August 2, 2012

Self-Denial - Surest Pathway

Contrary to those who insist that spiritual maturity is about mastering a technique or the successful completion of some elaborate program, St. John of the Cross sees the road to union with God as an easy and simple journey if we embrace radical self-denial:

The road leading to God does not entail a multiplicity of considerations, methods, manners, and experiences -- though this may be a requirement for beginners -- but demands only the one thing necessary: true self-denial, exterior and interior, through the surrender of both to the passion of Christ and by annihilation in all things. Ascent to Mount Carmel, book 2, chapter 7, Complete Works, translators Otilio Rodriguez and Kieran Kavanaugh, (Washington, D.C.: ICS, 1991)171. 

Self-denial is the practice of acting against the drive for comfort, security and satisfaction we seek in our relationships with people and in our relation to things.   As long as we worry about having influence over others or whether they esteem us, and as long as we only see anything else as a crutch with which to get through life, we are not vulnerable to the Lord and open to the wonders of His love at work in us and in the world.  This extends even to efforts to practice prayer merely as a program of mental hygiene.  The Lord did not die on the Cross so that we might find a little psychological relief from the stress of daily life. Thus, we turn our backs on these things, annihilate our disordered appetites, pick up our cross and follow in the steps of our Crucified Master.

Christ is our pattern.  We imitate Him out of devotion to Him.  He suffered the annihilation of all his earthly powers unto death out of love for the Father and for the sake of our salvation - because He loved us in the Father from all eternity.   Our love becomes eternal when we follow His example and allow His love for the Father to animate our lives and extend its hidden beauty into the world through us.

Some think these counsels regarding self-denial and annihilation mean that the spiritual life is suppose to be a joyless affair.   But really the more we renounce joys that are beneath our dignity, the more room we have for a deeper and more abiding joy.   There are some great joys that in fact give God glory when we share them.

If you have ever been captivated by the mountains in the early morning when they are suddenly crown in light or felt the reverberation of the surf crashing against the coastline --  you have probably felt drawn to silent adoration.   There is also a sweetness found in secretly bringing joy to others -- those who have gone before us in the faith probably smile when we share this foretaste of our heavenly homeland.   We enjoy these wonderful works of God because, comfortable and pleasurable though they are in themselves, they raise us up out of self-pre-occupation to our true purpose, and in doing so they help us behold the splendor of the One in whose image we are made.

Such joys are not opposed to self-denial.  Instead, they foster it.  Somehow these joys give us the courage we need to embrace the beatitude of holy sorrow and open us  to the surest pathway.