Memorial of St. John of the Cross

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of 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.  

In The Ascent of Mount Carmel (one of two works that began as a series of poems written while he as in prison), John of the Cross warns against the dangers of dwelling on supernatural apprehensions that may arise in prayer. It is an important warning, because many fall into the trap of thinking the supernatural stuff is the point. But his warning is even more generally applicable in regard to the dangers of self-esteem and vanity that may arise in those following a spiritual path.  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.

During this Advent season, as we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ, you might spend some time reflecting on John’s words and asking yourself:

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? 

John of the Cross was one of the mystics we prayed with during the 2008, Retreat in Daily Living at UST Law School on the theme, Praying with the Mystics that I offered at UST Law School. Here is a recording of the reflection I gave to the participants that day.