This week, the participants in my Praying with the Mystics retreat in daily living are praying with John of the Cross, one of the most acclaimed of the Christian mystical theologians and considered by some to be Spain’s greatest lyrical poet. (Two of John’s great works, Dark Night of the Soul and Ascent of Mount Carmel, began as a series of poems written while John was in prison.)
In The Ascent of Mount Carmel, John of the Cross warns against the dangers of dwelling on supernatural apprehensions that may arise in prayer. His words, however, are more generally applicable in regard to the dangers of self-esteem and vanity that may arise in those following a spiritual path. (The last line of the quoted passage fits particularly well with today’s Gospel.) He writes:
These supernatural apprehensions of the memory, if esteemed, are also for spiritual persons a decided occasion for slipping into some presumption of vanity. Since anyone not receiving these is liberated from falling into this vice, because nothing within him warrants this presumption, so, on the other hand, anyone receiving them will be exposed to the idea that he is now worth something on account of these supernatural communications. Though, indeed, a person, in considering himself unworthy, can attribute them to God and be thankful for them, yet there usually remains in the spirit a certain hidden satisfaction and an esteem both for the communication and for oneself. Consequently, without one’s realizing it, an abundant spiritual pride will be bred.
This is quite evident form the displeasure and aversion these individuals feel toward anyone who does not laud their spirit nor value their communications, and from the affliction they experience upon thinking or being told that others receive the same favors or even better ones. All this is born of hidden self-esteem and pride. And these persons are not fully aware that they are steeped in pride….[T]hey are full of hidden self-esteem and satisfaction, more pleased with their own spirit and spiritual goods than with those of their neighbor. They resemble the Pharisee who thanked God that he was not like other men, and that he had the various virtues, and who from the thought of these virtues derived self-satisfaction and presumption….Since they observe interiorly some apprehensions and devout and sweet feelings, which they think are of divine origin, they become self-satisfied to the extent of thinking that they are very close to God, and that others who are without them are very far from Him, and, like the Pharisee, they look down upon these others….
[A]ll the visions, revelations, and feelings from heaven, or whatever else one may desire to think upon, are not worth as much as the least act of humility. Humility has the effect of charity; it neither esteems nor seeks its own, it thinks no evil save of self, it thinks no good of self but of others.
I suggested that the participants in the retreat spend one of their days of prayer this week considering John’s words and asking themselves: Are there times when you feel your own spiritual progress makes you “better” than others? Do feelings of pride and self-esteem arise in respect of your spiritual practice? And, perhaps most importantly: How do you need God to be with you to combat those feelings? Useful questions for all of us to put to ourselves.
During our retreat meeting on Tuesday, I recorded my introductory talk on John of the Cross. You can download or listen to the podcast (which runs for 14:20) here.