…the soul is not united with God in this life through understanding, or through enjoyment, or through imagination, or through any other sense; but only faith, hope, and charity (according to the intellect, memory, and will) can unite the soul with God in this life.
I am going to concentrate upon St John of the Cross’ “Ascent of Mount Carmel”, book two-chapter six, in defining the intention of my blog. The importance of a proper understanding of the Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity is paramount. The title was chosen for precise reasons.
Reflecting upon a half century of living; an adult life of struggling with alcoholism and recovery efforts, a dedication to the Church—including postulancy within a Franciscan order and exploration of the monastic life, intellectual pursuits as a writer and artist, and the career life of a blue collar worker, I have settled upon the wisdom of John of the Cross in regards to spiritual matters. I repose into the contemplative life as a layperson immersed within the secular world. John of the Cross’ thoughts and words bring peace, while also an uncomfortableness, a profound truth ringing through that allows me to focus upon cleansing, sensual cessation, while preparing for a deeper approach to God. It states convictions I held deeply within, yet was not able to express. A dissatisfaction with other approaches, not a negating, is definitely involved. I have always felt a stranger in a strange land, at ease with the distance, while not able to establish a design for peaceful or practical living.
While holding out against being judgmental, or being overly critical, I never felt comfortable with an overt intellectual approach to matters. Others seemed to place extreme importance upon being intelligent, while I always felt an instinctual repulsion toward the idea that being smart was the key to wisdom or holiness. St Joseph of Cupertino made my heart smile warmer than St Thomas Aquinas. In the secular world of film, Gelsomina from La Strada instantly won my affection, embracing the human condition more efficaciously than Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling. There is something penetratingly human about innocent ignorance.
Spiritually, maybe my ultimate goal, my end game, is different. Where I long for unification with God, others may be merely seeking to assume a position within society of religious reputation–religious pursuits based on self-elevation, or an esteemed standing in the world of recovery, or the identity of an accomplished artist. I want to go further. I want to dedicate my life to fulfilling the demands of purgatory here upon the earth. As I heard Mother Angelica extol: purgatory is truly no place to aim for.
Rejecting the idea of an egomaniac with an inferiority complex, while understanding its relevancy, I absolutely comprehended my path to ultimate goals would not be accomplished through intellectualism. In truth, being smart would inflict self-destruction, most likely a return to drinking. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart”.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-19)
I relate my indulgent waywardness into sin through alcohol abuse as a confused means of negating myself. I did not want to elevate myself. I wanted to crush myself. It was corrupt and perverse thought, yet self-destruction through drunkenness played into my thoughts of diminishing myself in order for something greater to emerge. Pleasurable entertainment was not a part of my drinking. It was serious and disturbed. The bottom I eventually drove myself down into was no gratifying end. It nearly killed me. A drastic change was necessary. My relationship with God, while loving, was not holy. You shall be holy to me; for I the LORD am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine. (Leviticus 20:26) While drinking, my relationship with God was insane.
…Faith causes darkness and a void of understanding in the intellect, hope begets an emptiness of possessions in the memory, and charity produces the nakedness and emptiness of affection and joy in all that is not God.
Faith, we know, affirms what cannot be understood by the intellect. St Paul refers to it in this way: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)….For though faith brings certitude to the intellect, it does not produce clarity, but only darkness.
The preceding revelation by John of the Cross was astounding to me. The idea that faith, providing a darkness to intellect, actually offers the proper path to God are words I held in my heart, yet never shaped in my mind. I felt this was the existential dilemma I struggled with throughout my life. I sought the profoundly experiential, opposed to the theoretical, while conducting efforts diametric to my core intuitions. It was not that answers did not exist, rather truth existed within the majesty of God. My efforts were futile with obedience to God’s commandments absent. Placing trust in God: Jesus, I trust in You, are words to intellectually live by, surrender and weakness the means to wisdom, and thus understanding able to produce proper thoughts and actions. Foolishly, to a desperate degree, I intellectually hammered away at life, manipulating knowledge and events in a perverse attempt to shape reality to my advantage. I was a man possessed by self-love.
Experienced and well socialized in the spiritual and creative life, I easily recognized such a downfall to the majority of people who dedicated their lives to faith, recovery, and artistic efforts. They cannot turn their intellectual life over to faith. Conceit holds them to the idea their religious, recovery, and artistic efforts have formed them into superior beings. The idea they are highly intelligent is a condition they are overpoweringly attached to. Similar to the downfall of Satan, pride rules supreme. They cannot dream of giving into the idea, in comparison to truth, they are vastly inferior. The truth they are ignorant is a violent affront. This is not to be judgmentally critical. Rather, it is to establish a foundation for going deeper. I am willing to sacrifice everything and anything in order to pursue intimacy with God.
Faith ruling intellect means I accept a lesser role in all matters. I am dedicated to remaining hidden and loyal within the Church. Subtly, I do not want to be perceived as a malcontent, or difficult person. I want to be seen as a simple, reliable, kind, and friendly person. Pliable and malleable, I want to always remain teachable, while not demanding or attracting attention. I think of friends who see themselves as big shots within the Church; having to lead prayers, or constantly commenting and knowing about anything and everything happening within the Church. Defensive, self-conscious, and overly-sensitive; taking their identity and reputation extremely serious, there has always been something about such devout individuals that made me recoil, afraid of sharing intimately with them. I knew I desired something deeper, definitely something more anonymous. I have absolutely no interest in being recognized as a Church authority. I recall reading of Carmelite sisters seeking spiritual guidance from Teresa of Avila. The doctor of the Church responded that she had sent them John of the Cross. He was right there amidst them, and the sisters did not recognize him for what he was able to offer. I credited John of the Cross for his humble nature, not assuming the role of teacher, able to contain who he was, able to not clamor for attention. I was positive there were others vainly attempting to fill the role of teacher. It made me wonder how many times God provided proper teachers and I was unable to recognize his offerings.
Hope, also, undoubtedly puts the memory in darkness and emptiness as regards all earthly and heavenly objects. Hope always pertains to the unpossessed object. If something were possessed there could no longer be hope for it. St Paul says: “Hope that is seen is not hope, for how does a man hope for what he sees—that is, what he possesses?” (Romans 8:24)….this virtue (hope) also occasions emptiness, since it is concerned with unpossessed things and not with possessed objects.
Many thoughts ruminate regarding hope negating experience and memory. As a recovering alcoholic, I turn to the ninth step promises: We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. Hope, a virtue graced at birth through God, will become ingrained as my guiding force. I will not allow fear, nor past failures or successes to dominate my disposition. Unpossessed good and holy things will be my optimistic intent. I will strive toward that which is holy in order to become holy. I also relate the matter to a friend I cherish dearly. A recovering authentic individual of astute practice and maturity, she is prone to make grand delusional judgmental statements she perceives as absolute truth about herself and others. Her words to me: You are addicted to your own anger. I overlook and accept so many things because anger is deadly to me as an addict. Everything is exactly as God wants and chooses it to be in my life at every precise moment. I have to be more accepting as I grow closer to the One Who is the Most Accepting. The words are wonderful, yet intimacy clearly demonstrates the obvious fact they are merely clever words being uttered. If embraced as a profound lived truth there would be absolutely no need to make such claims. Established virtue does not have to make pronouncements. It announces itself, or is content to remain hidden. The possessed is not what it is hoped for, nor strived for. Truth in regards to insight means more than ascribing grandiose ideals to myself. I want to be honest, rather than delusional. My faith must be vigilantly on guard against self-aggrandizing and self-righteous behavior to the subtlest degrees. My spirituality must not be a battering ram in personal relationships, a weapon for bludgeoning others into submission and inferiority. If my efforts produce an arrogance, an assumed superiority, rather than charity and empathy, they are to no avail. I have lost my way. The road grows narrower. The more I achieve, the more demands appear. As competency tunes to finer focus, progress must expose inferiority, opposed to superiority. Sacrifice, struggle, and prayer become the mainstay of my spiritual warfare, rather than reward and glory. There are no concluding victories, rather advancement in faith, hope, and charity. Warfare engaged, the gifts of the Holy Spirit become stronger in presence as the sacraments of the Church are utilized to fortify. Every step forward produces pride that can ultimately negate the progress made. My faith, hope, and charity can be undermined by the very process used to bolster. It is a fear I have regarding this blog. I must place my efforts before God, consecrated to the idea that everything must serve to draw me closer to God or they are useless to ultimate goals.
Charity, too, causes a void in the will regarding all things, since it obliges us to love God above everything. A man has to withdraw his affection from all in order to center it wholly upon God. Christ says through St Luke: “He who does not renounce all that he possesses with his will cannot be my disciple”. (Luke 14:33)
Again I go to the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, the third step: “We made a decision to turn our lives and our wills over to the care of God”. Repetitively, I use the Big Book term of self-will run riot. I have covered already extensively in the blog the essential necessity of aligning individual will with Divine Will. Proper Church authorities are quoted. If I am operating based upon self-will, I am cheating myself.
To finish this abstract defining of the importance of identifying the blog with the theological virtues, I would like to express the importance of my intent to go further, to pass through a convenient self-glorifying spiritual life. I hold whole heartily to the conviction that faith, hope, and charity were gifted by God for specific and profound reasons. They are the image and likeness of God existing within me. They must become my ultimate guiding forces. I will quote John of the Cross for expansion, moving past chapter six of Book two to chapter seven, in order to absolutely explode the idea of self-will producing beneficial spiritual fruit.
Obviously a man’s journey must not only exclude the hindrance of creatures, but also embody a dispossession and annihilation in the spiritual part of his nature.
Some are content with a certain degree of virtue, perseverance in prayer, and mortification, but never achieve the nakedness, poverty, selflessness, or spiritual purity that the Lord counsels….they feed and clothe their natural selves with spiritual feelings and consolations instead of divesting and denying themselves of these for God’s sake. They think a denial of self in worldly matters is sufficient without an annihilation and purification of spiritual possessions. It happens when some of the solid, perfect food (the annihilation of all sweetness in God- the pure spiritual cross and nakedness of Christ’s poverty of spirit) is offered them in dryness, distaste, and trial, they run from it as from death and wander about in search only of sweetness and delightful communications from God. Such an attitude is not the hallmark of self-denial and nakedness of spirit, but the indication of a “spiritual sweet tooth”.
A genuine spirit seeks the distasteful in God rather than the delectable, leans toward suffering than toward consolation, more toward going without everything for God rather than toward possessions.
The journey, then, does not consist in recreations, experiences and spiritual feelings, but in the living, sensory and spiritual, exterior and interior death of the cross.…because from my (John of the Cross—doctor of the Church) observations Christ is to a great extent unknown by those who consider themselves His friends. Because of their extreme self-love they go about seeking in Him their own consolations and satisfactions. But they do not seek, out of great love for Him, his bitter trials and deaths.
Finally, I think of the words of a wise spiritual director I am acquainted with who stressed the importance of understanding Christ was not having a good time carrying the cross to Golgotha, the place of the skull, nor being crucified. The spiritual life is difficult, filled with suffering, prayer, and sacrifice, rather than good feelings and pleasant emotional experiences. May God bless me with the intensity to observe myself in the final quotes from John of the Cross. These recriminations are not for others, rather warnings about the life I will choose if I function upon intellect, memory, and self-will. I am bound for the narrower path leading to unification with God. The contemplative life eliminates a carefree, fun-loving easy spirituality. I must bear my cross with rigorous honesty and intense effort in order to love God greater.