“Hear me, O Lord! Hear me!” 1 Kings 18:37

Coptic Pentecost icon. Taken from youthirsty.org

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire. — T.S. Eliot, “The Four Quartets, IV”

“Through the Holy Spirit comes our restoration to paradise, our ascension into the kingdom of heaven, our return to the adoption of sons, our liberty to call God our Father, our being made partakers of the grace of Christ, our being called children of light, our sharing in eternal glory, and, in a word, our being brought into a state of all “fullness of blessing,” both in this world and in the world to come, of all the good gifts that are in store for us, by promise hereof, through faith, beholding the reflection of their grace as though they were already present, we await the full enjoyment.” — St. Basil the Great, “On the Holy Spirit”

Come, true light.
Come, life eternal.
Come, hidden mystery.
Come, treasure without name.
Come, reality beyond all words.
Come, person beyond all understanding.
Come, rejoicing without end.
Come, light that knows no evening.
Come, unfailing expectation of the saved.
Come, raising of the fallen.
Come, resurrection of the dead.
Come all-powerful, for unceasingly you create, refashion and change all things by your will alone.
Come, invisible whom none may touch and handle.
Come, for you continue always unmoved, yet at every instant you are wholly in movement; you draw near to us who lie in hell, yet you remain higher than the heavens.
Come, for your name fills our hearts with longing and is ever on our lips; yet who you are and what your nature is, we cannot say or know. Come, Alone to the alone. Come, for you are yourself the desire that is within me. Come, my breath and my life. Come, the consolation of my humble soul. Come, my joy, my glory, my endless delight. — St. Symeon the New Theologian, “Epiclesis”

“And what does this new and powerful self-communication of God produce? Where there are divisions and estrangement he creates unity and understanding. The Spirit triggers a process of reunification of the divided and dispersed parts of the human family; persons, often reduced to individuals in competition or in conflict with each other, reached by the Spirit of Christ, open themselves to the experience of communion, can involve them to such an extent as to make of them a new organism, a new subject: the Church. This is the effect of God’s work: unity; thus unity is the sign of recognition, the ‘business card’ of the Church in the course of her universal history. From the very beginning, from the day of Pentecost, she speaks all languages. The universal Church precedes the particular Churches, and the latter must always conform to the former according to a criterion of unity and universality. The Church never remains a prisoner within political, racial and cultural confines; she cannot be confused with states not with federations of states, because her unity is of a different type and aspires to transcend every human frontier.

From this, dear brothers, there derives a practical criterion of discernment for Christian life: When a person or a community, limits itself to its own way of thinking and acting, it is a sign that it has distanced itself from the Holy Spirit. The path of Christians and of the particular Churches must always confront itself with the path of the one and catholic Church, and harmonize with it. This does not mean that the unity created by the Holy Spirit is a kind of homogenization. On the contrary, that is rather the model of Babel, that is, the imposition of a culture of unity that we could call ‘technological.’ The Bible, in fact, tells us (cf. Genesis 11:1-9) that in Babel everyone spoke the same language. At Pentecost, however, the Apostles speak different languages in such a way that everyone understands the message in his own tongue. The unity of the Spirit is manifested in the plurality of understanding. The Church is one and multiple by her nature, destined as she is to live among all nations, all peoples, and in the most diverse social contexts. She responds to her vocation to be a sign and instrument of unity of the human race only if she remains free from every state and every particular culture. Always and in every place the Church must truly be catholic and universal, the house of all in which each one can find a place.” — Pope Benedict XVI, 2010

Ethiopian icon of Pentecost, c. 1391. Taken from armenianstudies.csufresno.edu

Acquire the Fire

Pentecost is still far off, but somehow I can already feel its approach. You can almost hear in the far distance an approaching roar from above. In today’s Gospel, the Lord says to his disciples during his final discourse at the Last Supper:

I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth,
he will guide you to all truth.

St. Seraphim of Sarov said that the entire spiritual life of the Christian can “succinctly be summarized thus: the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.” The mission of the Spirit, sent by Father and Son to re-create creation through the priestly mediation of redeemed humanity, is to make present and active in the world the limitless mercy of God that flows from the open side of dead-and-risen Christ. Intimacy with Christ begins in our intimacy with the Spirit who continues to incarnate the Word in us, Christ’s mystical Body.

Colleen Nixon once sang Cardinal Mercier’s prayer to the Holy Spirit, and since that day her voice has (blessedly) haunted my prayer. Listen to her here:

In honor of the Spirit, Treasury of All Blessings, I will leave you with the words of the “lyre of the Spirit,” St. Symeon the New Theologian. May God grant to all of us the grace of his Holy Spirit!

What is this awesome mystery that is taking place within me?
I can find no words to express it:
My poor hand is unable to capture it,
In describing the praise and glory that belong
To the One who is above all praise,
And who transcends every word…
My intellect sees what has happened,
But it cannot explain it;
It can see, and wishes to explain,
But can find no word that suffices,
For what it sees is invisible and entirely formless,
Simple, completely uncompounded,
Unbounded in its awesome greatness.
What I have seen is the totality recapitulated as One,
Received not in essence but by participation.
It is just as if you lit a flame from a live flame:
It is the entire flame you receive.
What point is there in trying to explain all of this to you,
Or trying to make you understand it all?
If you yourself have not felt it by personal experience,
You will be unable to know it.

Eating a Feeding God

Dorothy Day’s last arrest, age 74. Taken from jimandnancyforest.com

I happened on three quotes in succession today that all seemed to sing a harmonious canticle about the real-world impact of the Risen Jesus. I commented in my journal after reading them: “Jesus, by taking our flesh and blood up in the resurrection, makes clear that loving Him really always means loving our flesh and blood neighbors concretely. Bodily resurrection ruins our valiant attempts to evade our unlovable neighbor while aspiring to embrace our all-lovable God, or failing to feed our hungry neighbor while daring to eat the Bread of Life.”

Enjoy:

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Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: The defenders of orthodoxy are sometimes accused of passivity, indulgence, or culpable complicity regarding the intolerable situations of injustice and the political regimes which prolong them. Spiritual conversion, the intensity of the love of God and neighbor, zeal for justice and peace, the Gospel meaning of the poor and of poverty, are required of everyone, and especially of pastors and those in positions of responsibility. The concern for the purity of the faith demands giving the answer of effective witness in the service of one’s neighbor, the poor and the oppressed in particular, in an integral theological fashion. By the witness of their dynamic and constructive power to love, Christians will thus lay the foundations of this “civilization of love” of which the Conference of Puebla spoke, following Paul VI. Moreover there are already many priests, religious, and lay people who are consecrated in a truly evangelical way for the creation of a just society.

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Stanley Hauerwas: Too often I think Christians think about the resurrection in terms of a story told by Soren Kierkegaard about a prince riding through his field. The prince sees a peasant girl gathering the crops. She is beautiful and the prince falls instantly in love with her. However, he is a noble prince and does not want to overwhelm her with his power and riches, so he dresses in peasant clothes and goes to work side by side with her.

Kierkegaard notes that what holds our attention as such a story is told is our curiosity about when the prince will show his true identity. We know the prince and the peasant girl will fall in love – after all, she is beautiful and he is noble so we know they will love one another. But we want to know when and how the prince will reveal to his beloved that she has fallen in love with the prince himself. We let our imaginations run. Perhaps one day they share a lunch during which he tells her of his love. She confesses she also loves him and suddenly he rips back the peasant clothes and reveals the purple. Or perhaps he will wait until the wedding itself. They exchange vows at the end of which he tears away his rough clothes to reveal that through this marriage she has become the queen of the land. If we are really letting our imaginations run, we might think he waits until the wedding night itself.

Kierkegaard uses this story to suggest that we think the resurrection must be like a prince who has been hiding the purple under his rough clothes. The resurrection reveals the purple. However, Kierkegaard notes the only problem with this way of thinking about the resurrection is that Jesus has no purple under his flesh. Jesus is peasant clothes, flesh, all the way down. He is not playing at being a human. He is human all the way down.

The resurrected Christ is the crucified Christ. Only such a Christ, moreover, can save us. For Jesus is the Christ, being for us this particular man making possible a particular way of life that is an alternative to the world’s fear of one like Jesus.

Christians have no fantasy that we may get out of life alive. Instead we have a saviour who was in every way like us, yet also fully God. Jesus is not 50% God and 50% man. He is 100% God and 100% man – he is the incarnation making possible a way to live that constitutes an alternative to all politics that are little less than conspiracies to deny death.

Such a saviour does not promise that by being his follower we will be made safe. Rather, this saviour offers to free us from our self-inflicted fears and anxieties. Jesus does so not by making our lives “more meaningful” – though we may discover our lives have renewed purpose – but by making us members of his body and blood so that we can share in the goods of a community that is an alternative to the world.

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Fr. Aidan Kavanagh: Genesis says that we began in a swamp teeming with life, but that something went vastly wrong one evening at dinner. Apocalypse says that the difficult was finally resolved into something called the Banquet of the Lamb. Hebrews tells us how the resolution was accomplished, not in an orchard set in pleasant countryside but in a butcher shop located in the city’s center. The World’s story from beginning to end pivots upon this resolution, a resolution the faint of heart, the fastidious, and the squeamish find hard to bear. Suburbia prefers its meat wrapped in plastic, all signs of violence removed so as to reduce the necessity of entering into the dark and murderous transaction with reality which one creature giving up its life for another entails.

This means that in a Christian assembly’s regular Sunday worship, a restored and recreated World must be so vigorously enfleshed in ‘civic’ form as to give the lie to any antithetical civitas–especially to one raised on the slippery footing of Pelagian optimism and the sovereignty of the individual to whom oppression is thought to come only from without. The assembly is not a political party or a special interest group. But it cannot forget that by grace and favor it is the World made new; that creation, not the state, is a theocracy; and that the freedom with which all people are endowed by the Creator is something which by our own choice is prone to go awry.

Along with the blood-bought right of Christian orthodoxia to celebrate creation root and branch, there goes an obligation to exorcize continually its human inmates’ lust to do their own thing no matter what, especially as doing their own thing blinds them to the risks, duties, and nobility of being creatures of creation’s Source and friends of creation’s Redeemer. This is a frightful ministry carried on with trembling hands and a dry mouth, for the World stops being cute when told it is morbid. The Christian assembly is equipped for such a frightful ministry with no more nor less power than that with which Jesus the Christ came to the same ministry in the days of his flesh. It is what his Body corporate is here for. In him, and according to his example and no other, the Christian assembly is obliged to do its best. It was in the doing of his own best that he laid down his life for the life of the World–not in cynical disgust or in limp passivity before the Human Problem, but for those of those who caused the Problem in the first place. His Church can do no less.

The Church doing the World as God means it to be done in Christ is the greatest prophecy, the most powerful exorcism, of all. The Church is seen and felt by all to be doing its best most overtly and accessibly in its steady, regular round of what I have called orthodoxia, a life of ‘right worship’ which is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. It is a life whose enactment is festive, ordered, aesthetic, canonical, eschatological, and normal. The liturgy is nothing more nor less than the Body corporate of Christ Jesus, suffused with his Spirit and assembled in time and place, doing its best by doing the World as the World issues constantly from God’s creating and redeeming hand. What the liturgical assembly does is the World. Where the liturgical assembly does this is the public forum of the World’s radical business, the Thingplatz of a restored and redeemed creation. When the liturgical assembly does this is the moment of the World’s rebirth–the eighth day of creation, the first day of the last and newest age. Nothing less rides upon the act of the assembly, determines its style, lays bares its service and mission for the life of the World.

 

The Beauty of the Time-worn Eternal Gospel

Re-post from 2013, with the addition of a 1 minute video a friend sent that relates to this post. But first, let me share with you a recording of my wife singing during yesterday’s Annunciation feast at our daughter’s all-school Mass. She is mortified when I do this, but that’s too bad. You see, I teach about God, but she sings to Him. She has the greater calling. Click here if you want to listen, and here are the words of the text:

Here am I, O God,
I come to do Your will
Here am I,
I come to do Your will

I’ve waited for you and you heard me, O God.
You have put a new song in my mouth.
A hymn of praise to the God of my salvation.

You opened my ear to your word, O God.
You take no delight in empty sacrifice.
To do your will, is my life and my delight, O God.

I sing of your justice, I sing of your peace.
I sing of your faithfulness and love.
I chant your praise in the midst of all your people.

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I have spent the last 3 years trying to complete David Bentley Hart’s book, Atheist Delusions. What great pleasure I take in reading his celebration of the English language that requires me to have my dictionary always at hand! I wish the book had no final chapter.

In any event, there was one quote (pp. 215-16) on the contribution of Christianity to ethical thought that I felt compelled to share here in its entirety. Brace and pace yourself for its density, but let me beg you to believe me when I say it’s worth the effort…

…In short, the rise of Christianity produced consequences so immense that it can almost be said to have begun the world anew: to have “invented” the human, to have bequeathed us our most basic concept of nature, to have determined our vision of the cosmos and our place in it, and to have shaped all of us (to one degree or another) in the deepest reaches of consciousness.

All of the glories and failures of the civilizations that were born of this revolution, however, everything for which Christendom as a historical, material reality might be praised or blamed, fades in significance before the still more singular moral triumph of Christian tradition. The ultimate power and meaning of the Christian movement within the ancient world cannot be measured simply by the richness of later Christian culture’s art or architecture, the relative humanity or inhumanity of its societies and laws, the creativity of its economic or scientific institutions, or the perdurability of its religious institutions through the ages. “Christendom” was only the outward, sometimes majestic, but always defective form of the interaction between the gospel and the intractable stuff of human habit.

The more vital and essential victory of Christianity lay in the strange, impractical, altogether unworldly tenderness of the moral intuitions it succeeded in sowing in human consciences. If we find ourselves occasionally shocked by how casually ancient men and women destroyed or ignored lives we would think ineffably precious, we would do well to reflect that theirs was-in purely pragmatic terms-a more “natural” disposition toward reality. It required an extraordinary moment of awakening in a few privileged souls, and then centuries of the relentless and total immersion of culture in the Christian story, to make even the best of us conscious of (or at least able to believe in) the moral claim of all other persons upon us, the splendor and irreducible dignity of the divine humanity within them, that depth within each of them that potentially touches upon the eternal.

In the light of Christianity’s absolute law of charity, we came to see what formerly we could not: the autistic or Down syndrome or otherwise disabled child, for instance, for whom the world can remain a perpetual perplexity, which can too often cause pain but perhaps only vaguely and fleetingly charm or delight; the derelict or wretched or broken man or woman who has wasted his or her life away; the homeless, the utterly impoverished, the diseased, the mentally ill, the physically disabled; exiles, refugees, fugitives; even criminals and reprobates. To reject, turn away from, or kill any or all of them would be, in a very real sense, the most purely practical of impulses.

To be able, however, to see in them not only something of worth but indeed something potentially godlike, to be cherished and adored, is the rarest and most ennoblingly unrealistic capacity ever bred within human souls. To look on the child whom our ancient ancestors would have seen as somehow unwholesome or as a worthless burden, and would have abandoned to fate, and to see in him or her instead a person worthy of all affection — resplendent with divine glory, ominous with an absolute demand upon our consciences, evoking our love and our reverence — is to be set free from mere elemental existence, and from those natural limitations that pre-Christian persons took to be the very definition of reality.

And only someone profoundly ignorant of history and of native human inclinations could doubt that it is only as a consequence of the revolutionary force of Christianity within our history, within the very heart of our shared nature, that any of us can experience this freedom. We deceive ourselves also, however, if we doubt how very fragile this vision of things truly is: how elusive this truth that only charity can know, how easily forgotten this mystery that only charity can penetrate.

Modern persons will never find rest for their restless hearts without Christ, for modern culture is nothing but the wasteland from which the gods have departed, and so this restlessness has become its own deity; and, deprived of the shelter of the sacred and the consoling myths of sacrifice, the modern person must wander or drift, vainly attempting one or another accommodation with death, never escaping anxiety or ennui, and driven as a result to a ceaseless labor of distraction, or acquisition, or willful idiocy. And, where it works its sublimest magic, our culture of empty spectacle can so stupefy the intellect as to blind it to its own disquiet, and induce a spiritual torpor more deplorable than mere despair.

All of which, as I take leave of this phase of my argument, raises certain questions for me. A civilization, it seems obvious, is only as great or as wonderful as the spiritual ideals that animate it; and Christian ideals have shown themselves to be almost boundless in cultural fertility and dynamism. And yet, as the history of modernity shows, the creativity of these ideals can, in certain times and places, be exhausted, or at least subdued, if social and material circumstances cease to be propitious for them. I cannot help but wonder, then, what remains behind when Christianity’s power over culture recedes?

Watch here:

Stinking, rotten, evil

Fr. Tom Hopko. Taken from pravmir.ru

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:

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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 conspiracyofjoy.com

Healing put to the test, Part II

Taken from meetville.com

As a follow up to yesterday’s introduction to Mario Sacasa’s blog posts on various faith-based healing ministries, I wanted to share some (hopefully) relevant personal experiences with evaluating some of the claims associated with these healing ministries — claims to private revelation, mystical graces or out-of-the-ordinary charismatic experiences. There’s so much to say, so many issues at stake! But I will limit myself to whatever comes to mind as I sit here in the Denver airport waiting for a delayed plane. I will take my inspiration from a woman across from me who just said to her child after he knocked over a drink: “Wise up and learn from your mistakes!”

I broke my thoughts into 2 parts. I will post the other part tomorrow. They are really unorganized thoughts which I do not have time to tidy up, but hopefully they will offer some light.

A personal story

Beginning in 1987, I became involved with prayer groups that identified themselves with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. My early experiences were overall positive, mostly associated with humble parish-based prayer groups that would meet weekly for praise, worship, intercessory prayer and fellowship. Back then, I would have echoed St. John Paul II comment on the Renewal:

How many people have rediscovered their faith, a desire for prayer, the power and beauty of the Word of God, which is expressed in generous service for the mission of the Church! How many lives were deeply changed! For all of this I wish to praise and thank the Holy Spirit with you today.

But over ensuing years, I also have gotten involved with elements of the Renewal that are not so balanced, and some of them did me (and others I know) harm. In particular, those people who claimed to have gifts of prophetic knowledge and clairvoyant insight simultaneously asserted a certain divine authority to command unearned trust and wield unaccountable power. While there are certainly some saintly people out there who legitimately bear God’s power and authority for good, these people were not that. As a result of these troubling experiences, somewhere back around 1989, I received my first “wake up call” to the need for learning and practicing disciplined discernment in the face of such bold claims. By God’s grace, I had at the same time just begun gong to a first-rate spiritual director. 

After I shared with him what had happened, he asked me to immerse myself in St. John of the Cross’ two classic treatises on the spiritual life, The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night (which are really one book in four parts). He said to me, “John offers you a safe path, Tom. If you embrace him he’ll teach you the secure and simple way of faith, hope, charity and the royal way of the cross.” That was a defining moment for me. Over the next several years, he walked me through St. John and taught me how to apply it. 25 years later, John’s vision has come to dominate my approach to matters of faith and discernment. Indeed, my journey into John’s works eventually led me to write a PhD dissertation on the Ascent-Night. As I have said before, I  see my theological vocation to be translating John’s spiritual vision for all walks of life. But I have so far to go! My thinking continues to evolve daily under St. John’s tutelage, and I will, hopefully, remain under his sway the rest of my life.

Testing

As a direct response to my bad experience, the first thing my director gave me to read was St. John’s letter to Nicholas Doria, who was at the time to superior of the Discalced Carmelite Friars. The letter draws on the doctrine John articulates in detail in the Ascent-Night regarding how one should discern the origin and meaning of extraordinary spiritual experiences, i.e. visions, locutions, special “prophetic” knowledge and so on. The letter was written after John had, in response to a request from Doria, completed an investigation of a Discalced Carmelite nun claiming to be the recipient of extraordinary spiritual experiences.

For John, the bottom line is that extraordinary experiences in the spiritual life are an inherently ambiguous affair, both in terms of origin (where they come from) and reception (what they mean, what one is to do with them). As Denys Turner memorably words it, for John most mystical phenomena are at best “experiential feedback” from the encounter of the soul with God, and are not God himself. They are like “distant echoes of the Word” that require decoding, and are not worth much fuss. John argues that even when these experiences are genuinely “of God,” answers to how one is to understand them, why they are given, or what one is to do with them once they happen are simply not self-evident. Mystical phenomena are easily distorted, misunderstood, misapplied or misused by credulous recipients who lack proper discretion and judgment; or by those who are still too fragile and immature to resist placing them in the service of their un-redeemed and needy ego. For example, he says in the Night 2.3.2:

This is the stage in which the devil induces many into believing vain visions and false prophecies. He strives to make them presume that God and the saints speak with them, and frequently they believe their fantasy. It is here that the devil customarily fills them with presumption and pride. Drawn by vanity and arrogance, they allow themselves to be seen in exterior acts of apparent holiness, such as raptures and other exhibitions. They become audacious with God and lose holy fear, which is the key to and guardian of all the virtues.

While it is of course true, John says, that God does grant extraordinary graces to his servants, it is also true that the same God commands us to put those gifts to the test — placing them in service to unseeing faith (cf. John 20:29) and subordinating them to the “still more excellent way” of love of neighbor (1 Cor. 12:31).

Diagnosis and Prescription

In the letter, John reviews his investigation and judges the nuns claim to gifts of a supernatural origin to be false. Among the signs of distortion, he highlighted four in his letter.

First, she had mucha golosina de apetito, “a very greedy appetite” for extraordinary experiences, and being attached to such experiences is, for John, an wise open door to deception. Second, she was overly confident in the truth of her interior experiences and was averse to submitting them to the judgment of others. “She has too much confidence,” he said “and too little caution about erring internally, which is not the sign of a good spirit. Everything she says about ‘she said to God and God said to her’ seems nonsense [parece disparate].” Third, she lacked discretion and was overly eager to speak and convince others of the goodness and truth of her extraordinary experiences. She was also eager for more such experiences which is, he says, a very dangerous thing. Finally, she was very resistant to John’s critical inquest into of her claims. Humility, he said, is infallibly the fruit of genuine spiritual experiences that have been rightly received. When the humble “receive great favors” they are always eager to submit to being tested by others, anxious to be exposed, by faith and sound reason, to the light of truth.

At the end of his letter, John recommended to Doria a “test” for this nun. She must not, he said, write about or publicize these experiences any longer or even speak about them with her confessor. Rather, pruébenla en el ejercicio de las virtudes a secas, mayormente en el desprecio, humildad y obediencia, “test her harshly in the exercise of the virtues, particularly in self-contempt, humility and obedience.” “And,” he added, “the tests must be good ones because there is no devil who will not suffer anything for the sake of his honor.” He says of the humility he hopes this test will produce in this nun,

Yet these humble souls, far from desiring to be anyone’s teacher, are ready to take a road different from the one they are following, if told to do so. For they do not believe they could ever be right themselves. They rejoice when others receive praise, and their only sorrow is that they do not serve God as these others do. They have an inclination to seek direction from one who will have less esteem for their spirit and deeds. Such is the characteristic of a pure and simple and true spirit, one very pleasing to God. Since the wise Spirit of God dwells within these humble souls, he moves them to keep these treasures hidden, and to manifest only their faults. God gives this grace to the humble, together with the other virtues, just as he denies it to the proud.

More tomorrow…