Lesson 1 Intro- Bk1; ch 5. Response post
Intro: Saint John of the Cross wrote The Ascent of Mount Carmel over 400 years ago and many people today consider it too negative and confusing. It is certainly not light reading (no pun intended) nor is its complementary work, The Dark Night. It is meant for someone who has already given their soul to God and is seeking to reach the summit of perfection where all of the virtues have replaced all sin and the intellect, memory, and will are occupied solely in union with God. Remember, this is the goal of the entire work. Reaching this goal requires purification on every level; the same purgation that is required before the soul enters into the glory of eternity.
Background: John was a Spanish Discalced Carmelite who joined Teresa of Avila in reforming their order because both wanted to live a more austere and structured way of life in keeping with their vows of Poverty Chastity and Obedience. John was not popular with the friars who enjoyed the easier lifestyle nor with those in power who saw him as a threat. He was imprisoned by them in Toledo, Spain and allowed out of his tiny dark cell only to kneel before the friars to be beaten by them. During these months he experienced deep contemplative prayer and mystical union with God so when he escaped and wrote down his poetry and commentaries he was looking down (back) from the summit and describing for his readers, mostly members of the Carmelite order, the things they must do and suffer and the graces they would receive from God to bring them to the summit of the Mount of Perfection, union with God.
I am freely quoting and condensing John’s work but I will not be using quotation marks or giving specific references. My purpose is to share the words that I think are most helpful for understanding and making progress on the journey John is describing. Please note that I have inserted words for clarification, or summary as well as some comments and, unless otherwise stated, I am proceeding through the work from beginning to end and will indicate when I move to a new chapter. I am using the translation of Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez found in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross and I recommend that you consult the original for John’s complete and exact words. It is published by ICS Publications and can be purchased at www.icspublications.org . It will help us to understand John’s writing and his style if we recall his early life and the passionate love he witnessed between his parents which led his father to forsake wealth and status to marry his mother.
In John’s words: This treatise explains how to reach divine union quickly. It presents instruction and doctrine valuable for beginners and proficients alike that they may unburden themselves of all earthly things, avoid spiritual obstacles, and live in that complete nakedness and freedom of spirit necessary for divine union… He describes the way that leads to the summit of the mount–that high state of perfection we here call union of the soul with God.
Before beginning this study, you should read the poem several times and meditate on the stanza’s that move your heart. The poem is included in Spanish and English in The Collected Works of John of the Cross. John is one of the greatest poets Spain has ever produced and his poetry is studied in Spanish Literature classes even today.
Prologue: In the Prologue John wants to make it clear that he is writing because he feels compelled to by God, moved by the Holy Spirit and encouraged by requests for an explanation of his poetry. He acknowledges that he does not have the knowledge or experience to explain something so deeply spiritual (and if he doesn’t nobody does) and that while he will use science and experience to the best of his ability, he will rely primarily on Sacred Scripture since the Holy Spirit speaks to us through it…I am not undertaking this arduous task because of any particular confidence in my own abilities. Rather I am confident that the Lord will help me explain this because it is extremely necessary to so many souls. John goes on to say that many people resist grace in this area and make little or no progress mostly because they do not apply their wills and that this results in greater suffering in the long run. He compares them to a spoiled child who kicks and screams to get its way when it clearly does not know what is best.
J proposes to give counsel to souls that they may understand or at least know how to practice abandonment to God’s guidance when He wants them to advance. J encourages souls to find a spiritual director or companion but proceeds to advise that many who profess the ability can be more of a hindrance or obstacle than a help especially if they have not experienced the dark night he is describing or did not humbly cooperate with the grace and experience the growth God intended. J expresses sadness in seeing people who work and tire themselves and yet go backwards because they look for progress where none is to be found.
J: Our goal will be to explain, with God’s help, all these points so that those who read this book will in some way discover the road they are walking along and the one they ought to follow if they want to reach the summit of this mount. Readers should not be surprised if this doctrine on the dark night appears somewhat obscure. He encourages them to be patient as he tries various ways to make things clearer. But…
I am inclined to believe that even if it were presented with greater accuracy and polish, only a few would find profit in it because we are not writing on moral and pleasing topics addressed to the kind of spiritual people who like to approach God along sweet and satisfying paths. We are presenting a substantial and solid doctrine for all those who desire to reach this nakedness of spirit. My main intention is not to address everyone, but only those persons… whom God favors by putting them on the path leading to this mount, since they are the ones who asked me to write this work. Because they are already detached to a great extent from the temporal things of this world, they will more easily grasp this doctrine.
ch 1. In this work John is commenting on his poem, The Dark Night, which is the basis of this work. He declares that in departing from its ordinary sensory appetites and imperfections, the soul must pass through two principal kinds of night–which spiritual persons call purgations or purifications of the soul–in order to reach the state of perfection. (Consider also Dante’s description of purgatory and the classic purgative way.) He calls these nights because of the darkness the soul experiences.
The first night or purgation concerns the sensory part of the soul. The second night concerns the spiritual part. Each part experiences a purgation that is active, that is, involves the intellect and will, and a purgation that is passive, that is totally God’s working in the soul. My understanding of the difference between active and passive can be seen in this comparison: a person can choose to fast and deprive themselves of food and feel the pain of hunger. That is active purgation. Another person might suffer the same hunger because of a lengthy drought making it impossible to obtain or produce adequate food. This is clearly not something chosen or caused by the individual and, as such, the suffering is passive and happens to the individual. The response to the circumstance is the only thing the individual can control.
Book one is all about active purgation of the senses which makes it a perfect way to begin Lent when many people try to find something that they can choose to give up or choose to embrace that is contrary to what their undisciplined senses desire. As children we were encouraged to give up candy for Lent and many of us were rewarded with a basket of candy at Easter. However, not everyone understood that there was a much more important reason for the sacrifice or game/competition it sometimes became. And many adults still do not grasp the absolute necessity for discipline in order to live a moral and virtuous life. This doesn’t come naturally to us, especially in our culture which encourages us to have as much “stuff” and pleasure as we can at any or anyone’s expense, making John’s Dark Night seem even darker for us today.
Speaking of this first active night of the senses: it is a privation and purgation of all sensible appetites for the external things of the world, the delights of the flesh, and the gratifications of the will…until…the appetites are asleep in the soul and the soul was stilled in them. (some of the language from the poem)
Oh, dichosa ventura!–ah, the sheer grace!…to be placed by God in this night that occasioned so much good. The soul would not have succeeded entering it, because souls are unable alone to empty themselves of all their appetites in order to reach God.
Ch. 2 Three reasons for calling this journey to God a night.
- We begin in the darkness of passions and must deprive or discipline them which is difficult.
- We are on a journey of faith and faith is dark in that it is not based on knowing but on believing.
- We are journeying to God who is totally other, totally unknowable, totally darkness to the intellect.
He also compares these three darknesses to the stages of night where the first is like twilight where disciplining the senses makes them fade from sight. The second is complete darkness like midnight where me move without seeing–in faith. The third is pre-dawn where the mystery of God is about to be revealed.
Ch. 3 the reason for using the word night
…to signify a deprival of the gratification of the soul’s appetites in all things just as night is the privation of light for the eyes. This privation is not just of light but of all things that light makes visible and so by choosing to close ones eyes, for example, one is denying oneself the pleasure of seeing colors, objects, etc. Similarly for all the senses.
Now it is true that the sensory perceptions of hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch are unavoidable, and they will not hinder the soul (lead to attachment and sin) if it denies them–as if they were not experienced. We call this nakedness a night for the soul, for we are not discussing a mere lack (of sights, sounds, etc.); this lack will not divest the soul if it still craves these things. We are dealing with the denudation of the soul’s appetites and gratifications, leaving it free and empty of all things, even though it possesses them.
John does not deny that God’s creation is good in itself…Since the things of the world cannot enter the soul, rather, it is the will and appetite dwelling within that cause the damage when fixed on these things. (We make them our focus instead of God.)
ch. 4 The necessity of passing through this dark night of sense (the mortification of the appetites) in order to journey to union with God…Clothed in affections or attachment to creatures, the soul is incapable of the enlightenment and fullness of God’s pure and simple light. Light and darkness (opposites) cannot exist together (a principle of philosophy.) One will necessarily dominate and eliminate the other.
John points out that an attachment makes us, in a certain sense, equal to the thing just as love effects a likeness between the lover and the loved and even subjects the lover to the loved so the attachment makes us subject to or even slaves of the thing we are attached to. (like an addiction) Until the soul is purged of attachments it is unable to possess God here below through the pure transformation of love nor in heaven through the beatific vision.
Consider the comparison between a mere creature and the Infinite God. The creature is nothing compared to God. The beauty of creatures is ugliness compared to the infinite beauty of God. The goodness of creatures is wickedness compared to God’s infinite goodness. The knowledge of creatures is utter ignorance when compared to the wisdom of God. Only those who set aside their own knowledge and become like little children can receive wisdom from God. Similarly one must set aside these other creaturely qualities and attachments in order to receive the divine gifts of God.
All the delights and satisfactions of the will in the things of the world compared to the delight that is God are intense suffering, torment, and bitterness. The person who loves and possesses the wealth and glory of creation is completely poor and miserable before God and unable to attain the richness and glory of transformation in God. John provides numerous quotes from Scripture to support these statements.
ch.5 More quotes from scripture and the saints to demonstrate the infinite difference between creatures and God. St. Augustine writes: “You indeed are good, and I evil; You are merciful and I unjust; You are light and I blindness; You are life and I death; You are medicine and I sickness; You are wisdom and I utter vanity.”
John says we are ignorant who think it is possible to reach union with God without emptying the appetites of any hindrance or attachment. I would say that personally it is more out of weakness of will than out of ignorance. We want it to be easier or more pleasant. John uses the example of the Israelites dissatisfaction with the manna which deprived them of the benefits of the heavenly food God had given them. They wanted meat instead and didn’t taste the sweetness of what they were given.
Oh, if spiritual persons knew how much spiritual good and abundance they deprive themselves of by not attempting to raise their appetites above childish desires…Those who ascend this mountain to converse with God (like Moses) must not only renounce all things…but also restrict their appetites from anything that is not purely God…The road and ascent to God necessarily demands an habitual effort to renounce and mortify the appetites.
Those desiring to climb to the summit must first accomplish these three tasks perfectly (like Moses): first cast out all strange gods (affections and attachments); second, purify themselves by denying these appetites and repenting; third, their garments must be changed…God will clothe the soul in a new understanding of God in God, once the will is stripped of all old cravings and satisfactions. He causes all of the old self to cease, and he attires all the faculties with new supernatural abilities. As a result, one’s activity, once human, now becomes divine when the soul in which God alone dwells has no other function than that of an altar on which God is adored in praise and love (isn’t that incredibly beautiful!)…The only appetite God permits and wants in his dwelling place is the desire for the perfect fulfillment of his law and the carrying of the cross of Christ. (more Scripture references and quotes)
So, am I convinced yet (or finally, or once again) of the necessity and benefit of some difficult choices and hard work ahead? In order to say yes to God I need to say no to me. John is trying to convince us that more of me is necessarily less of God and more God is necessarily less me. God gives the inspiration and the grace but I must cooperate and choose what I do accordingly. So, I fast, not because there is a rule or expectation but because I want to surrender to God and not to my own desires. My fasting and abstinence can involve other senses besides taste. There are opportunities everywhere at all times if I am attentive. This conversion grace is very much about attentiveness. Being attentive to John’s words is just a beginning…
This is a good opportunity to take an initial inventory of the objects of the senses that I am attached to…my wants with respect to the five senses. They need not be sinful attachments. Anything that is not God but occupies the heart, head or time, leaves less place for God who should be my All. Until I can hear, see, smell, taste, and feel everything; perceive everything as God does, I am in need of purification.