The greatest figures of prophecy and sanctity step forth out of the darkest night. But for the most part, the formative stream of the mystical life remains invisible. Certainly the most decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions. And we will only find out about those souls to whom we owe the decisive turning points in our personal lives on the day when all that is hidden is revealed. — St. Edith Stein (quoted by Pope Francis)
In chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus offers a stinging critique of how Jews practice the pillars of Judaism — prayer, fasting and almsgiving. No one need know the good you do, save God alone. He makes clear something the Hebrew prophets were united on: one courts grave danger in using the “things of God” to serve the ego with its self-serving agenda or voracious appetite for human admiration and praise. As my dad loved to say, “better to be an atheist than to use God.”
Extending Jesus’ analysis, St. John of the Cross at the beginning of his Dark Night treatise exposes the immense sophistication of the spiritualized egoism present in those fairly advanced in the spiritual life. There he details some ways pride, envy or anger can be masterfully guised in religious garb and made to look legit. He concludes each individual diagnosis with a strong assertion: you are ultimately powerless over your inborn narcissism and must surrender to the painful and purifying fires of divine grace and truth that alone can penetrate and heal the deep roots of sin within you.
St. John gives a particularly powerful example of this graced unmasking in the first section of the Dark Night. After exposing some of the ways pride gets cloaked in religious garb in those who are still immature, he offers a vivid description of what pride’s antithesis, humility, looks like in those who have passed through purification:
They receive great benefit from their humility, by which they not only place little importance on their deeds, but also take very little self-satisfaction from them. They think everyone else is far better than they are, and usually possess a holy envy of them and would like to emulate their service of God. Since they are truly humble, their growing fervor and the increased number of their good deeds and the gratification they receive from them only cause them to become more aware of their debt to God and the inadequacy of their service to him, and thus the more they do, the less satisfaction they derive from it.
Their charity and love make them want to do so much for God, and what they actually do accomplish seems as nothing. This loving solicitude goads them, preoccupies them, and absorbs them to such an extent that they never notice what others do or do not accomplish. But if they should notice, they then think, as I say, that everyone is better than they. Moreover, even though others do praise and value their works, such praises seem strange to them.
Far different from low self-esteem, which is still an inward-turned and self-protective posture, humility allows one the freedom to see truth and be selfless precisely because the self has been fully realized in its union with a humble and selfless God whose truth is love. And humility is the capacity to receive and give the truth in love. For John, one who discovers himself as infinitely loved, and allows that love to dismantle his incurved ego, turning it outward and upward, finds only joyful fulfillment in a life wholly dedicated to others and to God. And in their presence, it’s easy to see and believe in God.
I remember it so clearly. My mom, the last night she was conscious before she died, said to our family right after we had prayed a rosary with her: “I want you all to go out to dinner on me!” Now my mom, on an IV at the time, had been unable to ingest food for days and was hungry. So when she said this to us, though I was humbled and deeply moved by her generosity, I felt extremely uncomfortable accepting her request. Sensing my discomfort, she immediately took my hand and said to me, “Yes. Go. This is your mother speaking. And if all of you do this, it will be like I had a feast.”
I want to think like that, love like that, say that and mean it. I’m so far from it, in reality. But having stood nearby it I have hope I can approximate it. If not by imitating her example, then by receiving her prayers to God for me. And if I can, then I will one day be able to join her, with all the hungry and thirsty, the poor and meek. Only those who are little enough can grasp this immense truth St. John of the Cross penned to an embittered friar — A la tarde te examinarán en el amor “when evening comes, they will examine you on love.”
We did, she passed. May we, likewise…