In our last several posts we have been examining the spiritual doctrine of St. John of the Cross for entering into what he calls "The Night of the Senses." This night is a hidden encounter with Jesus beyond our comfort levels. Living a life devoted to God beyond what is merely comfortable prepares us for this life changing experience of God. In fact, this kind of encounter with the Lord is vital if we are to spiritually mature and fully enjoy the friendship He has invited us to share with Him and one another.
To get to this spiritual place of prayer, the 16th Century Carmelite emphasizes, first of all, that it is mainly God's work. Our part is to cooperate in faith. We also saw that our activity, although secondary to what God is doing, is none-the-less very necessary. The Lord is counting on us to rise to the occasion. What is our part? To imitate Christ by a prayerful study of His life. When we take up this kind of study, St. John of the Cross proposes we begin discover in Christ a life completely given for the glory of God. In his theology of prayer, God blesses our feeble efforts to make the life revealed in Christ Jesus our own.
Now we get to a very difficult teaching - renunciation. Jesus admonishes his followers that unless we renounce ourselves and take up our Cross and follow Him, we cannot be his disciples. This means we must be willing to suffer the loss of all things for Christ Jesus. Why is renunciation so important in following the Lord? Love is not a wish - it is an action. We can only love at our own expense. Our hearts are filled with inordinate desires that weaken us, dissipating our strength on things that fail to satisfy. Our strength must be reserved for the love of God. This means some things that are otherwise good, but not for the glory of God, must be forsaken.
At this point, many throw up their hands in discouragement. It sounds as if God never wants us really to enjoy ourselves, to recreate, or to have any fun at all. How could anyone live such a humdrum life? Those who are discouraged by this, however, might be buying into a reductionistic view of what gives God glory. A life lived for the glory of God is anything but humdrum.
The glory of God is man fully alive, says St. Irenaeus. Those who take up the path of renunciation discover a great paradox. The more one renounces the drive to satiate oneself all the time, the more satisfying life becomes. If we act against our tendency towards the easiest, the most comfortable, the most gratifying, by doing the opposite out of love for Jesus - we soon discover beautiful dimensions to life we never knew existed. Things and the gratification they give, things like one's own reputation, take their proper place. It is not that they are never enjoyed. In fact, they can be more fully enjoyed when they are not what is driving us anymore. In this way, renunciation is a pathway to true human freedom.
The humdrum, banal life can not reach beyond the merely gratifying, the comfortable, the pleasurable. While many think freedom is about being unrestained in the pursuit of these things - this view of freedom is insipid. Such a life is not any freer the more freely it gives itself to things. Instead, it is imprisoned by what it desires - not because what it desires is bad, but because human desire needs to be healed. Stuck in what seems to satisfy, such a life is very unsatisfying. The human heart is made for more. It needs a greater freedom to thrive.
In a life lived for the glory of God - whether something is gratifying, comfortable or pleasurable is totally secondary. Such is the freedom of the children of God. The things of life, the things God meant to be gifts from Him to show us his love, no longer master us. We can enjoy them for what they really are. Such a life discovers that deeper satisfaction which God alone provides. Such a life is free to go to even greater kinds of freedom, free to really love, free to completely thrive.
What a paradox St. John of the Cross proposes! This childlike freedom opens our heart for the hidden encounter with God which makes us spiritually mature. Christian prayer is ordered to this new freedom -- and the freer we become the more profoundly we encounter the Lord.