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. This is my second post on his work, you can read the first here.
I hate going to the gym.
Emily works from 8-4 as a Cyber School Teacher and after she gets off work I head over to campus. So if I want to get in a workout, I need to get to the gym very early in the morning, around 5:30. This way I am home and showered in time to take care of beautiful Junia.
But getting up to go to the gym that early is difficult. I know I should. But I would rather sleep.
I love going to Shady Maple.
This past Saturday my students and I went to Shady Maple for breakfast, the most delicious breakfast buffet you’ll ever eat. I had to get up at 6:30 (okay, not 5:30, but still early for a Saturday) to walk the dog. I had no problem getting up that early.
How come things that are good for us, like going to the gym, are so difficult to do? Yet things bad for us, like eating a tremendous breakfast, are so easy?
Why is getting in shape, physically or spiritually, seem so hard?
John of the Cross reminds me of this when he discusses what he calls “spiritual gluttony”. I see this among the students on campus at times. After some sort of great and moving spiritual experience – be it a mission trip or a retreat or a worship service – there is an emptiness. The student concludes that this emptiness is an indication of some problem she has. The goal then becomes to pursue God so that this great spiritual feeling can be achieved again.
Of course, after that goal is reached the emptiness will return and the cycle begins.
John knew similar people:
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 a bad grace, which affects all that they do; and they very easily become irritated over the smallest matter–sometimes, indeed, none can tolerate them. This frequently happens after they have been very pleasantly recollected in prayer according to sense; when their pleasure and delight therein come to an end, their nature is naturally vexed and disappointed, just as is the child when they take it from the breast of which it was enjoying the sweetness. There is no sin in this natural vexation, when it is not permitted to indulge itself, but only imperfection, which must be purged by the aridity and severity of the dark night” (5.1).
John considers this spiritual experience as akin to the sweetness of a delightful treat. Like a child with little self-control, the goal becomes indulgence in this sweetness.
John says this temptation to spiritual sweetness tends to plague beginners. In the same way, a child may seek the sweet and salty food but as we mature into adulthood we need to learn to eat the foods that bring health, even if they do not taste quite as good. I have a soft spot for Shady Maple, or the sweet and salty snacks available at the coffee shop on campus where I spend my afternoons. When I was younger I would indulge daily in chips, candy and soda. Now that I am over thirty, I have needed to learn self-control (though the occasional snack still defeats my self-control now and then).
This is the difference between sweetness and purity, sickness and health: “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, which is that which God regards and accepts throughout the spiritual journey” (6.1).
Part of the problem John identifies is that those who pursue such spiritual sweetness and fail to get it think they have accomplished nothing at all when in fact, through humbly serving and loving God, may actually be progressing in faith. This is kind of what the whole idea of a “dark night of the soul” is all about: “God oftentimes withholds from them these other consolations and sweetnesses of sense” (6.5).
Just as true healthy growth does not come from feasting on candy and salt, so true spiritual growth does not come without hardship. Nor are you automatically growing spiritually when you have emotional, spiritual experiences on a regular basis. Instead, true spiritual growth comes in the times you do not feel close to God but you practice the way of Jesus Christ anyway. Again, John:
These persons who are thus inclined to such pleasures have another very great imperfection, which is that they are very weak and remiss in journeying upon the hard road of the Cross; for the soul that is given to sweetness naturally has its face set against all self-denial, which is devoid of sweetness” (6.7).
This is, like getting into physical shape, quite challenging. It cannot happen without the help of God. John of the Cross consistently focuses on the fact, as all mystics (and all Christians, really) do which is: we cannot do it on our own. Any labor we go about, any success we have, comes by the help, the grace, of God our Father, Jesus Christ our Savior and the Holy Spirit our redeemer:
“However greatly the soul itself labours, it cannot actively purify itself so as to be in the least degree prepared for the Divine union of perfection of love, if God takes not its hand and purges it not in that dark fire, in the way and manner that we have to describe” (3.3)
God brings us into the dark night and God will lead us through it: “For, however assiduously the beginner practises the mortification in himself of all these actions and passions of his, he can never completely succeed–very far from it–until God shall work it in him passively by means of the purgation of the said night” (7.5).
In other words, with God’s help we can and will grow spiritually. But this does not necessarily mean we’ll have more frequent spiritual experiences. Instead we’ll be people more like Jesus, people of love and joy and peace and justice.
Maybe even with God’s help I’ll acquire some motivation to wake up and go to the gym early in the mornings!