Love of enemy and other odd thoughts

A few scattered, odd thoughts as we stand at the threshold of this most solemn Three Day event, the sacred Triduum.

Stat crux dum volvitur orbis

As I mentioned Sunday, these days are the true axis of time, days when the sanctuary veil that partitions time and eternity thins out, collapses, tears open.

All of their brutality and glory, their beauty and horror, their splendor and terror has been forever caught up into the eternity of God, shaping the very manner in which Son and Father interrelate through the eternal Spirit (Hebrews 9:14). That thought alone suffices to sustain awe and wonder for a lifetime.

These days beat at the heart of the Church’s Spirit-laden memory, are the wellspring of her divinized identity and soul of her Pentecostal mission. Every minute detail of these Three days inhabits the deathless liturgies of heaven that have now broken into our world. God’s glory gleams with crimson hues, colored with the Blood of the Lamb.

The Cross, the adorable Cross, stands at the center of this axis as the unshakable foundation of the New Creation.

We speak in Good Friday’s liturgy with seemingly idolatrous excess:

Ecce lignum crucis, in quo salus mundi pependit.
Venite adoremus.
“Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the Savior of the world.”
“Come let us adore.”

These 2 stanzas from Venantius Fortunatus’ 6th century Latin poem, Vexilla Regis, express this adoring voice well,

Arbor decora et fulgida,
ornata Regis purpura,
electa digno stipite
tam sancta membra tangere.
Beata, cuius brachiis
pretium pependit saeculi:
statera facta corporis,
praedam tulitque tartari.

“O lovely and refulgent Tree,
adorned with purpled majesty;
culled from a worthy stock, to bear
those limbs which sanctified were.
Blest Tree, whose happy branches bore
the wealth that did the world restore;
the beam that did that Body weigh
which raised up Hell’s expected prey.”

The Word became Wood

The Cross was so intimately joined to Christ’s humanity that its Wood, being saturated with his blood (see Aquinas’ Summa, III, q. 25, a. 4), claims that singular dignity of commanding latria, worship which is due to God alone. The whole of creation, visible and invisible, worships. From its splinters spring the life-giving waters, “sparkling like crystal,” that flow from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the New Jerusalem (cf Rev 22:1-2). It is the new Tree of Life, and from its heavy-laden boughs heavenly Manna descends, spiced Wine gushes forth.

It’s all an astonishing paradox: the grotesque, heinous atrocities accompanying the crucifixion of God by his own creatures become for us, by a supreme act of divine power, the primal signs of beauty that brilliantly illumine the new heavens and new earth with the splendors of sacrificial love.

How is this that God works? He heals by refashioning the poison, brings peace by remaking the sword, reveals wisdom by reconstituting folly, transforms power by foot washing, tramples down death by death and reveals life by transfiguring the tomb into a womb. His saving economy is a liturgy of inversions, making of man’s tragedy a divine comedy.

As Fr. Aidan Nichols aptly sums up this bewildering economy,

Christ’s death was not a piece of ritual yet it was a cultic act (i.e., a deliberate act of adoration of the Father), albeit carried out for a unique end: the forgiveness of the infinite malice contained in the aversio of sin, a forgiveness that restored human beings to participation in the divine life, since at no time has God not willed for them grace and glory. Thus the circumstances in which the death was embraced — the betrayal by friends, the rejection by the religious leaders, the hostility, or cynical indifference, of the men of power — all of these purely secular conditions were taken up into an act of cult, a supreme act of worship, whose hidden fruitfulness made it the central event in the history of the world. Because Christ’s sacrifice was a supreme act of worship, it was capable of becoming the foundation of the Christian liturgy. Aquinas remarks that by his sacrifice on the cross, Christ inaugurated the cultus of the Christian religion. His sacrifice is the objective basis of our worship.

A naked and dying God revealing pure worship. The Mass flowing from the Word, “bleeding, dying, sealed in a stone-cold tomb.” The amazement stirs in me these words:

Wheat fallen, dying, risen from the dead,
becomes beneath fire our life-giving bread;
but on the Altar under a Wingèd Shadow
is of sudden re-made to its lowest ground:
creation is lost! Yet in truth has been found
by the Creator-Word of a God Most High
who stooped low into our starving misery,
stripped by human violence to naked Mystery;
Wheat fallen, dying, risen from the dead,
becomes beneath Fire our life-giving Bread;
O Bread soaked in God’s vintage Blood — Adored!
Lavishly, infinity, wastefully, lovingly outpoured
– O press your face to dusty earth! –
onto torn Flesh,
splintered Wood,
hammered Iron:
o’er-spilling Chalice
of unfettered mercy
set free by unfettered malice:
O Saving Mystery!

In Christ God reveals a strange, wonderfully strange world where Lambs conquer Dragons, the least are greatest, the most precious is the most despised, and where the supreme heights of godlike perfection are to be found in loving of enemies, in speaking well of detractors and in praying most fervently for those who wish us the greatest ill. It’s a world so other, so new, so radically fresh and different that it requires us to undergo rebirth, requires being born again of God, to see its grandeur and majesty. It requires death and resurrection. But more, to live its startling demands, it requires a new heart and a new spirit that render us susceptible to the Holy Spirit of this Unknown God, the Spirit who alone can make us co-artisans with Christ in fashioning this in-breaking Kingdom of God.

In a word, only the Spirit of the Crucified can make us saints carved from the Wood of his Cross.

Golden

Let me leave you with the words of the golden mouthed saint, John Chrysostom, who ever so eloquently unveils the stark newness of this New Creation:

It is certainly a finer and more wonderful thing to change the mind of enemies and bring them to another way of thinking than to kill them, especially when we recall that the [disciples] were only twelve and the whole world was full of wolves…We ought then to be ashamed of ourselves, we who act so very differently and rush like wolves upon our foes. So long as we are sheep we have the victory; but if we are like wolves we are beaten, for then the help of the shepherd is withdrawn from us, for he feeds sheep not wolves…This mystery [of the Eucharist] requires that we should be innocent not only of violence but of all enmity, however slight, for it is the mystery of peace. Imagine the vanity of thinking that your enemy can do you more damage than your enmity.

Hans von Tübingen, Crucifixion (1430) Taken from http://2.bp.blogspot.com/

Duty Bound

The other day I came across a line in Matthew Henry’s Evangelical biblical commentary that really struck me (note, it’s not a commentary I generally would recommend). In expounding on Philippians 2:12, which counsels us to “work out our salvation,” the commentator said,

Do your duty without murmurings.

I thought, how very simply put, but how much of life one could gild with Gospel gold just by faithfully executing this terse phrase in each and every moment!

To imagine a life characterized by loving attention to the innumerable procession of small details that constitute the existential contours of one’s vocational state in life is to imagine a life burgeoning with limitless opportunities for unsung heroism. Think of the rich and diverse opportunities afforded you for acts of patience, kindness, meekness, forgiveness, peacemaking, courage, temperance, chastity, prudence, justice, hope, faith, charity and a near-endless variety of other deeds of excellence! How terribly spoiled we are by a life overflowing with so many chances, daily offered to us in excess, to share in God’s greatest work of making us saints! It’s really quite embarrassing.

Liturgical Love Life

Even if I often live far from it in reality, I have come to think of life’s details as so many fragments of sacred ritual that fill out the bodily liturgy that is my daily life.

Therefore, I beseech you brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies in living sacrifice, holy, well pleasing unto God, which is your rational worship. — Romans 12:1

St. Paul rightly calls this liturgy of life a “sacrifice,” which involves aspirants to holiness in a manner of living that is wholly-other focused. A self-less life, i.e. less self, more God-neighbor. Holiness is perfected Christ-like loving, and loving is willing the other’s good or the Other’s glory. For the disciple of Christ, love is not a laudable extra but an expected duty. Our duty is to love, which makes duty a noblesse oblige, the sweetest of obligations, an obligation that even God himself cannot escape!

O eternal, infinite Good! O mad lover! And you have need of your creature? It seems so to me, for you act as if you could not live without her, in spite of the fact that you are Life itself, and everything has life from you and nothing can have life without you. Why then are you so mad? Because you have fallen in love with what you have made! You are pleased and delighted over her within yourself, as if you were drunk with desire for her salvation. She runs away from you and you go looking for her. She strays and you draw closer to her. You clothed yourself in our humanity, and nearer than that you could not have come. — Catherine of Siena

Feelings, so much more than feelings

I might add here that it is enough at times to simply will to carry out faithfully the details of our daily duty, even when within our emotions rage against our will, though it is good to aspire and pray for the grace to do one’s duty out of heartfelt love; for the redemption of our passions. For me it’s a tremendous relief to know that fidelity to God’s will does not demand of me the harmonious cooperation of my emotional life. How often I must choose to love those around me when I am not “feeling it.” In fact, fidelity can actually be more meritorious when it’s carried out in spite of our emotions’ unruly or irrational rebellion. Certainly Jesus’ emotionally agonizing choice to embrace the Father’s will in the Garden of Gethsemane offers us an extravagant model of faithful obedience in the face of an inner riot.

St. Josemaría Escrivá expressed this balance of desire beautifully,

Put your heart aside. Duty comes first. But when fulfilling your duty, put your heart into it. It helps.

Hidden Martyrdom

I know someone who shared with me a beautiful insight in this regard, and thankfully they gave me permission to anonymously share it. This person, who has a sound character and deeply loves God, had long searched for radical ways to offer his life to God. He wanted God to give him the chance to suffer a painful martyrdom to witness to his love for Christ and bear the fruits of redemptive suffering for his loved ones’ salvation. Whether that would mean a bloody death or a terrible illness, he was willing to accept whatever hardship might come from the Hand of God. He expressed this desire to me with such a beautiful, childlike and disarming sincerity of love that it made me feel uncomfortable for its convicting power. “But,” he said,

once, when I was sharing this desire with a wise and trusted friend, she said to me, “You’re looking for big things here. You don’t need to ask for such extreme things. Just do your duty and that will suffice. God wants the sacrifice of a faithful will, not your pain. If pain comes, then offer it; but don’t overlook the treasure you already have to offer right in front of you.”

How insightful is that? Greatness in God is far more often homely than comely, unseen than obvious. Ever since he shared this story with me, “Do your duty” has become my prayer’s antiphonal refrain. But now I also add to it the coda stolen from Matthew Henry, “without murmuring.”

Bloom where you’re planted

I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes on sanctity through fidelity to daily life’s present demands from St. Francis de Sales. It’s found in the Breviary’s Office of Readings on the day of his Feast, and it never ceases to thrill me as often as I read it. He speaks here of “devotion,” which for him means not escapist piety, but love of God in the form of radical fidelity to the demands of one’s state in life.

When God the Creator made all things, he commanded the plants to bring forth fruit each according to its own kind; he has likewise commanded Christians, who are the living plants of his Church, to bring forth the fruits of devotion, each one in accord with his character, his station and his calling.
I say that devotion must be practiced in different ways by the nobleman and by the working man, by the servant and by the prince, by the widow, by the unmarried girl and by the married woman. But even this distinction is not sufficient; for the practice of devotion must be adapted to the strength, to the occupation and to the duties of each one in particular.

Tell me, please, my Philothea, whether it is proper for a bishop to want to lead a solitary life like a Carthusian; or for married people to be no more concerned than a Capuchin about increasing their income; or for a working man to spend his whole day in church like a religious; or on the other hand for a religious to be constantly exposed like a bishop to all the events and circumstances that bear on the needs of our neighbor. Is not this sort of devotion ridiculous, unorganized and intolerable? Yet this absurd error occurs very frequently, but in no way does true devotion, my Philothea, destroy anything at all. On the contrary, it perfects and fulfills all things. In fact if it ever works against, or is inimical to, anyone’s legitimate station and calling, then it is very definitely false devotion.

The bee collects honey from flowers in such a way as to do the least damage or destruction to them, and he leaves them whole, undamaged and fresh, just as he found them. True devotion does still better. Not only does it not injure any sort of calling or occupation, it even embellishes and enhances it.

Moreover, just as every sort of gem, cast in honey, becomes brighter and more sparkling, each according to its colour, so each person becomes more acceptable and fitting in his own vocation when he sets his vocation in the context of devotion. Through devotion your family cares become more peaceful, mutual love between husband and wife becomes more sincere, the service we owe to the prince becomes more faithful, and our work, no matter what it is, becomes more pleasant and agreeable.

It is therefore an error and even a heresy to wish to exclude the exercise of devotion from military divisions, from the artisans’ shops, from the courts of princes, from family households. I acknowledge, my dear Philothea, that the type of devotion which is purely contemplative, monastic and religious can certainly not be exercised in these sorts of stations and occupations, but besides this threefold type of devotion, there are many others fit for perfecting those who live in a secular state.

Therefore, in whatever situations we happen to be, we can and we must aspire to the life of perfection.

 

2 day break

Because of very busy life circumstances, I will take today and tomorrow off. Here’s a quote for your to ruminate on for these Holy Days:

We must carry Jesus in our hearts to wherever He wants to go, and there are many places to which He may never go unless we take Him to them. None of us knows when the loveliest hour of our life is striking. It may be when we take Christ for the first time to that grey office in the city where we work, to the wretched lodging of that poor man who is an outcast, to the nursery of that pampered child, to that battleship, airfield, or camp. – Caryll Houselander

“St. Christopher” Taken from http://holy-icons.com

Palm Sunday

“Lamentation at the Tomb” Taken from http://gabrielsmessage.files.wordpress.com/

Today is Passion Sunday, aka Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. We have at last arrived at Holy Week. This week, culminating in the Three Days (Triduum), are the axis of cosmic time and human history. As the Carthusian monks word it, Stat crux dum volvitur orbis, “The cross is steady while the world whirls around.”

This week the Maker of time and space, the One who fashioned humanity to be “little less than a god” (Psalm 8:5), has set his face on Jerusalem, enduring for us and our salvation the terrors of the grave, tasting, and then harrowing, hell. Today’s first Gospel, taken from St. Matthew, walks us through Jesus’ triumphal entry into a “shaken” Jerusalem where he is jubilantly (though wrongly) hailed by the palm-waving crowds as the hoped for conquering Messiah. The allusions in this scene to the successful Maccabean war for religious freedom less than two centuries earlier (1 Maccabees 13:51) must have both worries the Romans and created a confused set of expectations among the Jews in Jerusalem who had come us to celebrate that great feast of God’s overthrow of political oppression in favor of religious freedom, the Passover.

However, our vision of Messianic triumph is suddenly set off balance we we hear Isaiah speak of a prophet beaten, beard-plucked and spat on; as we hear the Messianic psalm give voice to his cry of abandonment as he is savaged by his enemies before a silent God; as we hear St. Paul sing to us of a God-made-slave whose obedience reveals crucifixion and death as the cost of exaltation and victory. Our vision has been stunningly clarified.Then, at last, in the Gospel we happen on Jesus transubstantiating the meaning of Passover with his own sacrificial death; on his agony and betrayal; on his trial and condemnation; on his torture and crucifixion. We stand at the foot of the cross to see him nailed naked and bloodied to the gibbet, mockingly (and rightly) hailed as the treasonous “King of the Jews” whose death targets not the overthrow of Caesar, but the “despoiling of the principalities and powers” (Colossians 2:15); the overthrow of sin, death and the prince of darkness. But we are left at the end of this exhausting journey with us exiles from Eden “fixing a seal to the stone and setting the guard” at the tomb of God to make certain that He who expelled us once from the Garden and set a guard at its gate can Himself no longer threaten our rebellion with His terrifying love.

Meditation

Today’s feast, therefore, permits us to enter into the opaque mystery of these coming days, leading us right to the very threshold of the grave where hope and despair vie for supremacy. Is not where we live and where faith abides?

I will share with you a meditation of Passion Sunday I wrote a dozen or so years ago, that I think I have shared here before. I pray it will help you open your heart a bit more to the quiet power of these days of awe, leading you even beyond the grave…

Like a Dish Cast Down
In this world of shallow depths
what is fair to the eye, and clean
is held aloft in highest esteem;
but what is broken, unpleasing to the eye
we shun, hide, judge worthily despised.

But should it be so?

No! and God, to shatter such folly chose
to stoop lowly low from soaring height
downward to a womb, all silence enclosed
from whence arose His needful cries
labored into Judah’s deep and waning night.
Now see! look, be still and surely know
That His Highness came down, mercy-crazed,
to shatter our enslaving shackling chains
by being bound, whipped, beaten, dazed,
led, gently along to silent slaughter,
to rescue in time Zion’s daughter,
give her undeservèd reprieve.

Behold! Immortal Spirit gasping to breathe,
the suffocating, waning Ancient of Days.

Love became mercy here,
the Just and Almighty Word
bloodied,
sullied,
spittle-drenched,
mocked and pierced;
wailing, lamenting cry,
gathering all flesh up
in a “Why?”
Silent is His tear-soaked death,
God slumping to earth,
breathing out eternal Breath.
Marred contours of clay, re-figured,
Heart welling up and over
emptied, out-poured to perfection.

Blood-writ icon of Triune life:
God from God,
One-shattered into an Other,
Substance wholly spilled,
wholly received, wholly returned;
yet now into our flesh!
Broken-God now risen,
turned up in ceaseless gaze
upon the Father’s Face,
as from all ages, yet now,

O Now!

He sees that Face with ours.

Entry into Jerusalem | The Palm Sunday Icon Taken from http://iconreader.files.wordpress.com

My Brother, Father Drenched long ago, chrism’d flow Whet your thirst, the Vault outburst; Unleash of torrent grace, a deathless Face Impressed into your soul, Seraphic Coal Plucked of immaterial Fire, celestial choir Hymned your Day, dawned for human clay To carve your face paternal, icon of Eternal Begetting God unborn, forever His side torn To Beget a Word, in you whose whisper heard Recreating heart and star, those near, those far. We laud your life this hour, time of mercy’s Power That gave you as priest, rising from the dawning East. Amen.

“Listen carefully…and incline the ear of your heart” — Rule of St. Benedict

Someone I know took on as a penance this Lent a wonderful practice (that, as ever, I got permission to mention here): going out of his way every day to speak to someone that he finds difficult, boring, irritating, unpleasant. He shared with me a few funny stories and some of the deeper personal insights he’s gained by this daily practice. In particular he mentioned what he considered to be the core revelation God has given him about himself: “When it comes to people I am not interested in, I’m a terrible listener. If they don’t have something immediately interesting to me, I zone out.” He added, “It’s really humbling to see this part of me.”

I cannot imagine that anyone who honestly attempted this penance would not find themselves saying something similar.

I have found in my experience that the art of listening is really the art of loving, and that, in a real way, listening to others can be far more powerful as a transforming agent than speaking. Let me make a few points in that regard.

“There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing.”
― G.K. Chesterton

I know a therapist who writes as her first prescription for nearly every client, “Spent 30 minutes a day in total, undistracted silence.” Her rationale is threefold. First, you can’t be human if you can’t be quiet. Second, when you’re silent you allow your mind to surface important insights, fears, feelings, memories that later can be explored in therapy; but when you are always talking, busy or stimulated you tend to hold them at bay. Third, to work through many of the relational problems that people bring to her they must be capable of listening, really listening to others; and if you can’t be silent when you’re alone, you can’t truly practice the inner silence needed to listen to others when they’re communicating.

I would add here that the same goes for prayer: if you can’t practice silence you simply cannot hear God.

She also added an interesting addendum to this practice of therapeutic silence. She said that probably half (or more) of the people who come to her for psychological healing simply have no one to listen to them, and so they pay her money to simply listen in a caring, patient, and interested way. No one wants to listen to these people, she said, no one has (or makes) the time or the patience; and when you listen to them you often understand why. They have lots of problems, pain, baggage, anger, and it’s hard to listen to that. But not being listened to can lead to lots of accumulated pain. Even more than the sage counsel, she said, bottom line it’s the act of listening deeply to them, affirming that they are noticed and cared about, that truly helps them blossom. And, she added, the more frenetic and distracted our world gets, and the more social media (ironically) isolates and superficializes our communication, the worse it gets.

She used a beautiful phrase, “I listen people into health.” And is that not a form of loving?  You’ve likely heard the saying, “Friends are those rare people who ask how we are, and then wait to hear the answer.” But the truth is that this should be a standard ascetical practice for Christians called to love especially those “who can’t pay you back” with interesting conversation or warm affirmations. In fact, you might say that doing this is merely an imitation of God who, as we presume whenever we turn to pray, is always waiting in rapt attention, ready to listen to whatever small or large thing we have to say.

And I’d argue that only someone who has tasted this truth of the Listening God in prayer can in turn make the words of Samuel their own, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

Such an asceticism of “listening love” was well described by early 20th century American author Alice Duer Miller,

People love to talk but hate to listen. Listening is not merely not talking, though even that is beyond most of our powers; it means taking a vigorous, human interest in what is being told us. You can listen like a blank wall or like a splendid auditorium where every sound comes back fuller and richer.

Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress.
Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly. — Psalm 102:2

A last personal thought on listening.

For almost any parent it can be a penance to listen to your child’s endless questions and stories, especially those stories that are really colorful strings of fragmented tales linked by nothing other than a lively imagination and sustained in unbroken cadence by an extraordinary lung capacity that admits of almost no discernible breath-breaks.  However, whenever I discipline myself to listen carefully and respond appropriately, I always, always leave feeling more of a father than I did before I listened. Why? Because I chose to love them by coming out of myself and entering into their world which is, as St. Paul says in Philippians 2:3, “more important than my own.”

Funny aside, my kids say that they can tell when I’m “not really listening” because my punctuated comments — Really? Wow. Huh. — have no real relationship to what they’re saying. One child calls the “elsewhere” expression on my face, “the look.” “Dad, you’ve got ‘the look again.’” Still working on that.

A closing story on this point. My daughter Maria came up to me one eve when I was working intently on the computer (maybe writing for this Blog!). As she spoke, I continued to type, periodically saying “uh-huh,” or “oh!” Again and again she would shout, “Dad, Dad, Dad!” Finally, losing my patience, I barked back, “I’M LISTENING!” She replied, without missing a beat, “But your face isn’t.”

When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces? – C.S. Lewis, “Till We Have Faces”

Take time today and “dig out” from someone words of meaning by listening deeply, attentively, and with your face.

Pope John Paul II forgives assassin Mehmet Ali Agca Taken from http://prosanctityoflife.com

Mystic Junkies

[written long ago, saved for a rainy day when my time to write is small]

I was talking the other day with a sanjuanist scholar (i.e. a scholar of St. John of the Cross), and he made some really fascinating comments which I will attempt to summarize here. As I do sometimes, this will be a blend of my comments and his.

We were talking about St. John’s severe critique in the Ascent of Mount Carmel of what this scholar dubbed “experience-junkie mysticism,” which might be loosely described as a dedicated pursuit and acquisition of spiritual experiences. You could even say that the Ascent-Dark Night was specifically written (for Confessors and spiritual directors) as a sustained critique of such an approach to the Christian life of faith, especially in the Discalced Carmelite Reform which was begun by a nun famous for her very public mystical experiences.

The Sanjuanist Critique

A tiny bit of background to this experiential mysticism. There was a movement begun in the late 15th century in Spain by Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, a powerful Franciscan reformer-bishop and adviser to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, to bring about a general reform of Church and State in Spain by encouraging a certain brand of mysticism among laity, religious and clergy. Often referred to by the name of its most prominent method of prayer, recogimiento, “prayer of recollection,” this Cisneros-reformation was especially focused around the translation of spiritual texts into the vernacular; texts that emphasized extraordinary mystical phenomena (e.g. visions, locutions, raptures). The core idea was that such visionary mysticism abides at the heart of all previous (medieval) ecclesial reformations, and that it fit well with the intensely apocalyptic air of late 15th and 16th century European Christianity. Cisneros’ initiative gave rise over several decades to a wide diversity of religious reform movements that more or less emphasized various forms of mystical pyrotechnics, as well as a highly interiorized and individualized form of spirituality. One of the more prominent and, from the Spanish Inquisition’s perspective, troublesome branches of Cisneros’ unwieldy reformation were dubbed by Inquisitors the alumbrados, “the enlightened ones.” These late medieval illuminati spread like wildfire throughout Spain and into the Spanish colonial territories throughout the 16th century and beyond. Many of these alumbrados, especially the pious women (called beatas, or “blessed ones”), were attracted to Teresa/John’s reformed Order. For this reason, both John and Teresa felt it imperative to subject the various expressions of the “mystical reformation” movement, and its diverse ascetical-mystical ideas, to a rigorous critique that would preserve the good and excise the not so good.

That is, I believe, why Teresa chose John, the brilliant and rigorous ascetic-mystic, to join her Carmelite reform: to integrate, interpret and interpolate her own mystical charism into the Discalced Carmelite vision and create a spiritual literature specific to its unique demands.

As this was my dissertation topic, I have lots to say more but, for now, this will suffice for background.

Application

I contacted my scholar acquaintance originally to share with him my concerns regarding a variety of contemporary movements in American Christianity, some of which were aversely impacting my work, that embodied a mysticism that was more akin to what I might call a spiritualized psychological binging. Not only do these movements share a resemblance to certain elements of those I’ve mentioned from 16th century Spain, but they also resemble elements of the wildly emotive, experiential and broadly influential American “Great Awakenings” of the 18th and 19th centuries.  In any event, I will not get into the specifics of those resemblances, but rather would like to share some of the insights that came from our lengthy conversation. He was comfortable with my offering his insights here, though they are, as I said, here blended with my own thoughts in the conversation.

There are a lot of parallels between these groups you mention and what John found most troublesome about the alumbrados, at least in regard to those whom he considered off-base.

What John found to be especially mistaken was not their claim to mystical experiences per se — he assumes these things happen — but their well disguised, disordered addiction to spiritual experiences in general; to what Teresa called the “sweets and candies” of the way of perfection. We might better call these “experiences” not mystical per se, since mystical for John transcends the senses, but rather the psychological “kickbacks,” or experiential “feedback” that is produced by religious activities or, if genuine, by God’s activity. But these sensual experiences are inherently ambiguous at best and, at worst, can become dangerously seductive by enticing us to not seek God’s will as much as the pleasure and thrill of more kickbacks; more feedback.

For John, these off-base folks have embarked on a misplaced journey, they’re chasing after the wrong goal. As his co-reformer St. Teresa would put it, “These seek the consolations of God and not the God of consolations.” If John used modern lingo he might call them “experience junkies,” pious men and women who pursue experiences of God with an almost gluttonous appetite, and see religiosity as a way of squeezing out as much spiritual pleasure as possible. These junkies were addicted to the sweet feelings, to histrionic bouts of tears, to visions and locutions that accompanied their devotional practices, and to the admiration of their pious comrades. When they would lose these “goodies,” John argued, they would grow agitated, fret, and strain to get more, assuming they must be doing something wrong or that God was displeased. They would see the spiritual life, John says, as a set of strategies engaged in to get more experiences, as a way to get another shoot-up of these mystical drugs.

John also said that they were compulsive in talking endlessly about these experiences with others, secretly feeding their driven needs for approval or attention with the adulation they received. Though they often put on the appearance of rebuffing the attention with a humble rhetoric, as soon as someone offers a criticism they grow agitated or angry and interpret any critiques as rejections of God. For John, this was just a re-directed form of disordered sensuality, but instead of it being a “carnal” sensuality, he says it’s an affective or spiritualized sensuality. And, as he reveals in his review of the spiritual guises of the seven deadly sins, that may be far worse because it’s so well disguised. While John, of course, allows for sensual experiences of God — he pours out lots of ink speaking about their variety, meaning and means of discerning — he is quick to say that spiritual experiences should never be sought. They should be only accepted if they are genuine, never clung to, and always surrendered back to God once they happen. In fact, he says the safest and best response to a mystical experience is to ignore it for the sake of humility, discretion and pure faith, and if it’s genuinely of God he will make certain the grace intended will be given.

You almost get the sense in the Ascent of Mount Carmel that, in the face of most of the things people would claim as amazing spiritual experiences, John is yawning, really unimpressed by most of it. For him, if experiences are truly from God in the deepest sense, they have already had their effect in the spirit once they occur. Once they happen they should be let go of at once. If we cling to them, become overly curious or fascinated by them, or seek more of the same, the door is flung open to diabolical pseudo-mystic mimicry or to the temptation to squander God’s good gifts on our own ego-driven passions, and not on growth in faith, hope and charity; on a love of the Cross. Satan, he says, is all to happy to provide abundant phenomena, especially if he sees its feeding a need-driven ego. For John, you can avoid all of this very simply by exercising detachment, humility and keeping your eyes fixed on the real goal of the mystical life: loving God and neighbor with the very love of Jesus on the Cross.

John loved the well known story from the Life of St. Antony of the Desert. After having had a vision of the desert filled with snares, he heard a voice command him, “Walk!” When Antony replied in anguish, “What can get me through such snares?,” he heard a voice say, “Humility.”

For John, among the key signs of genuine spiritual experience, and a genuine reception of that experience by a mature person of faith, is growth in self-forgetfulness, detachment, hatred for sin, the virtues (especially humility and charity), love for the Cross and for one’s critics, and the like. And if we want to hear God’s voice, John says, then open sacred Scripture and start praying it. Scripture is the real gold of God’s Voice; the rest, for him, are mere trinkets; or incitements to turn back to Scripture. Experience junkies, for John, always look for new revelations, new words, new sensations, become ever more self-absorbed and flee both hardship and the Cross. The saints, on the other hand, are more than content with what has already been revealed by God in Scripture and Tradition; more than satisfied by the hiddenness of the Sacramental Christ; find faithfulness to the demands of the present moment’s duties as a supreme mode of communion with God; and, the more they “experience” God, the more other-focused, God-and-neighbor absorbed they become, the less obsessed they are with the goodies, kickbacks or feelings feedback. The more genuine the experience, the more interested they are in their present responsibilities, their own state in life calling. In a word, they are more interested in God and his will than in themselves and their will.

And this is all perfectly summed up by that funny play on the word mysticism — myst-I-cism. If it all leads to more mist, I and schism, it’s not from God, i.e. if it leads to unreality fantasy thinking, ego absorption, isolation from the “messy” Body of Christ and the rabble of humanity, it’s fatally flawed.

St. John himself

Let me leave you with a selection from St. John himself. Here he speaks of the spiritualized form that the capital sin of gluttony takes in those who, though well along in the spiritual life, are still in need of deep interior reform and purification. It’s an addendum to the above, is long, and so as I have done in the past I will not post again tomorrow to allow space for you to read it carefully if you wish.

With respect to the fourth sin, which is spiritual gluttony, there is much to be said, for there is scarce one of these beginners who, however satisfactory his progress, falls not into some of the many imperfections which come to these beginners with respect to this sin, on account of the sweetness which they find at first in spiritual exercises. 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. Therefore, besides the  imperfections into which the seeking for sweetness of this kind makes them fall, the gluttony which they now have makes them continually go to extremes, so that they pass beyond the limits of moderation within which the virtues are acquired and wherein they have their being. For some of these persons, attracted by the pleasure which they find therein, kill themselves with penances, and others weaken themselves with fasts, by performing more than their frailty can bear, without the order or advice of any, but rather endeavoring to avoid those whom they should obey in these matters; some, indeed, dare to do these things even though the contrary has been commanded them.

2. These persons are most imperfect and unreasonable; for they set bodily penance before subjection and obedience, which is penance according to reason and discretion, and therefore a sacrifice more acceptable and pleasing to God than any other. But such one-sided penance is no more than the penance of beasts, to which they are attracted, exactly like beasts, by the desire and pleasure which they find therein. Inasmuch as all extremes are vicious, and as in behaving thus such persons are working their own will, they grow in vice rather than in virtue; for, to say the least, they are acquiring spiritual gluttony and pride in this way, through not walking in obedience. And many of these the devil assails, stirring up this gluttony in them through the pleasures and desires which he increases within them, to such an extent that, since they can no longer help themselves, they either change or vary or add to that which is commanded them, as any obedience in this respect is so bitter to them.

To such an evil pass have some persons come that, simply because it is through obedience that they engage in these exercises, they lose the desire and devotion to perform them, their only desire and pleasure being to do what they themselves are inclined to do, so that it would probably be more profitable for them not to engage in these exercises at all.

3. You will find that many of these persons are very insistent with their spiritual masters to be granted that which they desire, extracting it from them almost by force; if they be refused it they become as peevish as children and go about in great displeasure, thinking that they are not serving God when they are not allowed to do that which they would. For they go about clinging to their own will and pleasure, which they treat as though it came from God; and immediately their directors take it from them, and try to subject them to the will of God, they become peevish, grow faint-hearted and fall away. These persons think that their own satisfaction and pleasure are the satisfaction and service of God.

4. There are others, again, who, because of this gluttony, know so little of their own unworthiness and misery and have thrust so far from them the loving fear and reverence which they owe to the greatness of God, that they hesitate not to insist continually that their confessors shall allow them to communicate [receive Holy Communion] often. And, what is worse, they frequently dare to communicate without the leave and consent of the minister and steward of Christ, merely acting on their own opinion, and contriving to conceal the truth from him. And for this reason, because they desire to communicate continually, they make their confessions carelessly, being more eager to eat than to eat cleanly and perfectly, although it would be healthier and holier for them had they the contrary inclination and begged their confessors not to command them to approach the altar so frequently: between these two extremes, however, the better way is that of humble resignation. But the boldness referred to is a thing that does great harm, and men may fear to be punished for such temerity.

5. These persons, in communicating, strive with every nerve to obtain some kind of sensible sweetness and pleasure, instead of humbly doing reverence and giving praise within themselves to God. And in such wise do they devote themselves to this that, when they have received no pleasure or sweetness in the senses, they think that they have accomplished nothing at all. This is to judge God very unworthily; they have not realized that the least of the benefits which come from this Most Holy Sacrament is that which concerns the senses; and that the invisible part of the grace that it bestows is much greater; for, in order that they may look at it with the eyes of faith, God oftentimes withholds from them these other consolations and sweetnesses of sense. And thus they desire to feel and taste God as though He were comprehensible by them and accessible to them, not only in this, but likewise in other spiritual practices. All this is very great imperfection and completely opposed to the nature of God, since it is impurity in faith.

6. These persons have the same defect as regards the practice of prayer, for they think that all the business of prayer consists in experiencing sensible pleasure and devotion and they strive to obtain this by great effort, wearying and fatiguing their faculties and their heads; and when they have not found this pleasure they become greatly discouraged, thinking that they have accomplished nothing. Through these efforts they lose true devotion and spirituality, which consist in perseverance, together with patience and humility and mistrust of themselves, that they may please God alone. For this reason, when they have once failed to find pleasure in this or some other exercise, they have great disinclination and repugnance to return to it, and at times they abandon it. They are, in fact, as we have said, like children, who are not influenced by reason, and who act, not from rational motives, but from inclination. Such persons expend all their effort in seeking spiritual pleasure and consolation; they never tire therefore, of reading books; and they begin, now one meditation, now another, in their pursuit of this pleasure which they desire to experience in the things of God. But God, very justly, wisely and lovingly, denies it to them, for otherwise this spiritual gluttony and inordinate appetite would breed innumerable evils. It is, therefore, very fitting that they should enter into the dark night, whereof we shall speak, that they may be purged from this childishness.

7. 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.

8. These persons have many other imperfections which arise hence, of which in time the Lord heals them by means of temptations, aridities and other trials, all of which are part of the dark night. All these I will not treat further here, lest I become too lengthy; I will only say that spiritual temperance and sobriety lead to another and a very different temper, which is that of mortification, fear and submission in all things. It thus becomes clear that the perfection and worth of things consist not in the multitude and the pleasantness of one’s actions, but in being able to deny oneself in them; this such persons must endeavor to compass, in so far as they may, until God is pleased to purify them indeed, by bringing them into the dark night, to arrive at which I am hastening on with my account of these imperfections.

9th Century Byzantine icon Taken from http://www.byzantinemuseum.gr

Speaking of silence…

As promised yesterday, I will not Blog theology today. So consider this a faux post.

As American novelist William S. Burroughs once said, “Silence is only frightening to people who are compulsively verbalizing.”

So let me at least feign for a day that I am not a compulsive verbalizer.