Ave crux, spes unica, “Hail the Cross, our only hope” — Part II

Part II of my outline of the talk on St. John of the Cross and healing:

St. John’s Vision of Christ, who asked him, “What would you have me give you?” John’s response? “To suffer and be despised for you, O Lord.” Taken from enlightened-spirituality.org

b. Heal me, O Lord, from all that keeps me from suffering well my life’s cross

i. Russian Orthodox priest once told me that there is a saying among pious Orthodox: “The vocation of the priest is to help the faithful suffer well.” “How does he do that?” I asked. “By being a man familiar with suffering himself, who has paid a price for his faith in Christ. Otherwise it’s all theory. And no power. The one who has suffered with Christ can raise the dead from the grave of sin.

ii. Again: Healing is not freedom from suffering, but rather freedom from all that prevents us (especially fear) from loving with God’s own mode of love, which in this life takes the form of the cross. Though healing may remove one suffering, in the end, if it is of God, it must deepen our trust, lessen our fear, enkindle our love, embolden our hope, and so on. The effects of grace in us all augment our capacity to deny self, pick up cross and follow Christ through death to life.

ii. St John Chrysostom says, “Jesus raised Lazarus from the tomb only that Lazarus might later acquire the martyr’s crown, for we are healed that we might have strength to die with Christ.” [tradition says Lazarus was martyred]

iv. God’s purifying fire heals us of the tangle of inner disordered-addictive attachments that we might embrace in freedom the cross – not just endure trials and hardships but, St. John says, prefer them as privileged means to love God and neighbor.

v. St. Therese: “I understood that to become a saint one had to suffer much, seek out always the most perfect thing to do, and forget self. I understood, too, that there are many degrees of perfection and each soul was free to respond to the advances of the Our Lord, to do little or much for Him, in a word, to choose among the sacrifices He was asking. Then, as in the days of my childhood, I cried out: ‘My God I choose all!’ I do not want to be a saint by halves. I’m not afraid to suffer for You. I fear only one thing: to keep my own will; so take it, for I choose all that You will!”

vi. John exposes the depths of our egocentric machinery that prevents us from making love our total-life mission, and so embracing the cross. He says that the main point of more mature forms of prayer is not obtaining things or favorable outcomes to this or that, but rather consenting to God’s healing us of our deeply embedded spiritual-moral narcissism. Here’s an example in book one of The Dark Night of John’s description of that “machinery” fully at work. He speaks especially here of those more advanced “spiritual people” who have cleverly disguised their pride as virtue, and need purgative grace to reach deep into the soul and unmask these subtle self-deceptions and lead them into inner freedom. He speaks primarily of Religious and clergy here, of course, but the application is universal. Like St. Paul at the end of Romans 7:13-24, St. John exclaims at the end of these sections: “Who will deliver us from this pathetic plight? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ!”

“These feel so fervent and diligent in their spiritual exercises and undertakings that a certain kind of secret pride is generated in them that begets a complacency with themselves and their accomplishments, even though holy works do of their very nature cause humility. Then they develop a somewhat vain — at times very vain — desire to speak of spiritual things in others’ presence, and sometimes even to instruct rather than be instructed; in their hearts they condemn others who do not seem to have the kind of devotion they would like them to have, and sometimes they give expression to this criticism like the pharisee who despised the publican while he boasted and praised God for the good deeds  he himself accomplished.

The devil, desiring the growth of pride and presumption in these beginners, often increases their fervor and readiness to perform such works, and other ones, too. For he is quite aware that all these works and virtues are not only worthless for them, but even become vices. Some of these persons become so evil-minded that they do not want anyone except themselves to appear holy; and so by both word and deed they condemn and detract others whenever the occasion arises, seeing the little splinter in their brother’s eye and failing to consider the wooden beam in their own eye; they strain at the other’s gnat and swallow their own camel.

And when at times their spiritual directors, their confessors, or their superiors disapprove their spirit and method of procedure, they feel that these directors do not understand, or perhaps that this failure to approve derives from a lack of holiness, since they want these directors to regard their conduct with esteem and praise. So they quickly search for some other spiritual advisor more to their liking, someone who will congratulate them and be impressed by their deeds; and they flee, as they would death, those who attempt to place them on the safe road by forbidding these things — and sometimes they even become hostile toward such spiritual directors. Frequently, in their presumption, they make many resolutions but accomplish very little. Sometimes they want others to recognize their spirit and devotion, and as a result occasionally contrive to make some manifestations of it, such as movements, sighs, and other ceremonies; sometimes, with the assistance of the devil, they experience raptures, more often in public than in private, and they are quite pleased, and often eager, for others to take notice of these.

Many want to be the favorites of their confessors, and thus they are consumed by a thousand envies and disquietudes. Embarrassment forbids them from relating their sins clearly, lest their reputation diminish in their confessor’s eyes. They confess their sins in the most favorable light so as  to appear better than they actually are, and thus they approach the confessional to excuse themselves rather than accuse themselves. Sometimes they confess the evil things they do to a different confessor so that their own confessor might think they commit no sins at all. Therefore, in their desire to appear holy, they enjoy relating their good behavior to their confessor, and in such careful terms that these good deeds appear greater than they actually are. It would be more humble of them, as we will point out later, to make light of the good they do and to wish that no one, neither their confessor nor anybody else, should consider it of any importance at all.

Sometimes they minimize their faults, and at other times they become discouraged by them, since they felt they were already saints, and they become impatient and angry with themselves, which is yet another fault. They are often extremely anxious that God remove their faults and imperfections, but their motive is personal peace rather than God. They fail to realize that were God to remove their faults they might very well become more proud and presumptuous. They dislike praising anyone else, but they love to receive praise, and sometimes they even seek it. In this they resemble the foolish virgins who had to seek oil from others when their own lamps were extinguished.”

vii: Last, some nuclear words from St. John of the Cross advising Carmelite friars and nuns how to cultivate within a disposition toward embracing the cross that makes space for the grace that dismantles that egocentric machinery (Deo gratias!). (note: he admonishes that this is to be carried out only under the spiritual guidance of a mentor/director to prevent the distortions and extremes that we easily fall into):

“Endeavor to be inclined always: not to the easiest, but
to the most difficult; not to the most delightful, but to
the most distasteful; not to the most gratifying, but to
the less pleasant; not to what means rest for you, but
to hard work; not to the consoling, but to the
un-consoling; not to the most, but to the least;
not to the highest and most precious, but to the lowest and
most despised; not to wanting something, but to
wanting nothing. Do not go about looking for the best
of temporal things, but for the worst, and, for Christ,
desire to enter into complete nudity, emptiness, and
poverty in everything in the world.”

Salvador Dali’s rendition of St. John’s sketch of Christ Crucified, taken from saatchigallery.com

4 comments on “Ave crux, spes unica, “Hail the Cross, our only hope” — Part II

  1. WoopieCushion says:

    To free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.
    This helped me to be just a little more honest with myself before the merciful Christ today. Thank you

  2. bennettureta says:

    Two things:

    1) I read a blog post where this guy went from being Protestant to Catholic to Orthodox. He said the first came from finding the fullness of the truth, and the second from finding a place where the cross was preached unashamedly. Evidently, his experience of Catholicism was of a lot of preaching about love with no mention of the cross. I’m lucky to move in Catholic circle that embrace the cross*, but I can see how he might have gotten that impression when I think back on some of the parishes I’ve been to.

    2) I’ve been that guy who is relieved when Fr B shows up at the confessional instead of Fr A, because I don’t want Fr B (who knows me) to hear my confession and find out I did the thing again, this time worse than the last. I’ve even gone so far as to recognize that it’s good for me to bear the shame of going to Fr A, but I never thought of it this way. (O foolish vanity! Like Fr A even remembers all those confessions anyway. Get over yourself, man.)

    *Sometimes literally! I know a guy who was in “God or the Girl”, a reality show about guys choosing between the priesthood and marriage, where at one point they had him carry a cross for a few days. He said you have to hug it to hold it, and it hurt so bad until he was nearing the finish line; then with his mind on that end, the pain just went away. #symbolic

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