[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.
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.