Monday, April 15, 2013

Spiritual Canticle and the Reason God Permits Obstacles in Prayer

The Spiritual Canticle begins with a spiritual awakening by which one is launched into a pilgrimage of faith.  Since it is characterized by the Divine Indwelling and since only living faith in Christ Jesus accesses the mystery of God, this journey is inward and makes progress by faith and love.  The hidden presence of God in the soul means that though God is there, unaided human activity cannot access Him.  Even grace filled techniques and methods only dispose the soul to contemplating this hidden presence.  

To find God, Saint John of the Cross insists we must believe.  Faith hides the intellect because principles of sacred doctrine are beyond its natural capacity to understand or demonstrate.  Instead of proceeding by way of principles it grasps, the intellect proceeds by assenting to what the Church proposes to it.   What the Church proposes and what Saint John focuses on in the beginning of the journey is that through faith and baptism, the Holy Trinity dwells in the soul not only to sustain its existence but also to be loved and known by faith.  

Mental prayer or contemplation proceeds from this hidden reality. It is a simple act of faith and love which chooses to believe that God is dwelling in the soul with the desire to establish it in profound friendship.  This act of faith withdraws from anything that could distract from such a wonderful gift, and focuses all its power on attending to the wonder of this hidden presence.  Mental prayer is a movement of the will that submits the mind to mystery: the effort to seek the presence of God and to cling to this presence even when it cannot be felt or imagined or intuited or even thought about. In Spiritual Canticle 3, 5-9, St. John of the Cross speaks about the challenging obstacles and remarkable assistance the soul receives in this journey.

Why are the obstacles?   The obstacles seem to purify and strengthen the soul's devotion, because they test our faith, challenging our determination to love and to believe in love.  The more they challenge, the more love and faith grow from immature and tentative first movements to a deep and immutable way of being.  The pilgrim soul takes on a greater and greater bridal identity the more it makes progress.  

If the journey starts a little sluggish and anxious, the soul is always described by Saint John of the Cross as beautiful and loved beyond measure.   The Lord is leading the soul from a devotion riddled with anxiety to one that is established in peace.  In the silent stillness that characterizes its new existence in Him - a kind of engagement - the Lord invites the soul into a fullness of joy - a solemn betrothal and wedding banquet and life of union together.  The passage ways from anxiety to peace and from peace to joy are marked by active things the soul must do like seek virtue and take up mortification, and passive things God permits the soul to suffer like severe external and internal trials.  He describes the passive suffering of the soul in terms of wild beasts, thugs and frontiers.  We will consider these in our next post.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Night of the Senses

St. John of the Cross authored the poem Dark Night a within a couple years of his escape from Toledo.  The Ascent of Mount Carmel is the first of two spiritual treatises that take the form of commentaries on this poem.   The other treatise is entitled Dark Night (sometimes Dark Night of the Soul).  In both treatises "night" refers to a spiritual threshold through which the soul must cross.  Deeper intimacy with Christ requires entering into a new territory of the heart, horizons of our humanity with which we are not familiar, the frontiers where our misery finds its limit in the limitlessness of divine mercy.  

His use of night in relation to contemplation is paradoxical.   Contemplation involves a kind of seeing, a beholding.  He speaks of a dark and obscure contemplation where our heart searches not what it understands about God but what it does not understand.  The mind is drawn beyond its need for satisfaction, security and comfort into a place of pure vulnerability.  Naked before the truth of God, the Lord is able to renew the mind completely until one's whole life is transformed.

The night refers to experiences that we do not understand, that are not satisfying, that are not comfortable.  Neither the natural light of reason nor the supernatural light of faith seems useful.  Instead, especially in those nights related directly to union with God, love alone suffices.  

This faith imbued love involves our effort, but is more characterized by a mysterious work of God.  This is especially true as concerns two principle thresholds or nights the Lord entrusts to the soul.
The first night, St. John of the Cross calls "the night of the senses" and the second, he calls "the night of the spirit."   He discusses what we need to do to enter the night of the senses and the night of the spirit in Ascent to Mount Carmel.  Book One pertains to our activity to enter the night of the senses and Book Two and Three concern our activity in relation to the night of the spirit which he also refers to as the dark night.  In the Dark Night he treats of what God does in the night of the senses (Book One) and what God does in the night of the spirit (Book Two).  

The night of the senses pertains to a re-ordering of our sense perception of the world.  We must pass through this night if we are to aquire a greater stability and peace in our following of Christ.   In the beginning we lack stability and consistency because we are too vulnerable to the world and not vulnerable enough to the Lord.   Indeed, to enter into this night we must act against our tendency to relate to the world as a resource for self-preservation, gratification and the acquisition of power.   Instead, through renunciation out of devotion to Christ and in imitation of Him, the night of the senses can only be entered into by those resolved to do everything for the glory and honor of God.  Our efforts filled with devotion and love for Christ dispose us to something God wants to do in us regarding the way we relate to the world.  What God wants to do is beyond our power to do ourselves, so we must surrender to His action humbly accepting that He is really working in our prayer even when we feel we are wasting our time.  This kind of contemplation is described as a ray of darkness but also as a divine inflow for our eyes are not strong enough in the beginning to behold the radiant splendor of God but our spirits are meant to be filled with His presence.  As He draws us away from our self-serving preoccupations (not only with material goods but spiritual as well), our hearts are vulnerable to this inflow and become pure enough to begin to glimpse His glory.

The Night of the Spirit will be treated in the next post.  This is the threshold that must be passed by those whose spiritual life is stable and consistent but not yet perfect in love.   Christ wants to make us perfect in love and to achieve this, another more difficulty night must be entered into - the obscurity the Lord permits the soul to suffer in this night is so intense, St. John of the Cross calls it "Dark Night."

I have developed the ecclesiological perspective of this journey here and certain anthropological insights here.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Notes on Living Flame Stanza 1

The stanza proclaims an astonished realization and offers up a heart-rending but shocking petition.  It is the song of a soul that has matured in the life of faith.  On the one hand, it has become a font of living waters that refreshes everyone around it.  On the other, it is bursting forth with the warmth and light of the Fire of Love which enkindles it.  It is praying that the Lord might not wait until nature releases it from this present life for it is filled with desire for something this present life is not big enough to know.  The Holy Spirit brings this desire to birth in the heart and He uses it to help souls definitively realize the victory of good over evil in their own life and death.

The Living Flame is the Holy Spirit burning in the soul's deepest center.    Unlike the way we might visualize it as a kind of atom, the soul is simple without dimensions or parts.  There is no part of it more interior than any other part.  This means that when St. John ascribes the soul with a deepest center, he is not designating something actually spatial.  Nor is his describing some subliminal depth or the subconscious sphere of psychological activity.  Such conventions of modern psychology would be more properly ascribed to the memory - for him a kind of faculty of the soul, but not the soul itself, in his more or less Augustinian anthropology.

There is so little that we really understand about the soul because, although we are closest to ourselves than anything else in all the cosmos, we remain an impenetrable mystery to ourselves.   There is something about being in the image and likeness of God which does not allow the light of natural reason to ever fully penetrate just who we really are or what our true purpose is.   Our identity and purpose is not something that can be extrinsically imposed without doing violence to the dignity with which we are fashioned.  Instead, the truth about ourselves is something that can only be appropriately proposed to us by another with whom we stand in relation and it is our dignity to accept or reject such proposals when they resonate, when they help us find that ground on which we might stand so as to move forward.

The Carmelite Master's use of "deepest center" suggests that the soul is in movement towards a greater reality, that it can be and is drawn to something beyond itself.  The soul is in relation to Another towards which it advances.  The more it advances, the more it becomes what it is meant to be: a creature in relation, in communion, in friendship.  Ascribing a deepest center suggests that a dis-ease that afflicts the human condition: unless it finds this center of gravity, the soul cannot rest or be at peace.  At the same time, the fact that the soul has a deepest center means that humanity is not intended for a state of permanent restlessness.

But by describing a deepest center, St. John is suggesting that there are other centers of the soul -- other objects which draw it.  By designating this deepest center, he is suggesting that no other object draws the soul in the same definitive way this ultimate object draws it.  In order to find the deepest center, these other objects in which the soul tries to find rest must be withdrawn -- asceticism begins this purification but God Himself completes it through permitting severe exterior and interior trials.  Before it can be aflame with the Holy Spirit, the soul like a log of wood, must suffer the smoke of its purification.

This particular soul singing this verse has been purified and so welcomed this Fire that its whole life is aflame with it.  Where the soul ends and the Flame begins cannot be found - not because the soul has been nihilistically absorbed into the fire but rather because the Holy Spirit has so given Himself the soul enjoys a relatively perfect possession of Him.  

The Living Flame is so completely received, possessed, enjoyed and at the disposal of the soul, the soul itself has taken on an unimpeded likeness to the Holy Spirit.  Indeed the Holy Spirit gives Himself the more the affections of the soul becomes like those of Holy Spirit.  It is a likeness made possible by transforming grace.

This sheer unfathomable gift does not destroy our nature but perfects it and raises it above itself.  Though it is always creature, this new mode of existence allows it to disclose the glory of God -- the deep things of God, divine movements so sublime natural reason is completely blind to them.  

Through the divine likeness established in the soul by grace,  this new presence of the Holy Spirt moves the soul with divine movement, the eternal eros shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by nature.  Just as the Father and the Son behold one another in love through the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, this divinized soul longs to behold the glory of the Father without cease - this is the beatific vision which this present life is too limited to know.  This is the divine passion that moves the soul to make its shocking petition, its great cry of love.

I have had the privilege of speaking to souls very close to death who articulate this very same desire.   They do not wish to leave their loved ones, but there is nothing in this life in which they can rest any more.  Their hearts ache for something more, something beyond the present life -- they long to see God.   They do not normally claim any special experiences or visions.  They are sometimes impatient, even very impatient with what they must suffer and the do not understand why it is taking God so long to act.   Yet this odd frustration they suffer is not the most significant movement of their heart.   Another passion has seized them - something so heavenly, they do not understand it, draws their heart.  They ache with hope for Him, and though they cannot hold back their tears, they know their hope does not disappoint.  

Monday, January 07, 2013

Course Offerings Spring 2013

This semester I teach two seminars and a course -

1) A seminar on St. John of the Cross where seminarians, my colleague Dr. Joel Barstad and I will argue over the meaning and significance of the poems and commentary of the Doctor of the Church as it pertains to the mystery of faith -- a kind of celebration of the Year of Faith in seminar form.   Our texts, besides the Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, include Iain Matthew's Impact of God and Karol Wojtyla's The Nature of Faith according to the writings of St. John of the Cross.

2) The Synthetic Seminar that has customarily been used to prepare the seminarians, after six years of former study, for comprehensive oral exams.   The seminar will continue to have an eye to this comprehensive preparation but will also seek a synthesis, a vision of the whole, of the form -- at least to the extent to which the state of scientific theology allows us to see this whole.  How do we bring the meaning we discover in theology to bear on the great human, moral, social and personal questions that live in our culture and in our hearts today, and how do we do this in a compelling way, in a way that attends to both the beauty of man's difficult questions and the ineffable glory of God's response? To achieve this, I have introduced essays by Hans Urs von Balthasar and Pope Benedict as well as a document by the International Theological Commission, Theology Today.  I will show these contemporary sources as part of a conversation about the nature of theology and how it advances by argument as proposed by St. Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica I, 1, 1-10.  Against this background my colleagues together with the seminarians will present and defend individual theses to model how a disciplined theological conversation is to be presented.

3) A course called Spiritual Classics for men in the Spirituality Year, a year of prayerful reading of the Bible, the Catechism and of the Saints and Mystics before the beginning of formal studies.  Readings for my course will include St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Lisieux, Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity,  St. Bernard of Clairvaux among other selections.