Arrogant vs. Humble Spirituality: Listening to the Saints – St. John of the Cross

John of the Cross was a Spanish mystic who lived in the 1500s.  He worked with Teresa of Avila in reforming the communities of monks known as the Carmelites.  One of his best known works, Dark Night of the Soul, is a commentary on a poem, of the same name, that he wrote.  The poem is about the soul’s journey to God.

When you first discover you are going to be a parent, you begin to more closely observe other parents (at least I did).  I wanted to see how they parented, what I could learn.  Along with this, there are a lot of parenting books available for new parents.  As soon-to-be parents make decisions on how they will raise kids, the danger of arrogance, of looking down on older parents who made different decisions, is apparent.

We who have read a book or two begin to act as if we know more then those experienced parents.  But if we are honest and a bit humble, maybe those experienced parents who have raised three or four kids have a little wisdom that cannot be found in a book.

In the same way, older, mature Christians who have lived a long life with Jesus, filled with ups and downs, have something to teach us. The young Christian who thinks he has it all figured out has a lot to learn.

This is one of the primary lessons I gathered from reading John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul: the vital importance of humility. He speaks of beginners in the spiritual life, which may just refer to new members of the monastery, but for our purpose can be taken to mean any new, young Christian. John warns that these beginners may be so “fervent and diligent in spiritual things and devout exercises” that they begin to experience a pride where they come to have some degree of satisfaction with their works and with themselves” (2.1). He goes on to say they are more eager to teach then to learn.  They think having a warm and fuzzy spiritual experience or two makes them holier than older, less passionate believers.

Being a campus minister and spending a large amount of my time then with smart young people disconnects me from reality. Students in college tend to be thoughtful and introspective. They like to discuss theology and the Bible. I recall having discussions when I was in college and seminary about free will and predestination, the validity of other religions and much else.  I recall having the freedom that allowed me to be at some sort of church activity more than half the nights in a week.

That is simply not real life for most Christians.

The fact is, Christians in their thirties and forties balancing raising kids with jobs and bills and all the craziness of life just do not have the time for all that. Rather then spending most waking hours discussing spiritual things, they are changing diapers or taking their kids to practice or helping with homework.

It does not make them less spiritual.

Maybe it makes them more spiritual.

John of the Cross gives the remedy for the arrogance of youth:

But those who at this time are going on to perfection…progress by means of humility and are greatly edified, not only thinking naught of their own affairs, but having very little satisfaction with themselves; they consider all others as far better, and usually have a holy envy of them, and an eagerness to serve God as they do…So much would they gladly do from charity and love for Him, that all they do seems to them naught; and so greatly are they importuned, occupied and absorbed by this loving anxiety that they never notice what others do or do not; or if they do notice it, they always believe, as I say, that all others are far better than they themselves. (2.6)

My hope for the students at Penn State Berks and young Christians in general is that they would exhibit humility, not arrogance.  It is so easy, and tempting, to think that where a previous generation of Christians messed things up, we finally have it all figured out.  I have read many books, articles and blog posts that seem to say as much: those old, traditional, close-minded Christians screwed things up but we have it figured out.

I imagine our kids will say the same thing about us one day.

May we replace arrogance with humility.  Along with that, may we have the good kind of envy that John talks about: “if charity has any envy, it is a holy envy, comprising grief at not having the virtues of others, yet also joy because others have them, and delight when others outstrip us in the service of God, wherein we ourselves are so remiss” (7.1).

May we be  people who take joy in the spiritual success of others.

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