Anyway, back to John of the Cross. I'm so grateful to him. His writing just sets me back on track when I need it. For a long time I couldn't read him. When I was first a Catholic I tried to read all kinds of spiritual books. I thought I wanted to read John of the Cross because he was supposed to be deep. But a lot of that was a vainglorious lust to obtain 'forms of prayer' that I imagined to be more 'advanced' or something. And so, in his mercy, the Holy Spirit prevented me from reading the mystical doctor. I would try, but I just couldn't. Then one day, I could. I guess I was ready or at the right moment. It was in Marathon, Wisconsin. It was towards the end of novitiate, and we were on retreat in preparation for our temporary religious profession. I had found an edition of The Ascent of Mount Carmel, I think in one of those sturdy old Doubleday Image paperbacks. What a blessed resource those must have been at a certain moment in English-speaking Catholic experience! I picked it up and read it, slowly, deliberately, and with great interest. All of a sudden I could read John's doctrine, and see myself and my own struggles in what he described.
Perhaps what I find most helpful in St. John, what is most useful for me to recall for myself over and over, is what you might call his 'fundamental theology' of prayer and the spiritual life. There's this abiding sense in his writings that prayer and the spiritual life are basically about something God is up to with the individual soul. It is God who wills to put us into some trial or other so that our faith and trust might become more simple and pure, that our wills might let go and become more identified with his. Based on this, the daily, unglamorous work of prayer arrives in three parts.
First and most fundamentally, consent. It is God who wills, who desires to draw us to himself and who--towards this end--wills to place us in trials for our purgation. And so our work, if it can even be called such, for it is more an undoing than a doing, becomes a letting go and a consenting.
Second, the spiritual life is a work of discernment in the sense of seeking an understanding. John says over and over that one of our basic hindrances is that we don't understand ourselves or the action of God in us. And perhaps worse, as he also says many times, those who are supposed to be guides and directors on the spiritual path often enough don't understand these things either. Diagnosis of our spiritual condition, a good sense of its graces and opportunities, sicknesses and temptations, is not an easy or automatic thing, either in our examination of our own conscience or in the interpretation of a director. This can be a terrifying caution and a source of awful doubt and confusion, but it is also itself a school of abandonment to Providence.
Third, the spiritual life becomes a life of clearing things away. Since it is God's work in us, our job is only to clear away those things that hinder his will in us, that slow us down in letting ourselves be drawn into our identification with him. John expresses this most simply in his advice on how to enter into the first of his 'nights', the active night of sense in The Ascent of Mount Carmel, 1, 13, 4:
Cualquier gusto que se le ofreciere a los sentidos, como no sea puramente para honra y gloria de Dios, renúncielo y quédese vacío de él por amor de Jesucristo.
"Renounce and remain empty of any sensory satisfaction that is not purely for the honor and glory of God. Do this out of love for Jesus Christ" (trans. ICS)
Only the empty soul is ready to be filled by God, only the naked heart free enough to run to him.
Il semble que la perfection soit atteinte non quand il n'y a plus rien à ajouter, mais quand il n'y a plus rien à retrancher. (Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Terre des Hommes)
"Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away." (trans. Lewis Galantière)