The theology of St John of the Cross is focused on the necessity of self-discipline, but it begins and ends in love.

The saint repeatedly reminds us of the need for persistent effort, never wavering or backsliding in the journey toward God. Yet the continued progress of the soul is a “happy chance,” not the product of any effort but coming wholly from outside the self, a growth we are unable ourselves to bring about. Souls undertaking this journey must submit themselves to daily, even hourly disciplines, obedient to the strict regime of a life ordered to governance of the appetites. And still: the poem “On a Dark Night” is about a soul on fire that has been “kindled in love.” It is about a thrilling escape “by the secret ladder, disguised.” This is not the dull path of obligation. It is an adventure, into a wild freedom.

The interplay of austerity and love, effort and helplessness, obedience and freedom, underlie the great saint’s invitation to enter on the spiritual journey.  These polarities are rooted in Catholic theology.

Some years ago, when I was leading candidates preparing for the sacrament of Confirmation, I would ask the teens why the whole world loved Mother Teresa. After all, I pointed out, the world wasn’t exactly in love with the Catholic Church, and Mother Teresa was as Catholic as they come. In the discussion, someone usually would point out that she helped the poor, and people admired that. True: but the United Nations helps the poor, and nobody seems to admire the UN.

As the minds of these 14- and 15-year-olds started coming to grips with this mystery, I would start talking about the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Imagine what it would be like, I asked, to meet someone who radiates love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. You would be drawn to such a person. You would feel profound respect, regardless of your own beliefs and values (unless these were quite depraved). That is why the whole world loved Mother Theresa.

She did not come to this level of holiness through a self-help program. Before she took on the ministry that made her famous, she served as a faithful nun for 20 years. Of course, she applied herself to the development of the virtues during that time. But what lifted her to a whole new level was not something she accomplished but something she consented to.

When she was directed by Jesus to serve the poor, she responded with fervor and sought the necessary permissions from her religious superiors. Permission was granted in due course. Perhaps only then did she feel the full impact of the trials that she would face: leaving her beloved community, going to a new city, facing the uncertainties and risks of a new calling in which she was almost alone. In a letter to the Mother General of her order, she wrote, “I have foreseen many of the hardships and the difficulties which that life will bring me—but I trust the good God blindly and I know He will not let me down, even though I may make a mistake.” When the day of departure for Calcutta was imminent, her emotions were more raw but her determination was unshaken. She wrote to her bishop: “On Tuesday evening I am leaving by the Punjab [train]—All is very dark—plenty of tears—but I go of my free choice with the blessing of obedience.—Please pray for me that I may have the courage to complete my sacrifice as He has given me the inspiration and grace to begin…. Please pray.—I have very little courage—but I trust Him blindly, in spite of all feelings.”

Her account is redolent with the ideas of St John of the Cross. She even leaves on her adventure at night. By any worldly or practical standard, what she did was crazy. But St John explains it quite simply, resorting to Scripture, as he so frequently does. “ ‘For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.’ 1 Cor. 3:19. Accordingly, to reach union with the wisdom of God, a person must advance by unknowing rather than by knowing.“  AMC I.4.5.

The person must decisively set aside attachments and silence the appetites, which give rise to the demands of the will for comfort and security. Renunciation is necessary for the soul to reach higher levels of union with God. This is not, as many heretics and pagans have believed, because created things are evil in themselves, or because pleasure is inherently sinful. It is because “all the wealth and glory of all creation, in comparison with the wealth which is God, is supreme poverty and misery.” AMC I.4.7 We must not set our hearts on any created things, simply because God is so much greater, and He wants us to be free. “All the sovereignty and freedom of the world compared to the freedom and sovereignty of the Spirit of God is utter slavery, anguish, and captivity…. Liberty cannot dwell in a heart that is subject to desires, for this is the heart of a slave;” I.4.6

These are high and demanding ideas. Because St John of the Cross writes in this mode, many people turn away, assuming he is too hard to follow. But the soul who approaches this great saint prayerfully, and also confidently, will find a friend as well as a master. We must allow ourselves to be vulnerable, even though that will mean his words might wound us at times. The prepared soul finds that they are the wounds of love, the hard but necessary strokes that wake us from our torpor. We can take it. We are meant for this, for union with the Beloved.


Further Reading:

Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk. Chapter 6, “To the ‘Dark Holes'”

Photo by Mike Lewinski on Unsplash

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