Tuesday, 15 December 2015

St. John of the Cross: Loving the Giver above the Gifts



A Brief Bio


St. John of the Cross
St. John of the Cross was born at Fontiveros in Spain in 1542. He was invested in the Carmelite habit in 1563, made his profession the year after, and was ordained a priest in 1567. In the same year he met St. Teresa of Avila who convinced John, who by now was thinking of leaving the Carmelites for the stricter Carthusians, to join her in a reform of the Carmelite Order. The following year after he completed his studies, he made the vows of the Reform and thus began the beginning of the rest of his life – a life marked by trials.

At one time he was imprisoned in a tiny cell in Toledo, by Carmelite friars who opposed the Reform. During his imprisonment he was subjected to weekly lashings, with scraps of slated fish, bread and water for rations. At times he was forced to eat like a dog on the floor in front of the community of friars where he would be verbally humiliated by the superiors under the pretext of disobedience, saying such things as: “Here is one who sought to teach before he learnt”. After nine months he managed to escape. According to tradition the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to him in a vision on the Feast of the Assumption, telling him that his trials would soon be over. A few days later she showed him a window by which he could make his escape. During the night he unhinged his cell door (loosened by Mary) and tying blankets together lowered himself outside the monastery window. Exhausted and fragile he managed to scale the tall monastery wall –also with the help of Mary it is said, where he took shelter in the nearby convent of the Reform. It was during his time in prison that he composed a large part of his most famous poem Spiritual Canticle, along with several other shorter poems.

Towards the end of his life, on the 1st of June 1591, despite being the co-founder of the Reform – by now known as the Discalced, ‘Barefooted’ Carmelites – he was stripped of all offices of authority at the communities Chapter. Within several weeks he fell ill with a severe fever, and despite the urgings of his companions he insisted to be transferred to the monastery at Ubeda; since the Prior of that monastery loathed him, and John could not turn down a certain cross which he knew would be his last. His final days in Ubeda, where he was confined to bed, were spent in agony and abjection, with the Prior persecuting him right until the end when at last the Prior begged St. John for forgiveness. Throughout his period of sickness several women fought over the rights to wash his bloody clothes and sheets, which they attest had no odor except that of the smell of roses. On December 14, 1591 he died of erysipelas, an acute infection of the skin and lymphatic system, at the age of 49.

He was canonised in 1726 and was proclaimed a Doctor (Teacher) of the Universal Church in 1926; receiving the title Doctor Mysticus ‘Mystic Doctor’, because of his expertise in treating of the subject of Mystical Theology. He is considered a master of Spanish literature, and was at once a poet, philosopher, theologian and spiritual director – a task which he continues to this day. His preeminent works include the Dark Night, often referred to as Dark Night of the Soul; Ascent of Mount Carmel, and the Spiritual Canticle.

What characterises St. John of the Cross is his ardent desire for union with God in the simplicity and poverty of a faith that seeks God for God’s Own sake. There is much we can learn from this Doctor of the Church, yet we will focus on one central theme that runs throughout the writings of this great Saint and forms a corner stone of his spirituality: loving God as opposed to loving the gifts of God.

Loving the Giver above the Gifts


In the spiritual life we can often fall into the trap of loving the gifts of God more than we love God the Giver. It is not possible to truly love God and to be attached and ‘in love’ with the gifts that He gives; since “no man can serve two masters” (Mt 6:24a). Thus at times we may become attached to consolations in prayer such as tingly sensations, feel good emotions, insights into mysteries of our faith, or even to comfortable and easy prayer sessions. The sign that we are in love with such consolations more than we are in love with God, is when we stop or slacken our prayers because we think we’re getting nothing out of it. What we should really be doing is praying regardless of how we feel, remaining indifferent to whether we feel warm and fuzzy or numb and tired; whether we are experiencing a flood of spiritual insights or are plagued by distractions and can’t concentrate; since prayer is about being with God and letting God be with us. It is not about having our senses caressed and minds pampered. As St. John of the Cross emphatically reiterates, prayer is about union with God, and to bring about this union God knows what is best – sometimes consolations, but sometimes dryness, tedium and seeming fruitlessness; and the saint teaches us that these latter experiences are in fact most profitable to our souls.

The One out of the Ten


In the Gospels we read of the account of ‘The Ten Lepers’. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem when he meets ten lepers along the way. Jesus says to them:

“Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks… Then said Jesus, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” (Lk 17:14-19).

One Leper Returns
In this situation we see that out of the ten who received the gift of healing only one turned back to give thanks to God. Thus out of all the ten only one loved the Giver more than the gift; and because of this gratitude the Lord – who will never have Himself outdone in generosity – says to the man “your faith has made you well”. Obviously he is not only speaking about physical healing, since each of the ten received that. But Jesus is speaking about spiritual healing – a gift He gave to this man alone. The gift was the ‘making well’ of the relationship between God and himself; the gift of having given pleasure to God; a gift only enjoyed by those who give simple and selfless thanksgiving.

The majority of Christians are like the nine ungrateful lepers: happily receiving gifts from God, but forgetful of giving thanks and perhaps even forgetful of the Giver Himself. Such gifts given by God directly and indirectly – which we often take for granted – include literally everything such as good health, the opportunity to suffer; sunshine and rain; a financial blessing; a good exam result, a family, friendships, creation, our own existence etc. In regards to all such gifts we are called to be like that one grateful man, so that in the midst of enjoying the gifts of God – we turn back to God, facing away from the gifts received and attentive only to the Giver.[1] Ironically it is when we give thanks to God as the Giver, focusing on Him as opposed to the gifts He gives, that God bestows more gifts on us, just as He did to that one healed leper. However the greatest of the gifts that God gives us we can focus on, and this Gift is at once the most sublime and the most allusive: it is the giving of God’s Self in the Person of Jesus, and His drawing us into a deeper union with Him. This is especially the case in the Sacraments, and particularly so in the Eucharist. Yet herein we are addressing those gifts which are other than God.

Spiritual Gluttony: Using God


Another error we might fall into is becoming spiritual gluttons who seek after ‘new spiritual experiences’ or spiritual novelties for their own sake or for our own sake. This might manifest by seeking after powerful worship music; wanting to have a vision of God, Mary or some saint or angel; wanting a more entertaining church service; attending spiritual conferences for the sake of ‘the next hit’; by seeking to tangibly feel God, as if the purpose of prayer is to emotionally experience God; or by seeking fancier and more polished liturgies – all under the pretext of “what can I get out of this?” There is nothing inherently wrong with these things, nor with experiencing God. But there is something wrong when we seek to tangibly experience God as opposed to simply seeking God for His Own sake – indifferent to whether ‘we feel Him’ or ‘think we are encountering him’. We must be confident in faith that He is always in our midst, with the sole aim of giving Him glory no matter how we feel and no matter what temptations of doubt may assail our minds.

A suitable analogy for spiritual gluttony would be to imagine a husband who loves the sexual experiences he has with his wife more than he loves his wife herself. In this instance the husband would be guilty of lust, since his wife has become an object for his own greedy pleasure. He has objectified her and has valued the gift of her body more than his wife as the unique woman that she is. There is nothing wrong with the sexual act in the bond of wedlock, in fact it is a gift given by God to be enjoyed in the bonds of wedlock, within the realm of the moral law. However there is something wrong when this gift of sexuality is esteemed more than relationship and personhood. It’s just as if we were to give a gift to someone only to have them run away with the gift in delight, without the slightest recognition and gratitude for who we are and for our bestowing the gift. This leads to one of the worst feelings of all: being used.

Medieval Choir
Sadly we often use God. Thus whilst worship music, charismatic praise, a sacred music choir, and fancy liturgies are good in and of themselves, since they are among the gifts that God has bestowed on us; it is a great imperfection to seek these things as ends in themselves. These things, like all the gifts God gives us, are supposed to be springboards from which we can praise God, and tools with which we can glorify him. Yet often we turn these things into idols, as though these things were God! Underlying this subtle spiritual idolatry is gluttony for spiritual experience. So that worship music becomes more about feeling an encounter with God instead of giving praise to God. Charismatic praise becomes more about feeling swept up in the Spirit, or receiving a word instead of glorifying God – since being swept up in the Spirit and receiving ‘a word’ should be left to God to happen if it happens. A sacred music choir becomes more about appeasing one’s musical sensibilities as opposed to being a tool for elevating people’s minds to God. And fancy liturgy becomes more about the smells, bells and whistles and ticking the checklist of liturgical norms as opposed to giving thanks to the Father with the Sacred Eucharistic Heart of Jesus. Not that the smells, bells and whistles, and meeting liturgical norms is a bad thing, for these are good in themselves; but rather that they are means to the end of praising God; they are not ends in themselves. When we turn such gifts as worship music, charismatic praise, a sacred music choir and fancy liturgies into idols by making them ends in themselves or into means to meet our own sensual appetites and ideas of ‘what ought to be done’, we are using God out of self-love, instead of using these ‘things’ to love Him.

Signs of an Imperfect and False Devotion


A sign that we are more in love with the gifts of God than God the giver, is if our devotion wanes when the tangible gifts of God are partly or wholly withdrawn. If our devotion is lessened in such circumstances than our devotion is imperfect, by which it means it is at least partly false. If our devotion at Mass is at least somewhat dependent upon how good the homily was, then our devotion is somewhat false.* If our devotion in prayer is at least somewhat dependent upon feeling emotionally pleasant, then our devotion is somewhat false. If our devotion in prayer is at least somewhat dependent upon how easy or how difficult things are going in our life, then our devotion is somewhat false.

Yet often God will use these things, such as homilies, feelings, and easiness or difficulties in our life to rekindle our hearts with a flame of devotion – imperfect yes, but it’s a start, and God has to start from somewhere. Thus perhaps we might have given up on prayer for a while, or have fallen short of what God is calling us to do; but then all of a sudden some cross comes along in our life and we’re back on our knees crying out to God with fervour. God even works through sin, so that at one instance we think we’re the bees knees and the cats pajamas, when all of a sudden we fall flat on our faces in sin and are exceedingly humbled, and we return to God repentant and with greater fervour than before – aware that whilst we might be the bee, He’s our knees; and whilst we might be the cat, He’s our pajamas.

In What a True and Perfect Devotion Consists


In contrast a true and perfect devotion, is a devotion that is constant and unwavering no matter what is happening in our immediate environment and in our lives. Keeping in mind that devotion is a free choice to desire God and a commitment to love God, it is not about feeling like one loves God – since feelings are deceptive and love is not a feeling but an act of the will. Thus we can practice true devotion to God even in the midst of emotional and physical suffering. By such true devotion we follow God and chase after union with Him no matter what gifts we feel God is or isn’t giving us. In fact according to John of the Cross’ schema, (for those in the state of grace) the times we feel that God has withdrawn his gifts from us are in fact the times in which God is bountifully lavishing us with gifts. Whilst those gifts that we can sense are less valuable and beneficial to our soul than the gifts which are purely spiritual – which we are not even or hardly aware of.

By true devotion we don’t care how good or bad the priest’s homily was at Mass; we may still prefer a good homily, but we’re not worried about it, we’re just attentive to what matters – loving God and preparing ourselves for Holy Communion. By true devotion we see God’s Will in whatever emotional state we find ourselves in during prayer – whether it’s an “I can’t wait to pray” emotional state, or an “O no, it’s prayer time” state, or a “Let’s get out of here” state; and whatever the state we claim God’s Divine Strength as our own and soldier on in prayer, even if it’s just being present to God. By true devotion we will be inspired to pray all of the time, always and everywhere, for everything and everybody; and as much as we can –out loud, mentally, silently and with a loving intention whilst engaged in our duties. By a true devotion our devotion will not depend on how easy or how difficult life is going, but both easiness and difficulties will be seen as opportunities to praise, love and thank God.

The Tangible Outer Husk and the Spiritual Inner Nectar


St. John of the Cross explains in what this true devotion consists. He writes:

True devotion must issue from the heart, and consists 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.[2]

In other words, what he is saying is that true devotion is an outpouring of love from the heart, and consists in a pure faith which is not dependent upon the outward and exterior forms of God’s gifts. The outward, visible and tangible aspect of God’s gifts, including the tangible aspect of experiencing God, is in fact “the outer husk” of God’s gifts, whilst the actual valuable and important aspect of God’s gifts is the inner fruit that is neither felt by the senses nor fully comprehended by the intellect.[3] This principle applies to all of God’s gifts both spiritual and material. Since even the gift of physical food, although its material ‘husk’ is essential to the sustaining of physical life, its most important aspect is the communicated goodness of God who provides for His creatures – hence we pray grace before meals to recognise this fact. As the Catechism states: “there is scarcely any proper use of material things which cannot be thus directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God.” (CCC 1670). Most importantly however this principle applies to the life of prayer; so that anything that we tangibly experience in prayer we must not become attached to, keeping in mind that such sensual things are but the superficial husks of God’s gifts compared to the hidden spiritual nectar of Gods very Self being infused into our souls – either with or without the accompaniment of such tangible husks.

The Importance of a Pure Faith


St. John's Diagram of the Ascent of Mt. Carmel
A persistent theme in the writings of John of the Cross is the notion of a pure faith which is necessary for a true and perfect devotion. With faith being “the assurance of things hoped for, [and] the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). Such a faith is necessary to hold fast to the Giver who gives Himself to us in, with and through His gifts. Neither visions, sermons, apparitions, music, locutions, tingly sensations, nor one’s own concepts and understandings of God and the mysteries of our faith, are pathways that lead to union with God. “Faith… alone” he says, “is the proximate and proportionate means whereby the soul is united with God.”[4] What he means by this is that faith is the pathway that leads to union with God, since Jesus is the Way, and we walk in Him by faith.

Everything else (yet visions and locutions should never be sought after) can serve as sign posts along the pathway of faith, encouraging us to walk on in faith. Yet if we’re not careful, we can turn these sign posts into butterflies that we chase and which lead us off the path of faith in God – which is a path where things are neither seen nor felt, and onto the path of faith in things seen, felt and fully understood. When we build our supposed faith and love of God upon the sand of a faith and love for tangible things, we are setting ourselves up for disaster. Since if a storm of some descript comes and invalidates or takes away the tangible things we have built our faith upon we will lose our faith in God. This has happened to many people. For although miracles, apparitions, and spiritual leaders can be good things, they are not God – and may prove quite the contrary. Thus our devotion should not be dependent upon these uncertain things. But instead our devotion should depend upon God and the Revelation of Christ as proclaimed by the Church. Using such things as private revelations, such as miracles and apparitions, to depend more on God and to penetrate deeper into Public Revelation. If we do all of this then our faith and love – our devotion, will be true and perfect.

The Darkness of Faith: The Safe, Sure and Secure Way


Drawing of the Crucifixion by John of the Cross
This is what John of the Cross means when he refers to the darkness and night of faith in God (here understood in a general sense) being the safe, sure and secure way that leads to union with God in the spiritual life. Since the soul who walks in a pure faith leans only on God and seeks only God, without being encumbered by sensible experiences or the lack thereof. Indeed how foolish it is to desire to see God in a vision, instead of desiring God Himself who need not be seen. It would be like someone who was engaged, and who desperately wanted to get married; and so they ask to be plugged into the matrix so that they could have an imaginary wife now, when they’re already engaged and just need to wait a few months until they’re married!

Similarly, our days on earth are days we must live in faith, which is to live in Mary beneath the shadow of the Cross. To live in pure faith we must never desire to literally and tangibly see or feel God in this life – we must be content to believe in that intimacy which is invisible and imperceptible. An eternal intimacy which need not wait until our death, but which we can enjoy now through faith by which we allow to take place within us the romance between each Person of the Trinity. When we get to heaven, then we will have all of eternity to behold Him face to face without any veils between us, and it is right and just to long for this glorious day. But for now “we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor 4:18).

Being Content with the ‘Empty Tomb’ of Faith


We’re not called to be like Thomas who sought out a tangible experience of God in the flesh of Jesus; nor to be like the other Apostles who didn’t believe the women’s account of the resurrection until they had tangibly experienced Jesus for themselves. But we’re called to be like the Apostle John who did not seek to tangibly experience Jesus, but who sought Jesus for His Own sake. Thus upon seeing the empty tomb John believed, and it was enough for him to know that Jesus was alive and still with him (Jn 20:8). Similarly we must be content with the ‘empty tomb’, which is a symbol of pure faith. We must be satisfied with seeing nothing, of feeling nothing, of hearing no mighty voice from above, nor of smelling any scent of roses. Like John the Beloved we must be content with the ‘empty tomb’ of faith, and believe wholeheartedly that God is with us, in us, and calling us to draw ever nearer to Him.

A Pure Faith: The Way to Love the Giver above the Gifts


This is the example that another John gives us, St. John of the Cross. We don’t need to tangibly experience God in order to experience God, we just need to believe. Nor should we chase after experiences of God, since we already possess God in our souls and need only swim deeper into Him – hence our motto should be: “The Lord is my shepherd there is nothing I shall want” (Ps 23:1). This is the same as saying: “The Lord is my God, and I need nothing else. I do not need visions, warm fuzzies, or grand insights, I only need God.” If God bestows such gifts on us, so be it and we shouldn't fear them, but we must never place our faith and love in these things as though they were God, we must continue along the bright and certain path of faith for the love of God. A way which only seems dark and obscure to our finite minds.

We do not want to be those of whom the Lord says: “Have you based your belief and love on Me because you have seen, felt, or heard me?” But we want to be those in the fullest sense of whom our Lord says: “Blessed are those who base their belief on Me, and love Me, because I Am Who I Am, not because they have seen, felt or heard me.”[5]

It seems appropriate to conclude with the words of St. John of the Cross from the Spiritual Canticle:

You will still urge and say, How is it, then, that I find Him not, nor feel Him, if He is within my soul? It is because He is hidden, and because you hide not yourself also that you may find Him and feel Him; for he that will seek that which is hidden must enter secretly into the secret place where it is hidden, and when he finds it, he is himself hidden like the object of his search. Seeing, then, that the Bridegroom whom you love is “the treasure hidden in the field” of your soul, for which the wise merchant gave all that he had, so you, if you will find Him, must forget all that is yours, withdraw from all created things, and hide yourself in the secret retreat of the spirit, shutting the door upon yourself — that is, denying your will in all things — and praying to your Father in secret. Then you, being hidden with Him, will be conscious of His presence in secret, and will love Him, possess Him in secret, and delight in Him in secret, in a way that no tongue or language can express. Courage, then, O soul most beautiful, you know now that your Beloved, Whom you desire, dwells hidden within your breast; strive, therefore, to be truly hidden with Him, and then you shall embrace Him, and be conscious of His presence with loving affection. (Stanza I, 11-12).


[1] In a special way however, in the Sacraments, the Giver and the Gift is one and the same, yet still we may become attached to the outward aspect of the gift of the Sacrament (i.e. the tangible aspect) and may be in need of being purified in this respect, so that we turn away from the consideration of signs as though they were ends in themselves, towards the consideration of the God who communicates Himself through such visible signs.

 * There is nothing necessarily wrong with changing the parish one attends if one prefers one priest and their preaching over another, provided its God’s Will and one’s motives are just. It is simply that imperfection lies is having one’s devotion dependent upon external things and other creatures, including on priests and their performance. In the same way its fine to kneel or sit when praying the Rosary, whatever makes it easier for one ‘to pray well’; yet it would be an imperfection if one’s devotion was dependent upon kneeling over sitting, or vice versa, as if devotion consisted in exterior acts and not principally in a loving heart. If one possessed true devotion, although they might prefer kneeling to sitting during the Rosary, or sitting to kneeling, really they don’t care, and if they had to adopt one position over the other (i.e. an injury) their heart would not be troubled, not their devotion harmed.
[2] John of the Cross, Dark Night, Book I, Chapter III, 1.
[3] John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II, Chapter XVII, 5.
[4] John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II, Chapter IX, 1.
[5] Drawing from the Gospel account when Thomas doubts: John 20:29.