April 29, 2010

Living by Faith Alone

St. John of the Cross provides excellent counsel for how to begin to live by faith alone.   In his work, Ascent to Mt. Carmel, he uses his poem "Dark Night" as a description for the spiritual life.  In the first strophe, the poem describes a romantic adventure that begins in the stillness of a dark night.  When silence befalls his household, a lover sneaks out to find his beloved.  The stillness and darkness that cloak him are all sheer gift because in this he is completely hidden, unable to be distracted from his passion.  

One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings
-- ah, sheer grace! --
I went out unseen,
my house being all still.

The Mystical Doctor interprets this stophe to mean that the soul sings the grace it had in departing from its "inordinate sensory appetites and imperfections." This gets to  big obstacle in the life of prayer specifically and the discipline of the Christian life in general.   There are so many distractions in our hearts and in our lives that we often forget about what is truly essential.  This is because rather than surrendering to the gentle movement of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we live driven by irrational cultural and psychological forces.  The desires of our heart are selfish and out of order, not directed to that which will make us thrive.  John of the Cross calls these often subconscious psychological forces "inordinate sensory appetites and imperfections."  The truth is our spiritual life is often choked out by a myriad of anxieties and concerns - most of which are rooted in the silliness of our own immaturity.   Those who want to break passed this are hungry for practical counsel on how to move forward.  John of the Cross provided this in Book 1, chapter 13 of the Ascent of Mt. Carmel. 

But before we go to this counsel, there is one more element that is key to understanding what he is trying to say.   Namely, the soul that does enter into the stillness of the night, that no longer lives by inordinate passions, but instead lives by faith alone -- this soul sings!   It rejoices with jubiliation and cannot contain itself.  I emphasize this because most people think the dark night is about being somber and depressed.  But quite the opposite is true.  Those who live by faith are on a journey to ever more profound kinds of joy -- and their joy is contagious.   It is not the glee of a simply psychological state -- although it might feel this way at first.  It is the deeper joy of realizing the deepest desires of one's heart, of becoming profoundly authentic, of thriving in the fullness of one's natural capacities - now expanded in a supernatural way.

So what is the first step to find this joy?  What is the quickest, surest way?  John of the Cross says the desire to imitate Christ must become a habit of soul that takes up and consumes one's whole life.   The way to foster such a desire is to prayerfully study the life of Christ in order to know how to imitate him and behave in all events as he would.  His life is dynamic.  That means that the more we attend to it, the more it evokes a response from us.  The only proper response to the life of Christ is love - and friendship love desires above all else to imitate the beloved until the lover and beloved are of one heart.

From this we can better understand the Mystical Doctor's second counsel (one which most misunderstand or otherwise freak out over): to be successful in this imitation, renounce and remain empty of any satisfaction which is not purely for the honor and glory of God.  Do this out of love for Jesus Christ.  In his life he had no other gratification, nor desired any other, than the fulfillment of his Father's will. 

Most people today want to read this counsel within the context of Buddha's four noble truths where the elimination of suffering is caused by the elimination of desire.   I am no expert on Buddhism, so I cannot speak accurately on whether westerners really understand that teacher.   But I do know that the popular understanding of this doctrine in the West provides a huge misconception and misapplication of St. John of the Cross's Carmelite doctrine.   John of the Cross really is not interested in eliminating suffering or desire.  He is interested in making room in the heart for Divine Desire - and in the work of salvation, God's yearning takes up not only every human suffering but every joy and endows these with meaning beyond what this world can contain.   This is the life of Christ poured out for us on the Cross.  To realize it, the Carmelite Mystic is telling us that we must choose to live His life and not our own.  

Those who really think about this claim find it astounding.  They ponder whether it could possibly be true.  And those who embrace its truth soon find that they too sing.  They discover an ineffable and suprising joy which must break forth in total jubilation.

(Translation of St. John of the Cross from The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kavanaugh and Rodriguez, (Washington. D.C.: ICS, 1991)).