is entering into the night of the senses, wherein one begins to leave the way of beginners for the way of the proficient, the way of predominately vocal prayer and discursive meditation, for the way of contemplation. For this night of the senses is wrought by one's immersion into the water of infused contemplation -an immersion that the soul cannot make of her own accord at her own will, for it is a mystical grace that solely depends on the Will of God. Indeed the false teachings of quietism and such practices as centering prayer, seek to force their way into this water of infused contemplation; yet because this cannot be done except by God Himself, such persons immerse themselves into a pseudo-mystical swamp that is focused on self and on one's activity and non-activity; instead of on God and the hidden and spontaneous workings of the Spirit. Now the three principal signs which may help one to discern if this night is the cause behind one's struggles in prayer, are as follows:
(1) "The first is whether, when a soul finds no pleasure or consolation in the things of God, it also fails to find it in any thing created; for, as God sets the soul in this dark night to the end that He may quench and purge its sensual desire, He allows it not to find attraction or sweetness in anything whatsoever. In such a case it may be considered very probable that this aridity and insipidty proceed not from recently committed sins or imperfections." (DN I:IX, 2).
(2) "The second sign whereby a man may believe himself to be experiencing the said purgation is that the memory is ordinarily centered upon God, with painful care and solicitude, thinking that it is not serving God, but is backsliding, [which the soul will if it ceases from its duties of prayer] because it finds itself without sweetness in the things of God. And in such a case it is evident that this lack of sweetness and this aridty come not from weakness and lukewarmness; for it is the nature of lukewarmness to not care greatly or to have any inward solicitude for the things of God." (DN I:IX, 3).
(3) "The third sign whereby this purgation of sense may be recognised is that the soul can no longer meditate or reflect in the imaginative sphere of sense as it was wont, however much it may of itself endeavour to do so. For God now begins to communicated Himself to it, no longer through sense, as He did aforetime, by means of reflections which joined and sundered its knowledge, but by pure spirit [by the means of infused contemplation], into which consecutive reflections enter not...it is to be understood that this embarrassment and dissatisfaction of the faculties proceed not from indisposition, for, when this is the case, and the indisposition, which never lasts long [what will be mentioned as 're-labouring' further on], comes to an end, the soul is able once again, by taking some trouble about the matter, to do what it did before, and the faculties find their wonted support. But in the purgation of the desire this is not so...For, although it is true that at first, and with some persons, the process is not as continuous as this...yet this inability grows within them more and more and brings the workings of sense to an end, if indeed they are to make progress." (DN I:IX, 8, 9).
St. John of the Cross writes concerning such a soul:
Those who have the disposition and greater strength to suffer, He purges with greater intensity and more quickly. But those who are very weak are kept for a long time in this night, and these He purges very gently and with slight temptations. Habitually, too, He gives them refreshments of sense so that they may not fall away, and only after a long time do they attain to purity of perfection in this life, some of them never attaining to it at all. Such are neither properly in the night nor properly out of it; for, although they make no progress, yet, in order that they may continue in humility and self-knowledge, God exercises them for certain periods and at certain times in those temptations and aridities; and at other times and seasons He assists them with consolations, lest they should grow faint and return to seek the consolations of the world. (DN I:XIV, 5).So it is that the Lord permits such a soul to waver, and to adulterate with the world in moments of worldly and sensual respite (not to be confused with the spiritual delights given to the soul by God in contemplation, or for general consolations that arise in prayer); since although this infidelity is a source of immense sorrow for the Lord, He permits it for the very same reasons He permitted His Chosen People through Moses, in the days of the Old Covenant, to file divorces. "For your hardness of heart" says the Lord, "Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so." (Mt 19:8). Applying this teaching to the situation at hand; it can be said that God permits the soul to waver in the way of imperfection -so that she may never even come to reach perfection in this life- not because He desires this, but because of the hardness of the heart of such a soul; and because God prefers a soul to be saved -even if it fails to reach its full stature of holiness- than damned. From the begininng it was not so -is to say that in the mind of God, as written in the scroll of God's perfect plan for the soul; such a tepid state was not so, but the stubbornness of such a soul has thwarted the realisation of those plans -at least in this life; yet indeed if such a soul were to be truly contrite and were to strive once again to walk the path of perfection God would greatly rejoice. Yet sadly, many souls like this remain in their tepid state; a form of tepidity not so much in which the soul's sanctity is diminished as time wears on -though this is a constant risk in such a vulnerable state- but is advancing, but at a pace that is sorely imperfect due to the squandering of much of the graces received. As is the saying of the Church Father's concerning progress in the spiritual life: "He who ceases to advance, moves backwards." Yet there are degrees of advancement: those who advance in a perfect manner, and those who advance in an imperfect manner. The latter of which is characteristic of the type of soul that often flees from the Bosom of Christ in favour of the respite offered by the world's bosom; and the perfect manner, as that which is characteristic of the type of soul that remains steadfast and pressed tightly to the Bosom of Christ, in rain, sunshine or hail.
The imperfect soul of which we have been speaking is not to be confused with the type of soul that actually lives in their camp of dwelling in the world; for in a most literal sense these latter souls are those whom our Lord has said he will spit out of his mouth; just as repulsive and unsavoury food is dispelled as vomit: "But because thou art lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth." (Rev 3:16) says the Lord. For such souls neither serve the world nor God; although indeed they try to serve these two masters, yet to no avail (Mt 6:24). However the ignorance of such souls -who lack any self-knowledge whatsoever- spurs them to fancy themselves as spiritual and devout persons. Yet such creatures are sorely deceived, for they spend the majority of their time in their place of residence in the land of Babylon and Egypt, symbolising the world; and merely venture forth on the odd occasion -at the prompting of guilt, routine or worldly prudence- into the desert of faith; where there they offer unworthy, cheap sacrifices; and tepid prayers that are said with the flame of a zeal determined by sensibility. So it is that such souls do not pray daily, and nor do they possess the disposition of spirit which is necessary in order to bear the fruits of grace that one receives from the Sacraments. Such a soul is not even classed as a beginner in the spiritual life; for if the spiritual life is a journey in the desert towards the Promised Land, than she is one who has not even commenced such a pilgrimage. This is in contrast to the type of soul of which this writing has been predominately discussing. For this latter soul does pray daily and does indeed possess some of the qualities necessary to bear the fruit of grace; it is simply that her prayers and disposition are sorely imperfect. Furthermore, whereas the tepid soul abides in their camp of dwelling in the world, and ventures forth only occasionally into the desert; this latter soul abides in the desert, yet having maintained her camp of dwelling in the world, she returns on the odd occasion for worldly respite. So it is that both souls are truly tepid in the general sense; yet in order to distinguish between two shades of grey, we can affirm that this latter soul is indeed a beginner who lives -yet somewhat precariously and whimsically- the spiritual life.
The soul is bound to experience hardships in life as well as hardships in prayer. For the cross the Lord beckons the soul to pick up daily in order to follow Him, is made up not only of the weight of exterior trials, but interior trials; such as those that seem to plague her in prayer. Indeed at times prayer is seems so difficult; for the mind of the soul may be cluttered with distractions, she may have aches and pains throughout her body that make it hard for her to concentrate; or she may feel such dryness in prayer to the point that praying becomes as a form of torture to her! Otherwise the soul may find herself unable to pray as she used to, with the very effort of discursive meditation a painful strain. Sometimes the soul may find her imagination abuzz like a drunken mosquito that ceaselessly bombards the light of her mind with worldly, vain or obscene images. So it is that regardless of the type of hardship one experiences in prayer, if we are living the spiritual life, such hardships will come. There is no need to become anxious however, since these trials in prayer come when they come. So in order for the soul to be ready for such hardships, she should -besides striving to adopt the dispositions that will be mentioned further on- fortify herself with the knowledge of faith. St. Paul the Master of such knowledge introduces us to the fortifying bread that we ought to carry with us throughout our spiritual quest; and this bread is that "we know that to them that love God all things work together unto good" (Rom 8:28a). Armed with this bread, the bread of the knowledge of faith, we will be able to endure with joy, patience, love and hope, in all trials that come our way -especially those trials we experience in prayer. What can we do when distractions come? St. Teresa of Avila tells us to pay no heed to such distractions, lest we incite them more. And if such distractions become persistent, all one can do is try ones best to refocus on God by means of an invocation or 'Hail Mary' (as St. Terese of Lisieux used to do at times), or any other such method; and beyond that -if all else fails- we can do naught but give thanks to God for such a distraction which we can use as an opportunity to give praise. For we can offer up our annoyance from such a distraction to Jesus, in reparation for all those who are distracted by various things so that they come to neglect and forget Jesus. And what can we do if dryness and emptiness of mind has become our lot? Fuse ourselves with Jesus and the anguish that was his lot whilst He dwelt on earth, with the desire and intention to render Him relief by using our pains -made divine when united with those of Jesus- as a balm of consolation. So it is that despite the cause of our affliction in prayer, we can use all things to our benefit. We must also clothe ourselves with the loving resignation of Mary; so that when such hardships come, we may not be as children that dodge the scissors that seek to trim and beautify their hair; but so that as compliant and still blocks of rough marble, such hardships may serve as blows from the Divine Chisel that complete the celestial crafting of our sanctification. For indeed the Lord permits such chastisements to come our way in our prayer life for the benefit of our souls. Since as the Spirit says in Scripture:
"My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives." It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Heb 12:5b-11).
But the question arises: Why is the Divine light (which as we say, illumines and purges the soul from its ignorances) here called by the soul a dark night? To this the answer is that for two reasons this Divine wisdom is not only night and darkness for the soul, but is likewise affliction and torment. The first is because of the height of Divine Wisdom, which transcends the talent of the soul, and in this way is darkness to it; the second, because of its vileness and impurity, in which respect it is painful and afflictive to it, and is also dark. (DN, II:V, 2).
In so knowing me the soul catches fire with unspeakable love, which in turn brings continual pain. Indeed, because she has known my truth as well as her own sin and her neighbours’ ingratitude and blindness, the soul suffers intolerably. Still, this is not a pain that troubles or shrivels up the soul. On the contrary, it makes her grow fat. For she suffers because she loves me, nor would she suffer if she did not love me. (The Dialogue, 4).
For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: "I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite. For I will not contend for ever, nor will I always be angry; for from me proceeds the spirit, and I have made the breath of life. Because of the iniquity of his covetousness I was angry, I smote him, I hid my face and was angry; but he went on backsliding in the way of his own heart. I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will lead him and requite him with comfort, creating for his mourners the fruit of the lips. Peace, peace, to the far and to the near, says the Lord; and I will heal him. But the wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot rest, and its waters toss up mire and dirt. There is no peace, says my God, for the wicked." (Isaiah 57:15-21).