Friday, February 14, 2014

2) Private Revelations and St. John of the Cross: Faith in Darkness

Caravaggio, Incredulity of St. Thomas

Yesterday, I wrote an introductory post to this series, which should be read first.  Before I begin the heart of this post, I would like to point out that when reading the major books of St. John of the Cross, there is a sequence that is best as follows:

  • The Ascent of Mount Carmel
  • The Dark Night of the Soul
  • Living Flame of Love
  • Spiritual Canticle

All of those are found in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross and I am quoting from the Kindle version.  What is good about using this book is that some of the helpful minor works are included near the beginning.  The poetry is there to read, but that gets broken down by stanza throughout the respective books. 

Some may find it difficult to follow St. John of the Cross.  I often encourage people who are beginning to read the major Carmelite works to begin with St. Teresa's Way of Perfection, followed by the Interior Castle.  This is not true in every case, but if you find St. John hard to read, try starting with St. Teresa as I suggested.  In this case, I recommend, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila Vol.2

This post series is beginning in chapter 9 of Book Two (of three) within the Ascent of Mount Carmel.  So, readers won't have the full benefit of what came prior.  If anything, I hope these posts will inspire people to read the main Carmelite works. 

Faith in darkness?

Before we can really begin to talk about things like visions, we need to understand what St. John says about faith. So, briefly, we will begin by looking at Chapter 9 in Book Two of the Ascent:

1. We can gather from what has been said that to be prepared for this divine union the intellect must be cleansed and emptied of everything relating to sense, divested and liberated of everything clearly intelligible, inwardly pacified and silenced, and supported by faith alone, which is the only proximate and proportionate means to union with God. St. John of the Cross (1991-12-14). The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross (Kindle Locations 3298-3300). ICS Publications. Kindle Edition.

A caution about "self-emptying"

We must take care not to fall into error with regards to the word, "emptied." Addressing concerns that New Age and eastern mysticism was cross-contaminating Catholic, contemplative, prayer practices the Holy See released, Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life - A Reflection on the New Age. In it, we read in section 24:

All meditation techniques need to be purged of presumption and pretentiousness. Christian prayer is not an exercise in self-contemplation, stillness and self-emptying, but a dialogue of love, one which “implies an attitude of conversion, a flight from 'self' to the 'You' of God”. It leads to an increasingly complete surrender to God's will, whereby we are invited to a deep, genuine solidarity with our brothers and sisters.

Also, then Cardinal Ratzinger, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in 1989 pointed out the following in Orationis Formas (on some aspects of Christian meditation.) Emphasis is mine in bold.

19. Therefore, one has to interpret correctly the teaching of those masters who recommend "emptying" the spirit of all sensible representations and of every concept, while remaining lovingly attentive to God. In this way, the person praying creates an empty space which can then be filled by the richness of God. However, the emptiness which God requires is that of the renunciation of personal selfishness, not necessarily that of the renunciation of those created things which he has given us and among which he has placed us. There is no doubt that in prayer one should concentrate entirely on God and as far as possible exclude the things of this world which bind us to our selfishness. On this topic St. Augustine is an excellent teacher: if you want to find God, he says, abandon the exterior world and re-enter into yourself. However, he continues, do not remain in yourself, but go beyond yourself because you are not God: He is deeper and greater than you.

It sounds much like Pope Francis, who frequently tells us to build that relationship with Jesus, then  tells us to go out of ourselves. It is difficult to evangelize others without going through a stripping of that selfishness Cardinal Ratzinger speaks, of which we are largely unaware.  It takes the development of a relationship with Jesus Christ and growth in our prayer life in ways we do not necessarily understand.  That is why St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila wrote many of their books, to give us exposure to subtleties so easily overlooked and misunderstood.  In other words, we do not know what we do not know. It takes prayer and spiritual reading to learn, and God's grace will come through these things if we humbly ask for them.

You can read more about this cross-contamination of New Age practices and eastern mysticism with Catholic contemplative prayer in, "A Closer Look at Centering Prayer" by Margaret Feaster, originally published Homiletic and Pastoral Review, in 2004.

Back to St. John of the Cross on Faith

Looking at that first paragraph I quoted at the top, which might be good to re-read before continuing, St. John is talking about being cleansed, emptied, liberated, pacified and silenced. A little later in the same paragraph he says, "…just as God is darkness to our intellect, so faith dazzles and blinds us." He also points out, "The intellect must be blind and dark and abide in faith alone, because it is joined with God under this cloud."

If our belief is based on what we can touch or feel, then our faith is superficial.  Recall how St. Thomas the Apostle had to touch the wounds of Christ to believe it was Him. Jesus permitted him to touch those wounds and admonished him not to be faithless and, calling those who believe without seeing, blessed. (John 20: 24-29). Likewise, if we are unwilling to believe until we have knowledge and understanding, it is not faith because faith seeks understanding, not the other way around.  Pope Benedict, in his address on St. Anselm in the General Audience of September 23, 2009 quoted him thus:

"I do not endeavour, O Lord, to penetrate your sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, that unless I believed, I should not understand"

Faith is not something we can achieve through our own effort. It requires God's grace.  Our faith is a response to that grace.  And, we might not know that God is "pinging" us unless we are still. It's in this silence and stillness that God trains and prepares us for the passivity needed to ascend higher in our relationship with Him.

There are so many ways that we can pursue God for selfish reasons, yet be unaware.  If we only pray when we feel like it, or when it feels good (consolations), we are engaging in selfish behavior.  The most pure form of prayer is that which is given solely for God's sake. Sometimes, the prayer God loves the most is that which is given in pure dryness, when we feel nothing.  Contrast this with prayer that comes only with petitions.  It is like a child who only loves a mother or father for what they can give to him or her.  There are many such subtle things we must learn about to advance in the spiritual life.

God Communicates in Darkness in Sacred Scripture

St. John of the Cross gives us examples of God communicating in darkness in the Old Testament:

3. In Scripture we read figuratively of this that when Solomon had completed the temple, God descended in darkness and filled it so that the children of Israel were unable to see. Solomon then said: The Lord has promised to dwell in darkness [1 Kgs. 8:12]. God was also covered with darkness when he appeared to Moses on the mount [Ex. 24:16]. And as often as God communicated at length with someone, he appeared in darkness. This is evident in the Book of Job, where Scripture asserts that God spoke to Job from the dark air [Jb. 38:1; 40:1]. 
All of this darkness signifies the obscurity of faith with which the divinity is clothed while communicating itself to the soul … When faith reaches its end and is shattered by the ending and breaking of this mortal life, the glory and light of the divinity, the content of faith, will at once appear.
  St. John of the Cross (1991-12-14). The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross (Kindle Locations 3310-3315, and 3319-3320). ICS Publications. Kindle Edition. 

The Dark Night of the Soul

While, "Dark Night of the Soul" is the title of one of the books written by St. John of the Cross, it is also now a common expression in mystical theology.  Since we are talking about darkness, I thought it might be helpful to share with you Fr. Hardon's definition of it in his Modern Catholic Dictionary.

Dark Night of the Soul: General term in mystical theology to identify every form of purification through which God leads persons whom he is calling to a high degree of sanctity. It is called "night" to distinguish a person's normal spiritual condition of seeing, although dimly, by the light of faith; whereas in mystical purification a person is deprived of much of this light. There is a "groping in the night." It is called a "dark" night to emphasize the intensity of withdrawal of God's illuminating grace. The purpose of such purification is to cleanse the soul of every vestige of self-love and unite a person more and more closely with God. As the intellect is thus mortified, the will becomes more firmly attracted to God and more securely attached to his divine will. This purification, however, is only a means to an end, namely, 1. to give greater glory to God, who is thereby loved for himself and not for the benefits he confers; 2. to lead the one thus purified to infused contemplation and even ecstatic union with God; 3. to enable the mystic to be used more effectively by God for the spiritual welfare of others, since the more holy a person is the more meritorious are that person's prayers and sacrifices for the human race.

For interesting news items I don't have time to blog on, check out my Twitter Feed: @TeDeumBlog

Te Deum Laudamus! Home

The obedient are not held captive by Holy Mother Church;
it is the disobedient who are held captive by the world!

- Diane M. Korzeniewski

Note: The recommended links below are automatically generated by the tool, so they are not necessarily related content.