MOVE TO EMPHASIZE LIFE IN THE SPIRIT

Statue of John of the Cross in Avila

Statue of John of the Cross in Avila

Shift to life in the Spirit.

When we dedicate ourselves to pursue union with God, we must shift the focus of our lives from a life of sense—a self-centered, self-directed life to a focus on the life of the Spirit—a God directed life. This journey to God, with its purification of sense and its purification and redirection of the intellect, memory, and will (in faith, hope, and love, respectively) is a preparation for union, and is at the same time a discovery of our true and authentic selves. Again, God is the primary actor; however, we achieve this through a double process of interiorization which implies a move away from pursuing objects as ends in themselves, and a process of union in which we become our real selves and not a self made up of the accumulation of false values. Persons are inauthentic who merely accumulate goods—material or spiritual—believing that the more they have the better they are. Rather, people discover their authentic selves when they completely empty themselves so that they can be filled with God, and thus realize their greatest potential. “Now all the goodness of creatures in the world compared with the infinite goodness of God can be called evil, since nothing is good, save God only (Luke 18:19). A man then who sets his heart on the good things of the world becomes extremely evil in the sight of God” (A.1. 4.4). We must abandon the life of sense and give ourselves to life in the Spirit.

So, the move from a life of sense—a self-directed life, to a life of spirit—a God directed life is not something that will happen spontaneously or because we want it, rather it requires of us the deliberate redirecting to God of all dimensions of our personality—external, social conventions, instinctual tendencies, and all appetites that affect the root of who we are. We must leave aside all that is not God. Please keep in mind that John of the Cross was not opposed to things in themselves, for they all come from our loving God. What he did oppose was possessiveness of heart, whereby a person makes things ends in themselves. We will only find our authentic self when we dedicate ourselves to life in the spirit and pursue this goal with courageous single-mindedness. “To love is to labor to divest and deprive oneself for God of all that is not God. When this is done the soul will be illumined by and transformed in God” (A.2. 5.7).

This shift to life in the spirit not only leads to deeper union with God, but we will uncover or rediscover our true selves at every level of life: sense, spirit, and religious. While the life of sense leads to slavery (C. 18.1), the life of spirit brings a sense of liberty and a heart that is free and open to the Lord (N.2. 14.3). If we focus on a life of sense we become prisoners to a sense-directed life. But interestingly enough, if we give yourselves to a life of the spirit we will actually gain a new sensitivity of sense, in which we can exercise the senses themselves with a new force under the guidance of the Spirit (A.2. 26.14; 15.4). Furthermore, the shift to a life of spirit enables us to discover our authentic self in depth, in that zone which is naturally divine. This discovery of God at the center of our being results from the work of purification. “As soon as natural things are driven out of the enamored soul, the divine are naturally and supernaturally infused” (A.2. 15.4). This shift to life in the Spirit will bring you peace and satisfaction in your spiritual journey (C. 17.8).

  1. Are you sense-directed still or spirit-God-directed?
  2. Is there something that is still an end in itself for you other than God?
  3. Do you think you have discovered your authentic self?

Dynamism of the spiritual life–John’s integrated vision

STAGES IN THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

When John of the Cross writes any of his works his system of spiritual development is already complete, at least in his own mind. He may write other works later, but these are explanations for others not for him. Everyone lives based on convictions that form a systematic way of approaching life—whether they realize it or not, whether they can articulate it or not. John has a very clear understanding of the systematic development of the spiritual life and how each part relates to others in a progressive development. Part of John’s genius is his ability to see the whole picture. Thus, he can refer to a dark night, a guiding night, and a night more lovely than the dawn. He can see suffering as an integral part of total transformation. He may start by saying “I went out unseen,” “I went out calling you,” and “tear through the veil,”—all first steps in the journey whose challenges, blessings, and end he already knows. So, when John writes to his directees he locates his advice within the context of the systematic development of the spiritual life (see L. 3 and 13, S. 19, 23, 25).

JOHN WRITES WITH AN AWARENESS OF ALL THE STAGES

There are other signs that John sees a specific purpose for each step in the whole development process; he appreciates the various stages in the spiritual life. He speaks of the benefits of the nights when he has already moved on to something better, and thus no longer feels the burden but the resulting joy. “One dark night, . . . ah, the sheer grace!” “This glad night and purgation causes many benefits, even though to the soul it seemingly deprives it of them” (N.1. 12.1). This ability to see the overall picture also gives rise to the sometimes contrasting reactions of John and his directees, real or literary. Beginners rejoice in their initial consolations, but John is saddened by their lowly state. Those in the passive night suffer, while John, knowing what is really happening, can rejoice. A further sign of the presence of a system in John’s works is his continual use of parenthetical remarks to clarify what is happening. Some asides refer to what lies ahead (A.2. 5.1), others to stages already passed (F. 1.18; C. Theme.1).

STAGES MODELED ON GOD’S JOURNEY TO US

While his major works refer to our return journey to God, John is also very clear about what precedes our journey to God, namely, God’s journey to us, brilliantly described in the “Romances.” Our journey to God is modeled on God’s journey to us. John is always aware of God’s strategy of love, both in coming to us and in drawing us to divine life. John is a wonderful guide; he knows the major steps in our journey even though they may not be entirely predictable, nor identical for all. But a prudent guide like John knows the key moments in our journey to God; he already knows possible pitfalls, challenges, moments of rest, and the ecstasy of the end.

VARIOUS INTERPREATIONS

Some disciples of John see his system as a modification of Pseudo-Denis the Areopagite’s division of the spiritual journey into three stages: beginners, proficient, and perfect, corresponding to the purgative, illuminative, and unitive phases of spiritual growth. John accepts these stages, but stresses the transitions from one to the other in the night of sense and the night of spirit.

Others feel John’s system starts with individuals who have already made a decisive commitment to God and hence he excludes the preliminaries of spiritual preparation and focuses on the means to the end of union with God. The means are the nights seen in three steps: 1. the active night of sense, 2. the active night of spirit and the passive night of sense taken together as two aspects of the same experience, and 3. the passive night of spirit.

CHALLENGES OF JOHN

A simple way of understanding John’s thought which is the secret of his own life and his system is to view life as a dynamic development in three fundamental phases: the relentless pursuit of God, the willingness to endure the nights, and the discovery of union with God which is also the total renewal of self. In this view, the spiritual journey implies emptying ourselves of all that is not God, so that we can be filled with what is truly of God. For John the focus is not on the negative aspects of the means but on the enthusiasm for the end in transformative love. In fact, the whole system is nothing except decisions of choice-oriented love, always choosing what is the most loving thing to do; a great example of the challenges of John of the Cross.

Dr. Leonard Doohan is an author and workshop presenter
He focuses on issues of spiritual leadership. He also has a special interest  in John of the Cross
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The Dynamism of the Spiritual Life

Church of John of the Cross with modern art of his major works

Possible stages in spiritual life development.

In his presentation of the dynamic development of the spiritual life John was originally considered a disciple of Pseudo-Dyonisius the Areopagite, who divided the spiritual life into three main stages: beginners, proficients, and perfect, corresponding to the purgative, illuminative, and unitive periods of life. Writers dependent on this insight generally considered the three stages to be important but rarely gave any importance to the transitions from one to the other.

John’s own experience together with extensive knowledge gained through spiritual direction gave him better insight into the stages than anyone prior to him. To the traditional three-fold division John highlights the two crucial transitions. John knew from his own experience of night that crises can be moments of grace and progress, and he called the two transitions the night of sense and the night of spirit. The former was the transition to contemplation, and the latter the decisive moment of life as the complete trusting abandonment to God. The three stages of prior understandings remain and the second becomes a plateau of rest between the nights.

Thus, the nights become so important that John describes the entire journey to God as a dark night. “The darkness and trials, spiritual and temporal, that fortunate souls ordinarily undergo on their way to the high state of perfection are so numerous and profound that human science cannot understand them adequately. Nor does experience of them equip one to explain them. Only those who suffer them will know what this experience is like, but they won’t be able to describe it” (A Prologue, 1). Dedicated people who have started the journey come to a point where they advance no more. The problem is clear to John; for one reason or another they do not abandon themselves to God’s guidance and enter the dark night. “[A] soul must ordinarily pass through two principal kinds of nights. . . . The first night or purgation . . . concerns the sensory part of the soul. The second night. . . concerns the spiritual part” (A.1. 1.1-2). The first night occurs when beginners transition to contemplation, the second night occurs when proficients move to union. The dark night is an experience of purification, but the motivation for entering it is love. There are three reasons for calling this journey a dark night. The point of departure is a commitment to the denial of one’s appetites and to a rejection of self-centeredness and gratification as motives in life which is a dark experience of privation for the senses. The means or way to union is faith which is a dark unknowing experience for the intellect. The point of arrival is God who is an incomprehensible mystery—a dark night to any individual in this life (see A.1. 2.1).

The two nights, of sense and of spirit, have two parts, one active and the other passive. The active is a time of ascetical preparation and a deliberate practice of the three theological virtues. The latter is the beginning of contemplation and the inflow of God’s transforming action by means of the three theological virtues. Some writers see the active night of sense to be first, followed by the passive night of sense which is the entry into contemplation. However, the active night of sense will continue through contemplation. In fact, the illumination of contemplation throws further light on more unconscious levels that need active purification. The active night of sense is the effort to remove faults and sins one can see, but there are lots of faults one cannot see without God’s illumination in contemplation. Some have periods of rest after which comes the active night of spirit, followed by the passive night of spirit.

Others see the active night of sense as first, followed by the active night of spirit along with the passive night of sense as two parts of the same experience. Then the passive night of spirit follows. However, the experiences of active night of spirit and passive night of  sense continue to surface and purify even during any respite or plateau periods.

Reflections: In our spiritual journey we enter the thick darkness where we encounter God (Ex 20:21) and God gradually turns our darkness into light (Is 42:16). The journey through the passive nights is entirely in the hands of God. “In the first place it should be known that if anyone is seeking God, the Beloved is seeking that person much more” (F. 3.28). The point of departure is not our efforts but a loving God who is drawing us through the darkness to the light (N.1. 1.1; N.2. 1.1).

This is a journey that consists in the pursuit of no thing, a new discipline that the soul imposes on itself or allows and undergoes in God. John speaks of the nothingness of all creation in comparison with God and of all created and spiritual things as means to union with God. It is not that he despises any of them but that he sees everything as nothing in relation to God (N.1. 4.4-7). This can be a disconcerting aspect of John’s teaching unless we constantly remember his goal of everything re-found in God; through poverty and nakedness in God we possess all (see “Prayer of a soul taken with love”).

Poverty and negation, or mortification of voluntary, habitual imperfections that move us away from God are means to liberate us from what is false in ourselves, in our world, and in our understanding of God (A.1. 11). This becomes a spiritual empowerment and gives us the freedom to choose the good, to eliminate all that is not of God, and to pursue eagerly only what is of God. Thus, we become dry and ready to be set on fire. “For to love is to labor to divest and deprive oneself for God of all that is not God” (A.2. 5.7).


Seeing life in these categories can be helpful but there is generally overlap. The passive night of sense can be from the beginning provided an individual is open to receive and understand the challenges. Then again, there is a way in which the active night of spirit is also connected to sense in that it is about gratification concerning spiritual things of intellect, memory, and will that spills over into the senses. Furthermore, the passive night of sense can be about unconscious sins, attitudes, and gratifications that are discovered through contemplation.

Dr. Leonard Doohan is an author and workshop presenter
He focuses on issues of spiritual leadership. He also has a special interest  in John of the Cross
Email | LinkedIn | Web | Blog