John of the Cross and the Dark Night

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. John of the Cross, one of the most acclaimed of the Christian mystical theologians.  One commentator observed that “John has no peers when it comes to explaining and guiding others to a complete and total union with God in prayer through the mystical and contemplative life.”

One of John’s most persistent prayers was that God would enable him “to suffer and be despised,” a prayer his opponents in the Carmelite order helped answer. He was repeatedly kidnapped, imprisoned and even tortured. At one point, he was imprisoned for six months deep in the bowels of a Carmelite monastery. It was so cold he developed frostbite and he was given so little food that, in the words of one author, “anyone less accustomed to fasting might have given up in despair.”  At another time, he was imprisoned for nine months for refusing to renounce the Carmelite reforms he and Teresa of Avila were promoting.

John’s theology was in the category of apophatic or negative theology.  He believed that before we approach God, we must first own up to the fact that all our ideas and concepts about God may be completely erroneous and may actually hinder us from reaching him as he is. He insisted that only by going through a “dark night” process that could take “some years” would we be stripped of our false assumptions and natural predispositions, enabling us to encounter God in spirit and truth. John spoke of the need “to strip ourselves of everything that is not God, for God.” The idea is to stand before God “detached, stripped, pure and simple, with no way or manner of being.” This allows God to fill all that empty space with His love.

Although John is not always the easiest to read, he wrote some wonderful poetry, in addition to his longer works like Dark Night of the Soul and Ascent of Mount Carmel.  It might make some good reading during these last days of Advent.

Called To Labor With God

The Book of Isaiah opens with a scathing indictment of the arrogance and hypocrisy of the people of Israel, calling them a “sinful nation, people laden with wickedness, evil race, corrupt children!”  But almost immediately, God invites his people, “Come now, let us set things right…Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow.” 

Over and over again, Isaiah conveys to God’s people both the indictment of their behavior and the promise of a better age to come.  Today’s first Mass reading from Isaiah provides a beautiful description of that promise: The eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf cleared…the mute will sing…streams will burst forth from the desert…the thirsty ground will become springs of water, and so on.  In the midst of destruction and death, there is the promise of life. 

It is important that we not read Isaiah purely as an ancient historical narrative.  Our society is not very different from the society that Isaiah witnessed.  Our world has in many ways turned its back on God, replacing God with the idols of rampant individualism and money.  It is a world that rewards promotion of the self to the exclusion of others; that encourages individual pursuits vs. communal goals.  There are, of course people who remain faithful to God, just as there were during the moral breakdown of Israel.  But our world as a whole worships much that is not good, much that is not God.   A world of war and terrorism.  A world where countries execute their own citizens, where parents mistreat children.  A world to which we can hear God say, as he did to Israel: Ah, sinful nation…evil race…corrupt children.

Just as Isaiah’s words were a comfort to the people, it should be comforting for us to be reassured that God is relentless in the desire to be reconciled with us.  One preacher summarizes Isaiah’s Advent message like this: “No matter how much the world shatters into pieces, we carry in ourselves a vision of wholeness that we all sense is our true home and that welcomes us.”

And just as Isaiah called the people to prepare the way of the Lord, we are called to do the same – not only in Advent, but in each day of our lives.  The beautiful vision of the kingdom in today’s reading requires our active participation.  We can’t sit around complacently and wait for the vision to become reality.   Rather, we are called to labor with God to make it so.  God continues to work through us to prepare for Christ’s reign. 

[Note: This is the reflection I wrote for today for the University of St. Thomas Office for Spirituality Advent Daily Reflections]

The Great Divorce

Somehow, I managed to make it through this many years of my life without reading The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis.  The book was the subject of a recent book discussion in my parish.  While I could not attend the discussion because I was off directing a retreat, I decided to read the book anyway.  

The “divorce” in the title refers to a divorce between heaven and hell, which Lewis saw as real places.  Based on the medieval idea of the refrigerium, the idea of a refreshment or vacation from hell, the book opens with people from hell getting a free bus ride to heaven, and the ability whether to stay there or return to hell. 

Through the eyes of the narrator, we meet various of the souls from hell, as well as the spirits of heaven who come to meet them to help them to stay.  Alas, many choose to get back on the bus to return to hell. When the narrator asks the spirit who is his Teacher how they can choose to go back, he it told:

The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”  There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery.  There is always something they prefer to joy – that is, to reality.  Ye see it easily enough in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its super than say it was sorry and be friends.  Ye call it the Sulks.  But in adult life it has a hundred fine names – Achilles’ wrath and Coriolinus’ grandeur.  Revenge and Injured Merit and Self-Respect and Tragic Greatness and Proper Pride.

Surrendering to love, to real life, requires a letting go.  And many are unable to do that.  Even more tragic, the thing they hold onto, ceases to bring pleasure, yet it continues to be grasped anyway.  (Which prompts the question in each of us: What are we holding onto that inhibits opening ourselves fully to joy, to love.)

That one episode does not sufficiently convey the book, but my hope is that you consider reading it yourself.

Francis Xavier and Confidence in God

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the meorial of St. Francis Xavier, one of the early companions of St. Igatius.

In 1539, the King of Portugal requested that Ignatius send two missionaries to the Portuguese colony of Goa.  One of the two named fell ill and there was no one to take his place except Francis.  At the time, Francis himself was recuperating from having overworked himself in Venice; he is described as having been at the time “so pale and wasted that he seemed no longer to be a living man but a walking corpse.” 

Yet when Ignatius broke the news to him that he must go to India, Francis didn’t say, “Aw c’mon, why me.”  He didn’t say “it wasn’t exactly my plan to be a missionary in India.”  He didn’t say, “Look, I’m beat and I just can’t handle a tough posting right now.  Can’t I get one of those cushy spots in the wine country of France or Spain?”

Rather, he responded, reportedly with these words: “Good enough! I am ready!”  The next day he left Rome, never again to return.  And when I say left Rome for Goa, remember, not only that the trip would have been long and arduous, but there was no texting or Zooming with friends and family, no phone calls – he was saying good-bye, knowing he would have no possibility of contact or comfort from those he knew and loved save for letters that could take weeks or, more likely, months to arrive.

Francis had unlimited confidence in God, a confidence that allowed him to face obstacles and reversals.  He had a level of trust that allowed him to travel wherever he was sent with a sense of joy and enthusiasm.  One of his companions said that he never met anyone more filled with faith and hope than Francis Xavier.

He once wrote in a letter to the Jesuits in Europe,

I have decided to go to the Moro Islands to assist the Christians in spiritual matters, exposing myself to every danger of death, placing all my confidence and hope in God our Lord, desiring to conform myself, in keeping with my slight and feeble strength, to the saying of Christ our Redeemer and Lord that ‘whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.’

Do we have the level of confidence and trust in God that Francis did?

A Cooperative, not a Competitive Endeavor

Our family plays a lot of board games.  Some of those are competitive, such that there is only one winner, and others are cooperative, such that either everyone playing wins or everyone loses.  We played some of both kinds over the Thanksgiving weekend, and enjoyed them all.

We live in a world that operates like a competitive game.  It prizes a lot of things that have to do with the self: self-reliance, self- confidence, self-expression, self-centeredness.  We talk about my achievements, my talents, the things I have earned.  The concern, if you will, is whether I (or I and my family) win.

Imagine how different our world would be if everyone operated from the understanding that our human existence is akin to a cooperative, rather than a competitive, game.  One where none of us “make it” unless all of us do.  One where the suffering and loss of some means the ultimate loss of all.

I recognize this expresses in different words an idea the Christian tradition has always advanced (but maybe the different phrasing is a help to some). For example, I recently read this from a homily of St. Gregory the Great, a sixth century Pope and Doctor of the Western Church:

Good will means to experience fear for the adversities of another as if they were our own, to give thanks for a neighbor’s prosperity as for our own advancement, to believe another’s loss is our own, to count another’s gain our own.

The rub, of course, is how do we convince people that no one “wins” unless everyone does? That we are , at our core, intimately connected to each other and to our God, that we truly are all in this together.