Posted March 1, 2005
St. John of the Cross
Suffering and Prayer - Their Vital Roles
A Guide for Good Lenten Practices
The important value of suffering is stressed in his spiritual direction, that is, the wilful embrace of whatever misfortune may befall us, accepting it from God's hands as a purifier of the soul. He did not believe in suffering for sufferings sake in a stoical fashion. In fact, throughout his life whenever he saw the sufferings of others, he made quick efforts to either alleviate them or to relieve them. He did not believe in harsh or severe penances, self-inflicted ones which he considered could degenerate into a penance of beasts. He stressed the constant reception of the Holy Eucharist as a source of strength accompanied by regular Confession as required. He emphasized again and again the power of persevering prayer. Considerable attention in his spiritual direction was given to the principles or modes of prayer, and the vital importance of prudently, cautiously choosing devout and learned spiritual directors. He was especially firmly critical of spiritual directors who undertook to give spiritual advice to persons, but who lacked the necessary abilities and competence to do so.
He emphasized the important distinctions between the prayer of meditation, the prayer of meditation-contemplation, and pure contemplative prayer. He was firmly critical of spiritual directors who, lacking the necessary competence, misguided many souls in their progress through these various stages of prayer. He described very simply and clearly how the soul in its prayer life will engage in meditative prayer and then alternate between meditative and contemplative prayer; and then finally, by the grace and love of God, enter into the stage of purely contemplative prayer. During these alternations in prayer, if the soul does not have good spiritual guidance, or can not guide itself personally, it will not be able to recognize these various stages of prayer. He describes how the soul will know that it is in the stage of pure contemplative prayer, thusly: Three conditions must exist simultaneously: 1) The soul no longer can pray with thoughts of forms, visions, figures or images; 2) The imagination which always wanders often uncontrollably during prayer, although it still continues to wander somewhat, becomes subject to a more firm control by the will. It is, so to speak, reined in and does not wander so freely; and 3) The prayerful soul in pure contemplative prayer seeks as complete a solitude as it can while praying. Until this stage of pure contemplative prayer is reached, the soul will at times meditate or meditate-contemplate, or move back and forth in these stages until it reaches the final stage of pure contemplative prayer. He points out that under the guidance of incompetent or unqualified spiritual directors, the prayerful soul will frequently be kept in the meditative or meditative-contemplative state of prayer too long, when it should already have arrived at the stage of pure contemplative prayer. He illustrates this by using the analogy of an orange, stating that such souls have already completed the process of peeling the rind or skin from the orange, and are now ready to bite into and taste the succulent fruit itself in pure contemplative prayer. However, they unfortunately will come under the guidance of an unqualified spiritual director who will ask them to peel away again the skin of the orange which has already been peeled away. He thereby keeps them from tasting the sweetness of the fruit in pure contemplative prayer. In other words, such spiritual directors delay or frustrate their tasting of the sweet fruit of the prayer of pure contemplation, which they are already well prepared to do, and thereby they confuse such poor souls in their prayer life, and they regress instead of progressing in their spiritual developments.
Prayer and the Use of Sacred Objects
St. John of the Cross points out that sacred objects (sacramentals such as statues, religious articles, spiritual relics, crucifixes, rosaries, holy water), and so forth, can play an important role in the spiritual life. However, some people in their prayer life become so attached to these sacred objects that they begin to lose the spiritual benefits they bring. He explains it thus. In the early stages of the spiritual life - he identifies the stages as beginners, advanced, and proficients - God does lead people to him through such sacred objects. However, as they advance in their prayer life from meditative prayer to meditative-contemplative, and finally into pure contemplative prayer, he emphasizes very strongly that they, upon seeing any of these sacred objects, should immediately raise their hearts (souls) to the hidden, incomprehensible God in Heaven Who resides within our own very souls. For He is closer to us than we are to ourselves, but still remains always a hidden God for Whom we should continually search for in our soul. A God Whom we must constantly search out through our prayer life, and through the carrying of our crosses in imitation of Jesus Christ our Saviour. He points out very clearly that when persons sincerely strive for spiritual development and a greater love for God, for holiness, they should avoid the habits of preferring this crucifix to that one because of the quality of wood or metal; or to accumulate rosaries of various types, preferring one to the other because of its colour, metal, size, form and so forth. They begin to accumulate all kinds of statues one after another. In contrast St.John of the Cross affirms that one of the most devout persons he knew had made for himself a rosary of fish bones. Another carried all of his life a simple crucifix made of a palm fastened with a pin.
In following these practices of a habitual attachment to sacred objects considered by them to be more valuable they cease to derive as much spiritual benefit from these sacred objects, than if they had fewer of them. He recommends that they should instead discipline themselves to prayerfully raise their hearts from these sacred objects to the hidden, incomprehensible God. For he cautions, that as such persons excessively attach themselves to sacred objects they are in actuality detaching themselves from a more true, pure love of the hidden God in their hearts and in heaven. He emphasizes, however, lest there be a misinterpretation of what he is advising, that sacred objects are always an aid to raising one's heart closer to God; providing that at a certain stage in one's prayer life, upon seeing these sacred objects, they immediately make a very determined effort to raise their hearts to the ineffable, incomprehensible God.
Enemies of the Soul - World, Flesh, and Devil
St. John of the Cross discusses at great length the many obstacles or pitfalls confronting persons striving for a greater, deeper devotion to God. Thus, he identifies the three great enemies of the soul as being the world, the flesh, and the devil. He considers the world the most easily of the enemies to overcome through the practice of the supernatural or Godly virtue of hope. He considers the devil to be the most difficult to conquer, because he is the most difficult of these three enemies to understand. He stresses that the greatest enemy of Satan or the Devil is a pure, strong faith, pointing out that the devil has a terrible fear of a soul truly in love with God. The flesh, he considers to be the most tenacious of the enemies to overcome, emphasizing that it is overcome by the greatest virtue of them all: the Godly or supernatural virtue of love. Within these three principal categories of enemies of the soul he discusses a very large variety of specific other enemies, for example, unqualified or incompetent spiritual directors as mentioned earlier. Such directors he emphasizes can do a person's soul considerable harm, warning that we must always be very prudent in our selection of spiritual directors. Later in this presentation I will elaborate more on these enemies of the soul when I describe the "Dark Night of the Soul" (the twilight, midnight, and dawn phases referred to above).