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.


  1. Do you think that even self-denial is a response to God's Love / a means (even though necessary)rather than an end?

  2. Self-denial is, of course, difficult! But then if it was easy, it would not be a sacrifice. I am poor at it myself even though I wholeheartedly see the beauty and necessity of it. But we have wonderful St. Therese who shows us how to do little things--so I only have cream in my coffee on Sundays or holy days for one small example. Little things done with love and offering will slowly build our desire for and capability to make larger sacrifices.

    And we are in dire need of this strength as the prince of this world is so busy capturing souls. We must be ones to pray, sacrifice, and stand in the gap. Our Lady at Fatima showed the little children the vision of hell and told them that this is where poor souls go who have no one to pray and sacrifice for them. Let us not have Our Lady say we did not follow this directive!

  3. Thank you for this, Doc. Beautiful words, beautiful considerations. When do a "self-examen" I see my experience usually absent of self-denial. I give in to my unholy appetites too often. Thank God for the Sacrament of Reconciliation! Heheh.

  4. "annihilation in all things" ... sounds a lot like Buddhism!

  5. Dear Fact,
    I appreciate your concern, especially because we live in a time where many are forsaking the way of life passed on to us by the Church and embracing other practices and belief systems. Your observation, however, does not stand - the death to self demanded by Christ and the renunciation demanded by Buddhism's eightfold path are not same. Just because things sound similar does not mean they are so. Buddhism does not teach conformity to Christ crucified and it does not share our doctrine of the new life that comes from faith in the Lord.

    Furthermore, St. John of the Cross does not hold that the soul is an illusion or that the desire of the soul in itself is the cause of suffering (as proposed in the four noble truths of the Buddha)and his counsels are not oriented toward the elimination of desire or the annihilation of the subject as a means for enlightenment. Indeed, he believes that the human heart is meant to be filled with divine desires -- deep affections produced by the Holy Spirit. He also believes that only by persevering in faith in Christ can the soul be saved.

    In his doctrine, rather than eliminate all desire he teaches us how to make room for the desires of God in our heart - that these divine desires are transformative, allowing the heart to realize its true destiny, to discover its true identity. The method he advances is that our desires for things that do not give glory to God must be put to death. It gives God glory for us to desire things only insofar as they help us love Him more deeply and follow His will more devoutly. In this sense, the Carmelite teaches that desires must be annihilated as to anything that is not God's will. When the heart entertains desires opposed to the will of God - it is too crowded for God and there is not enough space in the substance of our soul for God. A good Buddhist might appreciate this to an extent, but he would rather follow the eightfold path than the way of Christ crucified.

    Put another way, for St. John of the Cross, living by our love for Christ means we must love Him with integrity of heart. A man whose heart is divided is not able to love anything at all - love always demands a choice, a decision, a sacrifice, and in this sense a death to self - or it is not love. Living faith in Christ is a life animated by the same sacrificial love for Him that He has offered to us - a love unto death, a love that is stronger than death. This new life is what Christ has opened for us on the Cross - so that if we die to ourselves, we live no longer our own life but the life of Christ in us. St. John of the Cross orients the Church to this new life in his teachings.

  6. "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." It is so easy to talk about this and agree with the importance of self-denial, but the real work of living it out is a daily, moment by moment battle. You have explained well how this self-denial actually sets us free to love more, makes more room for God's grace to work in us. And I appreciate also the above contrast with the Buddhist beliefs, as it seems to come up in coversations occasionally with those who are seeking but not quite able to embrace Christianity for whatever reasons. So, the goal of Christian self-denial is to foster our relationship with the person of Christ and become more of who He created us to be, rather than merely to acheive a certain state of mind? Thank you for the great clarifications above.

  7. Beautiful and inspiring, thanks and God bless