The Word was made flesh and stooped among us

God, then, is the Father of the created world and Mary the mother of the re-created world. God is the Father by whom all things were given life, and Mary the mother through whom all things were given new life. For God begot the Son, through whom all things were made, and Mary gave birth to him as the Savior of the world. Without God’s Son, nothing could exist; without Mary’s Son, nothing could be redeemed. — St. Anselm of Canterbury

I was planning to write a theological flourish on today’s atom-splitting Solemnity — the Incarnation! I had hoped to sing of Infinity becoming itty-bitty in the womb of the Virgin, that all-lovely Woman before whom the Angel Gabriel found himself at a loss for words — as the Eastern Akathist hymn reminds us:

Awed by the beauty of your virginity
and the exceeding radiance of your purity,
Gabriel stood amazed and cried aloud to you,
O Mother of God:
“’How can I praise you as I should?
With what name shall I invoke you?
I am lost and bewildered!
Therefore I will greet you as I was commanded:
“Hail, O you who are full of grace!”

Listen to this haunting version:

O Mary, echo of the creating words of God in Genesis, you said, “let it be.” And so it was! In the Garden of your all-pure womb shone the Dawn announcing “a new heavens and a new earth in which justice dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13).

At least, that was the gist of what I had been thinking I would write…

…but then last week I heard a talk at the seminary by a visiting priest who was sharing stories from his years of service to those who live on the margins of life, and his stories dismantled my plans.

He shared the story of a man who was, in his words, “a mass of suffering.” He was entrusted with the care of this man who was a committed patient in a psychiatric ward — for eight hour stretches, five days a week. The man’s name was Joe. Joe suffered from chronic involutional depression, severe compulsive anxiety, was unable to speak anything other than repetitious babble. He was also stricken with cancer of the intestines that often left him severely incontinent. After Joe would have an “accident,” this priest would have to get on his hands and knees to clean the feces from the floor under Joe’s chair, from his shoes, clothes and body. “The stench was noxious,” he said, “unlike anything I’d ever smelled before.” One day, it happened three times in three hours. Each time, the priest stripped the man of his soiled clothing, thoroughly cleaned him and re-clothed him, trying all the while to preserve the man’s dignity.

After bathing Joe and re-clothing him the third time, while the priest was still tying his shoes, Joe said: “Up!” The priest looked up, and the man looked in the priest’s eyes, aspirating the first meaningful words he’d ever spoken: “Thaaank yooou.”

The priest was deeply emotional as he shared this story and choked up as he repeated Joe’s words. I was overcome with feeling and wrote this in my notebook:

The Annunciation. God become incarnate, fragile flesh, stooping down to clean up our filth, and bidding us: “I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn. 13:15). Holy Mass! Having our unlaced shoes tied by the downward-bending God who bids us: “Join me! Sursum corda! Up!” We cry, “It is right and just!” as we look up in an anaphora, aspirating toward the Father’s Face: “Thaaank yooou…”

Amen. Deo gratias. Ite, missa est…

Coptic icon of the Annunciation. Taken from

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church” — Ephesians 5:25

I came across this piece of advice by St. John Chrysostom for husbands, and was so taken with it I thought I’d share it here. It reminds me of the spiritual counsel a Missionary of Charity gave me once when I voiced to her my difficulty dealing with a verbally abusive patient: “The difficult people in your life are the voice of God shouting to you: love like Jesus!” How could her words not call to mind C.S. Lewis’ memorable words? “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains.”

In his homilies on Ephesians 5:21-33, Chrysostom variously applies his prudential wisdom to the details of marriage and family life, bringing to bear the logic of St. Paul’s interpretive re-imagining of marriage in light of Christ’s death and resurrection. For Paul, as for the authors of the whole New Testament, every jot and tittle of the Old Testament, every aspect of human life, every dimension of the whole cosmos — and even hell itself! — must be re-thought in the light of Christ. Nothing has been left unchanged by the significance of what we will celebrate in tomorrow’s great feast, or what we will celebrate in next week’s Feast of Feasts. How awesome it is to be Catholic.

Even though you undergo all [these sacrifices for your wife], you will never have done anything equal to what Christ has done. You are sacrificing yourself for someone to whom you are already joined, but He offered Himself up for one who turned her back on Him and hated Him. In the same way, then, as He honored her by putting at His feet one who turned her back on Him, who hated, rejected, and disdained Him; as He accomplished this not with threats, or violence, or terror, or anything else like that, but through His untiring love; so also you should behave toward your wife. Even if you see her belittling you, or despising and mocking you, still you will be able to return her to yourself through affection, kindness, and your great regard for her. There is no influence more powerful than the bond of love, especially for husband and wife. Husbands should love their wives…”as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” [Eph. 5:25-27]…”For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband” [1 Cor. 7:14].

“The Lord said to me again, ‘Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress, just as the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods'” (Hosea 3:1-2). Depiction of Hosea buying back Gomer, his wife-turned-prostitute, from her pimp. Hosea’s marriage was a prophetic sign of Israel’s unfaithfulness and God’s faithful and merciful covenant love. Image taken from

A pause from the rush

Re-post from March 2013.

Through the graciousness of my generous wife, I was able to steal away from life’s busy routines and go on retreat a week or so ago at a lovely, out of the way place called Rosaryville in Ponchatoula, Louisiana. It’s run by Dominican sisters. My purpose in going on this retreat was to discern a decision that was suddenly presented to me recently — to give up my teaching at the Seminary and assume the administrative role of Academic Dean. My hunch that this was God’s will for me was…I didn’t want to do it. It seems whenever my knee-jerk reaction to an opportunity is “no,” it’s usually the sign to me God’s call is hiding somewhere in there; in the shape of a freshly minted cross.

It was a private, silent retreat. My favorite kind. To be alone with the Alone.

Taken from

Liber naturae, “The book of nature”

While the Christ event is at the heart of divine revelation, we also need to realize that creation itself, the “liber naturae,” is an essential part of this symphony of many voices in which the one word is spoken. — Verbum Domini

One day, I took a long stroll through a woodsy area that surrounded the retreat house. It was a cool and breezy March day, in the 50’s, and a milky sun shone through the wispy cirrus clouds that sped across the azure skies. Breathtaking.

It’s so wonderful how silence amplifies the simplest sounds of nature that frequently are drowned out by the buzzing noise of life.

The forest floor was littered with decaying wood and leaves. Everywhere, there were stalks of yellow flowers rocketing out from beneath the gray and brown carpet like festive dancers disrupting a solemn funeral. As I walked further on through the tangled thickets beneath rows of towering pine, I could hear the sweet chorus of excited chickadees, downy woodpeckers and blue jays, their clashing cries echoing beneath the breathtakingly beautiful cathedral of the skies. I even spied a female cardinal, camouflaged by her muted feathers, busily foraging in the matted piles of oak leaves. I stood motionless, and could hear my heartbeat.

Then, as I pushed further into the woods, I came to a patch of slash pines bordering a small pond. The wind was blowing steadily, causing the pines to whisper their haunting melodies. Have you heard them before? I’ve always thought that Elijah must have heard them at the entrance of the crag in Mount Sinai. Their softly whispered wail is, for me, the voice of the Almighty. Maybe it is that all pines, everywhere and through all ages, imbibe the whispered prayers of that saints that were once-for-all gathered on the knotted Tree of Golgotha.

At least it seemed so that day.

As I walked around onto a beaten path, I bent down and paused to admire the fragile beauty of what I think was a Tiny Bluet that was blooming early. Probably because it was sheltered on a south-facing slope that caught more sunshine.

Taken from

I thought at once of St. Peter Damian’s words, as he describes the benefits of choosing to retreat now and again into solitude (the ‘hermitage’) to recollect in prayer:

The hermitage is a paradise of delight where the fragrant scents of the virtues are breathed forth like sweet sap or glowing spice-flowers. There the roses of charity blaze in crimson flame and the lilies of purity shine in snowy beauty, and with them the humble violets whom no winds assault because they are content with lowly places; there the myrrh of perfect penance perfumes the air and the incense of constant prayer rises unceasingly.

But why should I call to mind these in particular? For the lovely buds of all the holy virtues glow there many-coloured and graces flourish in an undying greenness beyond the power of words to describe. O hermitage! delight of holy souls, unfailing in your inner sweetness.

“You have placed my tears in your flask;
are they not recorded in your book?” — Psalm 56:9

A tear rolled down my face, provoked by the innocence of these flowers — unlike me, they are unshaken by the cares and worries of life, as the Lord had commanded. Luke 12:26-28.

The “gift of tears” written about by the desert fathers, and several centuries later by St. Ignatius of Loyola, is not about finding meaning in our pain and suffering. They do not give answers but instead call us to a deep attentiveness to the longings of our heart. They continue to flow until we drop our masks and self-deception and return to the source of our lives and longing. They are a sign that we have crossed a threshold into a profound sense of humility. Tears come when we learn to live more and more out of our deepest longings, our needs, our troubles. These must surface and be given their rightful place. For in them we find our real human life in all its depths. And when one begins with these unacceptable feelings and desires, which have to be submitted for examination, we must look closely at, and learn to live with, this amazing degree of this weakness of ours… St. Ephrem writes: “Give God weeping, and increase the tears in your eyes, through your tears and his goodness the soul which has been dead will be restored” — Andrew Louf

The flowers seemed to say to me, “You are tiny.”

Feeling the weight of life’s many responsibilities, I prayed: “Lord, hide me beneath the shadow of your Wings.” Just then, in that moment, the sound of Psalm 95, as I heard it many times at New Melleray Abbey, came alive in my mind — listen here if you wish. Psalm 95:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
and abides in the shade of the Almighty
says to the Lord: “My refuge,
my stronghold, my God in whom I trust!”

It is he who will free you from the snare
of the fowler who seeks to destroy you;
he will conceal you with his pinions
and under his wings you will find refuge.

You will not fear the terror of the night
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the plague that prowls in the darkness
nor the scourge that lays waste at noon.

A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand fall at your right,
you, it will never approach;
his faithfulness is buckler and shield.

Your eyes have only to look
to see how the wicked are repaid,
you who have said: “Lord, my refuge!”
and have made the Most High your dwelling.

Upon you no evil shall fall,
no plague approach where you dwell.
For you has he commanded his angels,
to keep you in all your ways.

They shall bear you upon their hands
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
On the lion and the viper you will tread
and trample the young lion and the dragon.

Since he clings to me in love, I will free him;
protect you for he knows my name.
When he calls I shall answer: “I am with you,”
I will save him in distress and give him glory.

With length of days I will content him;
I shall let you see my saving power.

Stinking, rotten, evil

Fr. Tom Hopko. Taken from

This past Thursday, Orthodox theologian Fr. Thomas Hopko, who was one of the most important theological influences in my life, fell asleep in the Lord. What profound sadness I have felt since then. May God grant him eternal rest. To honor him, and to reflect on Jesus’ metaphor for the Cross in today’s Lenten Gospel (“unless the grain of wheat falls to earth and dies”), I will share some transcribed excerpts of vintage Fr. Tom. His words here reflect four things I love most about his theological style — it’s starkly engaging, it’s homey, it’s really gritty and it’s centered on the Cross of Jesus as our only hope. Thank you, Fr. Tom, for being a blazing light in the darkness! Enjoy:

+ + +

The answer to all of this is God who is love, revealed in the Cross, and us taking up that Cross together with him, because what we believe about the Cross — from God’s side — is that God tells us on the Cross many things. He tells us that he loves us and loves us and loves us to the end, and our whole life is defined by his love for us. The content of our life is his love for us. That we can never escape his love for us. That even hell will be the futile attempt to even try to escape his love for us, because he chases us even into hell. He takes the hell on himself on the Cross, becoming sin, becoming curse, becoming dead—for us, not for himself. He didn’t need that. For us. So he tells us that we are loved, and that’s the foundational metaphysical reality for sane existence. We are insane if we do not know in our gut that we are loved, and we are loved by God. By God! And there’s nothing that we can do that will stop the love of God for us. That’s what the Cross tells us.

However sinful, stupid, ridiculous, criminal, I don’t know, the Auschwitzes, the gulags, the abortion centers of this world, will not stop the love of God for us. He takes it all on himself. He identifies with it all. And all we have to do is want it, say yes to it, and then it’ll become ours, and it’ll work in us. There’s nothing we can do to respond to it. We can only take it, receive it, say Amen to it. But that being-loved, boundlessly and unconditionally, this is what the Cross is telling us. As I said earlier, whether we like it or not, we are loved.

One of the hardest things to do in life, because of our human pride, because of our rebellion against God, much harder almost than loving, is to allow ourselves to be loved, to let God love us, to let godly people love us. But this love of God is what the Word of the Cross is: boundless, unconditional love from God’s side.

How is that love expressed? It’s expressed not in denying the sin of the world, not saying, “Oh, you’re nice anyway.” I heard a tape the other day of a Methodist named Stanley Hauerwas—highly recommended—and he said, “I’m a Methodist. We Methodists have deep belief in God. We believe God is nice.” Then he said, “And that has heavy implications. We should be nice, too.” But it’s not just being nice. And one of the things about being nice, people think one of the things about being nice is never to say that anything’s wrong. Never to admit that there’s real evil, real sin, real tragedy; we just kind of “pretend” it’s not there, put it away. But God doesn’t do that.

The Cross tells us that this world is stinking, rotten, evil. That’s what it tells us. That the world isn’t nice—exactly. That the world hates light, hates love, hates truth, hates justice, and when that all becomes incarnate the presence of Jesus the Messiah, they say he’s a Samaritan and has a devil and they’ve got to get rid of him. It’s not nice.

God doesn’t deny all that. He doesn’t look down and say, “Oh, you’re really nice.” He doesn’t. He says, “You’re all sinners, rotten, and there’s no, not one righteous, no, not one, but I love you anyway. And to prove that I love you anyway, I take all your rot on myself.” And that’s what love is. Love is to identify with the one who’s really bad, really evil.

One of the things that we’re going to talk about is: if we’re going to imitate God in that, we have to admit the evil that’s around. Some people have a very hard time admitting evil around, in themselves and in other people, and in other people as well as themselves, especially their family members. Other people are only too happy to admit evil around, in everybody! Sometimes even themselves: “I’m a sinner!” All right, that’s part of it. But the admission has to be there.

But then the Cross says, “You must admit it. You must say: ‘It is no good. It is not God’s way. Things are not right. There is evil. There is the devil. There is sin. There is death.” And these things have to be faced. They can’t be cosmeticized over, stuck in a corner. People get sick. People have cancer. People die. Airplanes crash. People blow them up. People get thrown out of their countries. People get victimized by other people. They get victimized by the sin of their parents. They get victimized by all kinds of stuff, and all that is real. And God on the Cross faces all that and says it’s real.

And when Jesus faces it and says it’s real, he weeps over it. He grieves over it. He is appalled by it. But he is not victimized or paralyzed by it, and he doesn’t let it poison him. So no matter how bad it is—and it’s as bad as you can get, especially if you’re crucifying the Son of glory—and according to St. Paul, any sin crucifies again the Lord of glory, because that’s why he came… So it’s as bad as it can get, but being however bad it can get, he says, “You’re forgiven.”

“Like it or not, you’re forgiven.” Proud people don’t like to be forgiven. In fact, proud people would rather burn in hell and think they deserve it than to hear, “You’re forgiven.” “Me, forgiven? For what?” But the forgiveness is there, and, more than the forgiveness, is the identification, the baring of the burden of the sin of the other, without acting in an evil way in return. This is what the Word of the Cross tells us.

The Word of God — ho logos tou theou — is always and necessarily the word of the Cross — ho logos tou stavrou. And we come to see that there is no theosis without kenosis. The almighty God reveals Himself as an infinitely humble, totally self-emptying and absolutely ruthless and relentless lover of sinners. And men and women made in His image and likeness must be the same. Thus we come to see that as there is no resurrection without crucifixion, there is also no sanctification without suffering, no glorification without humiliation; no deification without degradation; and no life without death.

And that the only way that you will redeem the other, the only way that you will help to heal the other, the only way that you can expiate the sin of the other, is to take it on yourself — but not in a sick way, not in the “Oh, I’m suffering for the other” way; but in a way of sovereign freedom, in total dignity, in an absolutely voluntary act of love, so that it’s literally impossible that the evil will be victorious. It can’t be because you don’t give it an inch. And one of the ways that you don’t give it an inch is not by denying it, but by disclosing it, by seeing evil for what it is. That’s why the Cross is the great clarification. The Cross is the great illumination of things the way they really are.

The Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald, 1512. Taken from

“My God, my God, why?” — Mark 15:34

Pietà, by Jacob Jordaens c. 1670. Taken from

Holy Week is nearing — can you feel it? I wanted to share a few loosely connected thoughts on the human experience of suffering and evil as we approach those days of awe. In those days we come face to face with the unspeakable vision of evil’s apogee: God’s corpse.

Theodicy of theologians

After I read David Bentley Hart’s remarkable book on the December 26, 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, The Doors of the Sea, my way of thinking about the problem of evil and suffering (aka theodicy) was radically transformed. It’s a book you read, re-read, re-read and then say, “I think I’m getting it now.” Now after the fifth re-read, it’s finally begun to seep into the deeper parts of my thinking. And after that fifth go-through, I decided I would read it again every summer until it’s so deep in my memory that it sinks from my thinking head into my intuitive heart. Why all this fuss over one book? Because I believe Hart offers an exceptionally compelling Christian view/Gospel response the problem of evil and suffering, which St. Thomas Aquinas identified as the chief intellectual obstacle to Christian theism. For me Hart’s book is nearly unrivaled in its honesty and clarity, and in its relentless application of the “word of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1:18) to every aspect of existence.

Here’s an example of Hart’s jolting and dense prose:

There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of what Aquinas calls secondary causality — in nature or history — is governed not only by a transcendent providence, but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of — but entirely by way of — every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome. Better, it seems to me, the view of the ancient Gnostics: however ludicrous their beliefs, they at least, when they concluded that suffering and death were essential aspects of the creator’s design, had the good sense to yearn to know a higher God.

I do not believe we Christians are obliged — or even allowed — to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes”and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Theodicy of the poor

I sat and spoke about this book last summer with an older priest who has spent most of his priestly life working with the poorest of the poor. We had both read the book and sat together to discuss it. His insights were challenging/mind-expanding for me, but there was one comment he made that has remained in me ever since. He said,

It’s good to think about these things and use God’s gift of the mind to explore the mystery with language — that’s the gift of theology, right? But not everybody needs to get this to have faith. In my experience with the poor, I found they were far too occupied with day to day survival to reflect like this. How can you when you’re faced daily with children’s sudden death, insufficient food to feed the family, unemployment, abusive injustices. You know, all life throws at you. For these people it’s about faith, an unshakable faith that says behind all the chaos is a God who’s there always; that says saints are all around us walking with us and blessing us; or that God’s heaven awaits those who keep faith. This faith keeps their hope from dying, gives them the will to move on and not resort to violence, crime or succumb to hatred. They don’t speculate, they just kiss their crucifix, light a candle and move on.

Theodicy of Tears

Pope Francis, when he was in the Philippines, drew a huge crowd at Manila’s Catholic university. He came close to tears as he listened to two rescued street children speak of their lives growing up poor and abandoned. The pope set aside his prepared remarks and spoke off the cuff in his native Spanish — which means from the heart — to respond to a 12 year-old who wept as she asked Francis why children suffer so much. She said, “There are many children neglected by their own parents. There are also many who became victims and many terrible things happened to them like drugs or prostitution.” She wanted to know, “Why does God allow this?” Here she is embracing him:

Taken from

Here was his disarmingly simple reply:

…the heart of your question has no reply. Only when we too can cry about the things you said can we come close to answering that question. Why do children suffer so much? Why do children suffer? When the heart is able to ask itself and weep, then we can understand something. There is a worldly compassion which is useless. You expressed something like this. It’s a compassion that makes us put our hands in our pockets and give something to the poor. But if Christ had had that kind of compassion he would have greeted a couple of people, given them something, and walked on. But it was only when he was able to cry that he understood something of our lives. Dear young boys and girls, today’s world doesn’t know how to cry. The marginalized people, those left to one side, are crying. Those who are discarded are crying. But we don’t understand much about these people in need. Certain realities of life we only see through eyes cleansed by our tears. I invite each one here to ask yourself: have I learned how to weep? Have I learned how to weep for the marginalized or for a street child who has a drug problem or for an abused child? Unfortunately there are those who cry because they want something else.

This is the first thing I want to say: let us learn how to weep as she has shown us today and let us not forget this lesson. The great question of why so many children suffer, she did this in tears. The response that we can make today is: let us really learn how to weep.

In the Gospel, Jesus cried for his dead friend, he cried in his heart for the family who lost its child, for the poor widow who had to bury her son. He was moved to tears and compassion when he saw the crowds without a pastor. If you don’t learn how to cry, you cannot be a good Christian. This is a challenge. When they posed this question to us, why children suffer, why this or that tragedy occurs in life – our response must be either silence or a word that is born of our tears. Be courageous, don’t be afraid to cry.

Taken from

Divinizing Itinerary

St. John of the Cross sketch of the crucifixion. Taken from

Yes, I am on a St. John of the Cross buzz these days.

Below is something I wrote in 2006 after spending 5 days and nights reading and re-reading St. John’s Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night at a Trappist monastery. I was working on preparing my dissertation thesis, and wanted to come as close to memorizing the structure of his work as possible. I wrote this summary for a friend who had been closely following my research.

Disclaimer: It’s a very dense, somewhat lengthy, grossly oversimplified, a somewhat opaque summary, and is not for the faint of heart. It’s also not carefully edited, I don’t have time to edit, and so, I am sure, has careless mistakes in it. How appealing this sounds! Doesn’t my description make you think of those TV ads for prescription meds that end with dire warnings? “Tramadol, which is otherwise wonderful for you and can change your life by making you pain free, may cause life-threatening addiction, withdrawal symptoms in a newborn, hives, tremors, seizures, more hives, severe vomiting. Inhaling this medicine can cause life-threatening side effects or death. Call your doctor today and get Tramadol!” (Disclaimer: this description is exaggerated for the sake of effect)

Sorry, back to my summary. So, it’s not easy reading but, for those who so desire, at least it offers a general sense of the Ascent-Night’s  trajectory if you have a specific interest in going deeper into St. John’s mystical doctrine.

However, so you won’t go away with nothing today: If you’re not interested in wading through it, here are four sanjuanist pearls for you to meditate on:

Do nothing nor say any notable word that Christ would not have done or said were He in the state I am, as old as I, and with the same kind of health.

Never give up prayer, and should you find dryness and difficulty, persevere in it for this very reason. God often desires to see what love your soul has, and love is not tried by ease and satisfaction.

Anyone who trusts in himself is worse than the devil. Anyone who does not love his neighbor abhors God. Anyone who is lukewarm in his work is close to falling. Whoever flees prayer flees all that is good.

Conquering the tongue is better than fasting on bread and water. Suffering for God is better than working miracles.


The Précis: my summary of sjc

Nota bene: Though John would argue that the journey to God he sketches out has universal elements that apply to all those who desire holiness, he does qualify its application. He states clearly in his prologue to the Ascent that he is writing only for “some” members of his monastic Order, “those to whom God is granting the favor of setting them on the road to this Mount,” which is the path of “naked faith” leading to union with God. Those called to traverse this way journey along a path of radical death-to-self and enter into union with Christ precisely in the moment of His “supreme dereliction,” i.e. His cry of abandonment. Those called this way are “in Christ” precisely at the moment of Mark 15:43:

Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani? which is translated, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Those who consent to this path, John says, become living sacrifices that are consumed in the heart of the Church for the life of the world. These souls chosen by God see themselves in St. Paul’s mysterious words to his Corinthian flock:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. — 2 Cor. 4:8-12

Note also that John was responding to the “mystical reformation” encouraged by the Spanish Crown in the late 1400’s, a kind of charismatic movement of laity and Religious who claimed to experience visions, locutions, ecstasies, raptures and other phenomena. The Inquisition referred to them as the “dejados” or “alumbrados.” There is no doubt in my mind that one of the reasons Teresa invited John to join her reform was because she recognized his discretion and skill in discernment, and hoped he would write spiritual treatises specifically geared to her reform. Many of those involved in this 16th century charismatic movement were attracted by Teresa’s own visionary mysticism, but Teresa was concerned about the inexperience and immaturity of many of these women. She wanted John to serve as a theologian-confessor who could train Discalced Carmelite priest-confessors, to ably help these women attracted to her reform movement to develop better discernment and ground their pursuit of perfection in the Cross. The Ascent-Night seems to have been be written not for the nuns themselves, but for the priest-confessors — which would also explain its very scholastic tone and the untranslated Latin texts. I will not treat his detailed examination of how to handle the question of visions, locutions and such, which are treated in Book II.

For John the most basic distinction in the person is sense-spirit, which is different from soul-body, or even than the trichotomous body-soul-spirit.  One can say in general that when John says “soul” he means the whole complex of the person, including the body informed by the soul.

In the human person there are two fundamental modes of knowing and desiring: sensual and spiritual.  The sensual mode of knowing is grounded in the exterior five senses, in the interior five senses (which John calls “imagination and phantasy”), and its knowledge and desires are centered on “creatures,” i.e. any created good that is not God.  The spiritual mode of knowing is grounded in the three spiritual “faculties” (which means something like “capacities” or “powers”): intellect, will and memory. These three are themselves grounded in what John calls the “substance” or “depth” of the soul where the center of the self is (what he calls the suppositum, or unifying center of the whole complex of the person). These three spiritual faculties possess a dual capacity for knowing and desiring: they can know created reality and the uncreated God.

For John, the person comes to know and desire God first mediately, through the senses, and then, after a long and hard purgative road, immediately through the spirit which alone has un-mediated access to the naked essence of God. As knowledge slowly transforms from sense to spirit, God-talk language shifts from logical prose into paradoxical/mystical poetry into stammering and finally into silence.

Because we are ravaged by sin, which above all else turns the soul away from God and toward creation in an idolatrous way, the process of untangling the sinful soul from its dysfunctional created attachments and turning toward God is exceptionally arduous and painful.

The Ascent of Mount Carmel is the narrative of the beginning of this journey to detachment. John counsels on how one actively cooperates with God in this process, and focuses on cultivating inner attitudes of self-renunciation that facilitate the subversion of disordered desire rooted in the senses, and not just on modifying outer behaviors. For example, he counsels:

Strive always to prefer, not that which is easiest, but that which is most difficult;
Not that which is most delectable, but that which is most unpleasing;
Not that which gives most pleasure, but rather that which gives least;
Not that which is restful, but that which is wearisome;
Not that which is consolation, but rather that which makes you disconsolate;
Not that which is greatest, but that which is least;
Not that which is loftiest and most precious, but that which is lowest and most despised;
Not that which is a desire for anything, but that which is a desire for nothing;
Strive to go about seeking not the best of temporal things, but the worst.
Strive thus to desire to enter into complete detachment and emptiness and poverty, with respect to everything that is in the world, for Christ’s sake. – Ascent 1.13.6

Then, in books 2 and 3 of the Ascent, John continues describing strategies for surrendering disordered detachments, but now turns his focus to the three spiritual faculties. The intellect is submitted to faith’s darkness, which alone is capable of accessing God as he is. The memory is given over to hope’s abandoning trust in God alone. The will is made subject to charity’s selfless purification, overcoming the ego’s twisted incurvature and the crippling effects of sin.

Throughout the Ascent, this struggle to detach and surrender to the action of grace is mostly focused on human effort (all under ordinary grace, of course). But honestly, John holds little regard for the deep progress that can be made by such a struggle – though he unambiguously affirms that this ascetical struggle is absolutely requisite. “The way of the death to self and the cross is the only way to salvation.” He highlights the disparity that exists between active ascetical effort and passively infused purgative grace in the first 8 chapters of the Dark Night. There he begins his treatment of the passive nights of sense and spirit – where God’s purifying action predominates – by carefully examining how the seven deadly sins still thrive in the “spiritual” person. These “proficients” have already made great progress in the work of mortifying their disordered appetites, but John’s diagnosis is that without the coming passive nights, the person’s carefully constructed virtues remain fragile and narcissistic. Virtue remains, for the most part, still centered on the self and its (now spiritual) pleasures.

The Dark Night, John’s most unique contribution to the spiritual tradition, treats the manner in which God, first in the senses and then in the spirit, begins to dismantle the natural agency of the soul so as to purify, reform and remake it in the freedom of the sons of God. This freedom prepares the soul for the supreme goal of human life, divinization, which creates at the center of the person a new center of agency: God himself. Transforming union effects perfect synergy between the divinized person and God. In effect, the person becomes by grace all that Christ is by nature.

In the passive night of the senses, all the pleasure of the spiritual life once had in the interior and exterior senses is taken away and bitterness reigns. But this loss of the machinery of the incurved ego means a gain of inner freedom, and God is set free to commence the communication if his divine life to the spirit, even as the ravenous appetite of the senses for pleasure is temporarily disabled. After this first passive night is completed, and the senses, having been turned from slavery to freedom, are accustomed to communing with God through the spirit, there is a period of great refreshment and peace and consolation – though it is still occasionally interrupted by trials and darkness, which are, he says, like “omens and harbingers” of the terrifying night of the spirit still yet to come.

Then, “of sudden,” John says, the consolations and peace come to an end and the spiritual faculties (intellect, memory, will) are plunged into darkness and bitterness: the intellect sees nothing but darkness, the memory can find no consoling recollection, and the will finds no pleasure in anything, but only distaste and bitterness. He gives distinguishing signs to determine whether or not one has truly entered passive nights, or is just suffering from depression, a disordered spiritual life or some other “bodily humor,” as he calls it. The signs confirming entry into the passive nights include (and all must be concurrently present): The loss of pleasure in everything (divine and worldly), inability to meditate on any particular thing, a desire to be alone with God, the fear that one is displeasing God, the desire to be faithful in even the smallest matters, and the desire to embrace the cross.

As the soul goes through the final passive night of the spirit, which is the worst suffering possible in this life (akin to Purgatory, and even Hell), the spiritual faculties in their deepest roots are despoiled of their former disordered attachments to creatures through the senses, and are re-accommodated  to receiving the infusion of divine life in an immediate way. This accommodation to God, which stretches the intellect, memory and will to “infinite” capacity, is also accompanied by an ever increasing hunger and thirst for God as the “void” being formed in the ever-expanding faculties begs/cries out like an incarnate epiclesis to be filled with God – “an infinite thirst awaiting slake.”

Finally, after this final passive night of the spirit passes, the soul is readied for union. But, John says with an awful gravity, God alone decides the moment of union.

Now the soul has been returned to the innocence of Adam, and more, has been made like the New Adam, Christ, in whom God and man are one. In union, the soul becomes the center of the redeemed cosmos, and the priestly character of the soul, sharing in that of Christ, effects the mediation and reconciliation between God and man: the whole universe “moves,” John says, with the soul as God himself moves the soul. Or, in another captivating image of John, the whole cosmos quakes – as it did on the day of Resurrection – when God “awakens” in the soul in a “spiritual resurrection.”

In this dramatic narrative of the person that is the Ascent-Night, the paschal mystery of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, is enacted in the soul. Let me leave you with a selection from Book II of the Ascent that I find, in many ways, to be the white-hot core of his spiritual doctrine:

…it is certain that, at the moment of His death, Christ was likewise annihilated in His soul, and was deprived of any relief and consolation, since His Father left Him in the most intense aridity, according to the lower part of His nature. Wherefore He had perforce to cry out, saying: ‘My God! My God! ‘Why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ This was the greatest desolation, with respect to sense, that He had suffered in His life. And thus He wrought herein the greatest work that He had ever wrought, whether in miracles or in mighty works, during the whole of His life, either upon earth or in Heaven, which was the reconciliation and union of mankind, through grace, with God. And this, as I say, was at the moment and the time when this Lord was most completely annihilated in everything. Annihilated, that is to say, with respect to human reputation; since, when men saw Him die, they mocked Him rather than esteemed Him; and also with respect to nature, since His nature was annihilated when He died; and further with respect to the spiritual consolation and protection of the Father, since at that time He forsook Him, that He might pay the whole of man’s debt and unite him with God, being thus annihilated and reduced as it were to nothing. Wherefore David says concerning Him: Ad nihilum redactus sum, et nescivi.

This he said that the truly spiritual man may understand the mystery of the gate and of the way of Christ, and so become united with God, and may know that, the more completely he is annihilated for God’s sake, according to these two parts, the sensual and the spiritual, the more completely is he united to God and the greater is the work which he accomplishes. And when at last he is reduced to nothing, which will be the greatest extreme of humility, spiritual union will be wrought between the soul and God, which in this life is the greatest and the highest state attainable. This consists not, then, in refreshment and in consolations and spiritual feelings, but in a living death of the Cross, both as to sense and as to spirit — that is, both inwardly and outwardly.

I will not pursue this subject farther, although I have no desire to finish speaking of it, for I see that Christ is known very little by those who consider themselves His friends: we see them seeking in Him their own pleasures and consolations because of their great love for themselves, but not loving His bitter trials and His death because of their great love for Him. I am speaking now of those who consider themselves His friends; for such as live far away, withdrawn from Him, men of great learning and influence, and all others who live yonder, with the world, and are eager about their ambitions and their prelacies, may be said not to know Christ; and their end, however good, will be very bitter. Of such I make no mention in these lines; but mention will be made of them on the Day of Judgment, for to them it was fitting to speak first this word of God, as to those whom God set up as a target for it, by reason of their learning and their high position.

But let us now address the understanding of the spiritual man, and particularly that of the man to whom God has granted the favour of leading him into the state of contemplation (for, as I have said, I am now speaking to these in particular), and let us say how such a man must direct himself toward God in faith, and purify himself from contrary things, constraining himself that he may enter upon this narrow path of obscure contemplation.


Re-post from 2011.

Here’s a fragment of an idea that came to me a week ago. I jotted it down in haste on a wrinkled piece of paper as I waited for my oil to be changed. I had recently taught a workshop on Catholic social teaching, reflecting on the practical import of Francis Cardinal George’s call to renounce the partisan “liberal-conservative” labels that severely constrict rich, nuanced, complex understandings of reality. George challenges us to experiment by completely removing those ideological labels from our faith vocabulary and instead engaging in reasoned arguments.

Nothing new or sophisticated. Just intriguing to me as I thought of it all.

…we need now to move past that strange ideological hybrid concocted in the 20th century: Justice advocacy defends and promotes the rights of weak, voiceless, powerless and poor humanity. Yet how has this noble cause entered into a sinister covenant with those advocates who defend and promote the right to extinguish the life of weak, voiceless, powerless and poor humanity still in the womb? If this is a war between radical conceptions of autonomy (this is my body given to me) and equally radical commitments to solidarity (this is my body given up for you) — and I believe that is the war — solidarity has been dealt a mortal wound. Only a suspension of logic, or a capitulation to the very arguments that give rise to so many injustices decried by justice advocates, could transform champions of helpless victims into victimizers of the helpless.

We Catholics must don again our Christo-logic, re-claim the “word of the cross” and “cry out full-throated and unsparingly” (Isaiah 58:1) to give voice to the silent children of our age. We must nail to the cross of Jesus tropes the culture of death uses to justify unspeakable crimes. The cross is the world as seen through the lens of divine mercy, revealing beauty in deformity, ability in disability, power in weakness, redemption in suffering, sheer grace in uselessness, riches in poverty, trust in fear and hope in hopelessness. We must apply this logic from womb to tomb, proclaiming in word and deed the Christ who sanctified every nanosecond of human life from his conception in the womb of Mary, to his agonizing death, to the burial of his butchered corpse that would be swept up into the deathless glory of the eternal God. In Christ, everything of human life, whether comely or grotesque,  weak or strong, has been rendered capax Dei, capable of revealing the wisdom and folly, strength and weakness of our merciful God (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:25).