John of the Cross (1)
John of the Cross (1542 – 1591)
Introduction to the Author
Born in Fantiveros, Castile, in Spain, John became a Carmelite monk in 1564. He studied philosophy and theology at the Carmelite college in Salamanca, one of Europe’s leading universities. In 1567, the year he was ordained, he met with Teresa of Avila. Teresa saw great potential in John and put him in charge of the order. She admired his rigorous life-style and leadership ability. She was not disappointed, as John was able to establish several new orders.
It was during this time that he was named “John of the Cross,” as a result of his suffering and commitment. He spent the rest of his life in the service of the Catholic Reform through his leadership and many writings. He was eventually arrested ant put in confinement by those who opposed the reform. It was in confinement that his most famous work, The Dark Night of the Soul, was written. It describes the work of God upon the soul - not through joy and light, but through sorrow and darkness. The concept of the “dark night” has become an integral part of understanding the spiritual journey. Though he died four centuries ago, John of the Cross continues to exercise a significant influence on Christian spirituality.
Excerpts from The Dark Night of the Soul
1. To Purify the Soul
At a certain point in the spiritual journey God will draw a person from the beginning stage to a more advanced stage. At this stage the person will begin to engage in religious exercises and grow deeper in the spiritual life. Such souls will likely experience what is called “the dark night of the soul.” The “dark night” is when those persons lose all the pleasure that they once experienced in their devotional life. This happens because God wants to purify them and move them on to greater heights.
After a soul has been converted by God, that soul is nurtured and caressed by the Spirit. Like a loving mother, God cares for and comforts the infant soul by feeding it spiritual milk. Such souls will find great delight in this stage. They will begin praying with great urgency and perseverance; they will engage in all kinds of religious activities because of they joy they experience in them.
But there will come a time when God will bid them to grow deeper. He will remove the previous consolation from the soul in order to teach it virtue and prevent it from developing vice. The following sections deal with the seven capital sins. In each of the sins it becomes clear how the soul has begun to misuse its spiritual consolation and why God must take it way in order to purify the soul from these imperfections.
2. Secret Pride
Beginners in the spiritual life are apt to become very diligent in their exercises. The great danger for them will be to become satisfied with their religious works and with themselves. It is easy for them to develop a kind of secret pride,, which si the first of the seven capital sins.
Such persons become too spiritual. They like to speak of “spiritual things” all the time. They become content with their growth. They would prefer to teach rather than to be taught. They condemn others who are not as spiritual as they are. They are like the Pharisee who boasted in himself and despised the publican who was not as spiritual as he.
The devil will often inflame their fervor so that their pride will grow even greater. The devil knows that all of their works and virtues will become valueless and, if unchecked, will become vices. For they begin to do these spiritual exercises to be esteemed by others. They want others to realize how spiritual they are. They will also begin to fear confession to another for it would ruin their image. So they soften their sins when they make confessions in order to make them appear less imperfect.
They will beg God to take away their imperfections, but they do this only because they want to find inner peace and not for God’s sale. They do not realize that if God were to take away their imperfections from them, they would probably become prouder and more presumptuous still.
But those who are at this time moving in God’s way will counter this pride with humility. They will learn to think very little of themselves and their religious works. Instead, they will focus on how great and how deserving God is and how little it is that they can do for him. The spirit of God dwells in such persons, urging them to keep their treasures secretly within themselves.
3. Attached to the Feelings
Many of these beginners will also begin to have spiritual greed, the second capital sin. They will become discontented with what God gives them because they do not experience the consolation they think they deserve. They begin reading many books and performing many acts of piety in an attempt to gain more and more spiritual consolation.
Their hearts grow attached to the feelings they get from their devotional life. They focus on the affect, and not on the substance of devotion. Quite often these souls will attach themselves to particular religious objects or holy places and begin to value visible things too highly.
But those who are on the right path will set their eyes on God and not on these outward things nor on their inner experiences. They will enter the dark night of the soul and find all of these things removed. They will have all the pleasure taken away so that the soul may be purified. For a soul will never grow until it is able to let go of the tight grasp it has on God.