This is an excerpt from my book on how I came to become a priest. St. John of the Cross is a saint who I tell people “saved my life”, not because I was going to kill myself or anything like that, but because his teachings helped me move past a very dangerous spiritual mindset that afflicts most people today – the mindset that if God is working in my life, I ought to feel it, and it ought to feel good.
Being Refined in the Fires of Mt. Carmel
“It must be known that even though these apprehensions can come to the bodily senses from God, one must never rely on them or accept them. A person should rather flee from them completely.”
St. John of the Cross
The Ascent of Mount Carmel.
At the beginning of my second year of seminary, I happened to be in the bookstore buying my books for the year. The bookstore at St. Meinrad is a very dangerous place for me. The bookstore has tons of books that are not required for class, and a lot of them are titles that interest me. I can hardly go into the bookstore without walking out with a few books under my arm, and my wallet 50 dollars lighter. That fall day, however, a book caught my eye that really impacted me in a tremendous way.
The book I picked up that day was The Collected Writings of St. John of the Cross. I was drawn to it because I remembered from George Weigel’s Witness to Hope that Pope John Paul II learned Spanish so that he could read St. John of the Cross in its original language. I was pretty impressed that a person would learn a language for the purpose of reading the writings of one saint. The book in our bookstore was actually St. John’s two famous works together, The Dark Night of the Soul and The Ascent of Mt. Carmel. I decided that I would read a bit of the book to kick off my holy hour each day.
So it was that St. John of the Cross began to lead me into a much deeper spirituality than I had ever dreamed of for myself. St. John gave me two priceless gifts. The first gift he gave me was an answer to my question about my conversion experience a few years ago when I was teaching at Chatard. As recounted in an earlier chapter, I had a profound vision that lasted intensely throughout the night, and then began to fade over the course of about a week. Something that had bothered me from that point on was the question of what I had done wrong to make those feelings go away. I felt like either I had done something wrong, or, on the other hand, I had done something right that I should be doing again to help trigger the same sequence of events, so that I could rest in that vision again.
I knew God had directed me to St. John of the Cross, when, as I was praying a holy hour early in the school year, I read the following from St. John, “The safest and most suitable method of procedure is to oblige souls to flee prudently from these supernatural things.” (The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Book Two, Chapter 20). St. John goes on to say that:
The more importance one gives to these communications the further one strays from faith, the way and means. Furthermore, persons receiving these apprehensions often develop secretly a special opinion of themselves – that now they are important in God’s eyes. Such a view is contrary to humility…these sensory things are an impediment to the spirit because they detain the soul and prevent the spirit from soaring to the invisible.
Such a burden was lifted off of me, and I felt like I could spiritually breathe again. It was such a gift to know that I wasn’t doing something wrong, and that I just had to move on from my experience of the vision. Related to the grace of finally being able to understand what was going on with the vision I had a few years ago was the second gigantic gift that I felt like the Good Lord blessed me with through my reading of St. John of the Cross. The main point of St. John’s two books are very simple: religion isn’t something that has to be felt. If Christians today were familiar with St. John of the Cross, so much of the garbage that passes as spirituality would die out instantly. Today, it isn’t even up for discussion – religion has to be entertaining. When Catholics are asked why they don’t attend Mass they most often note that it is boring. The Rosary, because it is repetitive, seems to most psychologists today (Dr. M. Scott Peck among them) as not a sign of devotion but as a mental illness. It is taken, as the Gospel today, by many people that religion has to be felt. That’s why we have the pyrotechnics at church, the Starbucks in the narthex, the screaming preachers, the slide show PowerPoint presentations, etc.
Elsewhere, St. John of the Cross talks about meditation as prayer. He notes that this is really only a stage for beginners, and that we are called to move beyond this. About trying to conjure images and have experiences in prayer St. John notes a person must,
Leave this sense in darkness if it is to reach divine union. For these images, just as the corporeal objects of the exterior senses, cannot be an adequate, proximate means to God…These considerations, forms and methods of meditation are necessary to beginners…yet these means must not be so used that one always employs them and never advances.
St. John, in The Dark Night of the Soul, also speaks this when he talking about people receiving Communion. I know I resonated deeply with having tried to do exactly what he warns against for many years. St. John says,
In receiving Communion they spend all their time trying to get some feeling and satisfaction rather than humbly praising and reverencing God dwelling within them. And they go about this in such a way that, if they do not procure any sensible feeling and satisfaction, they think they have accomplished nothing.
The dark night of the soul is essentially the stage where a person is moving from needing consolations and needing to have experiences in prayer to a point where none of that is needed. St. John spoke to me in the following passage noting the transition from one to the other. He said,
Spiritual persons suffer considerable affliction in this night, owing not so much to the aridities they undergo as to their fear of having gone astray…they believe there will be no more spiritual blessings for them and that God has abandoned them…if there is no one to understand these persons, they either turn back and abandon the road or lose courage.
St. John essentially saved my life, in a spiritual sense. Growing up in the American ethos dominated by Protestantism, the idea that I was supposed to feel something in prayer was ingrained in me. St. John really showed me a Catholic understanding of prayer and of what my little “vision” experience was really all about.
St. John of the Cross – pray for us!
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