On a dark night, Kindled in love with yearnings—oh, happy chance! —
I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest.[i]
Two friends, 27 years apart, united in “their ardent desire to embrace the primitive Rule of Carmel, their longing for a deeper prayer life, their practice of poverty of spirit in the simplicity of their lives, the compassion evident in their love for others, active reformers, and yet mystics” wrote the first two of the first three books below. The third, a young girl who seemingly since childhood was destined for the religious life, died a torturous death at the hands of Tuberculosis. The latter born two centuries after the first two. What do these authors from the 1500’s and late 1800’s have to tell us that is in anyway relevant today?
Teresa of Avila – The Interior Castle[ii]
St. John of the Cross – Dark Night of the Soul
Sister Therese of the Child Jesus – Story of a Soul
These three saints have left behind numerous writings of which the above three were put in my path to read. I had actually delved into Dark Night of the Soul prior – with my head and not with my heart. Both are required!
A tremendous weight has been lifted off of my shoulders. It has been replaced with a greater weight that pulls me up rather than weighs me down. The multifarious activities of my daily life are reoriented, redefined, and right sized.
Reorientation: Rather than my activities being saddled on my shoulders they remain present as water buckets I must prioritize and move from point A to point B as my position in life and responsibilities dictate.
Redefined: These responsibilities as oriented to the good of others remain vitally important as they always have been in my life. However, removed from them is the anxiety of expectations of others as well as expectation of myself. The intricate and intertwined forces of providence, man’s will, man’s limitations and my own, accidental or natural misfortune, and evil at play render me powerless to understand and ultimately control my destiny or that of my neighbor. You may as a reader be thinking “No shit Sherlock, you are not God.” I understand this sentiment deeply. Yet, when we are fully committed and dedicated to our responsibilities and passions it is easy to get lost in the emotions of the ego driven, goal-oriented actions and lose sight of the true nature of our purpose within a larger context of both current day forces of evil and good and as measured within historical time.
Right Sized: These buckets cover a football field. There are the buckets of necessity: routine chores, self-care, medical appointments, food acquisition, earning money for required daily expenses, budgeting, and countless other nuisance activities. Yet each of these if handled with spiritual care and gratitude are elevated above the mundane. The bucket of your personal callings in life carried out with utmost care and discipline to the best of your ability: family, career, volunteer activities, and living within a community as a humble and integrated member. Then there are the buckets of higher good that call for demonstrating mercy, seeking social justice, defending the poor, promoting peace, and living the word of God. The latter will make all the former activities more complicated and more important. They will come into conflict with social mores and accepted practices. Our actions in each and every activity, in moving each and every bucket of water, must be our testament before we utter even a single word about our beliefs. And the highest calling, seeking proximity to the Living God by carrying each bucket the way we would expect Jesus to do the same activity. Consciously choosing which buckets deserve carrying and when. Spending significant time in contemplation and prayer. Accepting with an open heart our spiritual consolations and gifts, periods of spiritual aridity, and suffering in its manifold forms.
Proper orientation, proper definition and right sizing are spiritual habits to be well practiced. Measure them against the beatitudes. We are human by nature and live in society driven by other values. Many thorns can thwart our intended practices.
Evil Buckets: There are so many on the football field calling for attention. If only they were properly labeled: bucket of pride, bucket of greed, bucket of anger, bucket of lust, bucket of gluttony, bucket of sloth, and bucket of envy. They are not labeled and often disguised and often quite ingeniously. They are present in all the domains of our responsibilities: our routines, our personal callings, our integration in the community, and our spiritual aspirations. One moment you can be carrying a bucket labeled social justice. The next moment the label falls off to reveal it is a bucket of pride and gluttony fueled by self-righteousness, pride, and other indignities not worthy of proximity to the divine. The bucket we are carrying was being carried to meet our needs – not the intended greater good. Our intellectual and self-righteous ego co-opts a good cause. Our bucket of fiscal responsibility transforms into gluttony and pride at the expense of other values. Our attention and main focus in life becomes our monetary wealth, accrual of material things, and constant pursuit of what we don’t have or keeping what we do have today. Sometimes they are even labeled properly and we pick them up anyway out of pure human desire unworthy of higher morality.
Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966)
We recognize suffering when we see it. Giacometti used his art to capture suffering. His most famous works “include a series of elongated standing women, striding men, and expressive busts, that resonated strongly with a public grappling with the extreme alienation and anxiety wrought by the devastation of World War II. Giacometti was unflinching in his portrayal of humanity at its most vulnerable.” Out of suffering we learn our true humanity and ability to transcend our misery as well.
Sister Therese of the Child Jesus (also known as the Little Way or Little Flower) states her “soul has matured in the crucible of exterior and interior trials.”[iii] She goes further in her prayers to ask God for increased suffering:
“O Jesus, unspeakable sweetness, change all the consolations of this earth into bitterness for me.”[iv]
And towards the end of her short life she indeed receives spiritual and physical suffering:
“I felt I was alone in the garden of Gethsemane like Jesus, and I found no consolation on earth or from heaven; God himself seemed to abandon me.”[v]
I lack the courage to ask God for more suffering for fear I will crumble under the duress!
St. John of the Cross in his treatise “Dark Night of the Soul” speaks of a self-purifying journey (putting to death sinful nature) which can never fully be realized as we remain in our human flesh. The journey though is remarkable in its spiritual dissection of seeking an enlightened life.
And Teresa of Avila brings us to the existential place of Carmel, which is hidden within ourselves and accessible to each and everyone of us if we pursue and are open to the spiritual life.
Between the three, the essence of accepting and embracing suffering can transform suffering of its evil power regardless of its causation (accidental, natural, medical, human malfeasance, and outright evil). Suffering becomes a bucket to be carried and shared with the mystery of the Trinity and the redemptive act of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins.
Longing for or mourning our past is not a bucket we should be carrying. In the 19,861 days of this life I have had spiritual consolations in the past that I yearn for, actions that I regret, and decision points that I sometimes cannot but help wonder “what if” I had chosen another path. If the actuaries are right and I die on time should I really waste any 8401 days left on desiring or regretting the past? No. In my mind I am living on borrowed time of at least 12 years and in reality, I have been living on borrowed time since inception. It is valuable to recollect our past to inform our present and future, but not to go back for perceived glories or live in martyrdom with past miseries.
The belief and pursuit of union with God with an understanding that true knowledge of the absolute God is beyond our intellectual grasp and inaccessible through direct means and the will of man. Contemplation and self-surrender through prayer is essential to living a holy life. This is not heresy to the catholic church:
Vatican II and in the new canon law repeatedly takes it for granted that “contemplation”, “mystical treasures”, ”an abundance of contemplation”, “the experience of divine things” and “an assiduous union with God in prayer” are meant for each and every person in the church.”[vi] Father Dubay (Fire Within)
There is great fear of mysticism and mystics as there is ample room for birth to self-delusion, misguided believers falling prey to occults, and obfuscation of true beliefs and representation of the word of God as stated in the bible. These fears are true. At the same time the bible is not a dead historical document. There is a reason why we use the phrase the “living word of God.” The Church moves very slowly, and not without error, vetting its faithful and its traditions, sacraments, and Saints. So, we too must move slowly with our interior prayer life, our investment in readings, traditions, and other spiritual endeavors and have sources outside ourselves for validation and confirmation. We have individual responsibility.
I belong to an on-line contemplative group whose leaders maintain a list of what they consider dangerous authors. Two authors include Thomas Merton and James J. Martin, SJ. The first they site the authors later life and potential Buddhist influences and the latter they site pieces of his liberal acceptance of people with life styles contrary to church teaching. Thomas Merton would definitely fit the classic definition of accepted Church Mystic. His life is definitely not error free. James Martin, SJ is living his faith embracing everyone (believers, non-believers) and teaching mercy and acceptance while maintaining the eternal truths of the faith internally. His outspoken defense of groups of people, specifically the LGBTQ community, has earned him vitriolic hatred by conservative branch of Catholicism. He is not labeled a mystic. I raise this as being exposed to these two writers leaves me with the responsibility of discerning through prayer and contemplation what is the right orientation of their writings to my beliefs, the responsibilities implied and defined, and the appropriate weight I assign them (tiny bucket, large bucket, no bucket?). All five of these authors are drawing from the Gospels.
Mysticism and our own infused contemplation and prayer must always be tested by the source validation of our core spiritual beliefs as found in the Gospels and talked out with at least one more seasoned believer, perhaps a spiritual adviser.
The contemplative group is right to ban these writers from their forum as their forum is dedicated to Carmelite Contemplatives. They pursue advanced discussions and growth on what they see as the safest and truest way to seek closer union with God. By avoiding writers that inspire controversy they have created a safe haven devoid of controversy for like-minded Carmelites. It comes down to temporal time and how best to use the moments you have left before your human mortality comes to an end.
We are all called to be responsible mystics! We should aim to be saints in our own right without claiming to be saints out of misguided hubris.
Addictions and 12 step groups: At the heart of all 12 steps groups is both a primary purpose (to abstain from source of addiction and help others to do so) and a higher purpose to live a spiritual life. The 12 steps are in fact a secularized “Dark Night of the Soul” experience. It is spirituality without religiosity. The original program was very much based on Christianity. Just take a look at the Serenity prayer, steps prayers (4th, 7th, and 11th steps), and The Promises.[vii] A person in recovery who truly actualizes the 12 steps in their daily lives will have a Dark Night of the Soul experience! They enter the program knowing suffering and misery and will come to know a God of their understanding (often accompanied by a return to their religious roots as well). They will realize the PROMISES of AA and shed their old lives and become new men both in abstinence of the addiction that initially sort help for and in living life with a new spiritually enriched purpose. People in recovery embody conquering suffering caused by both addiction to substance or behaviors and spiritual maladies. As St. John of the Cross says, “God is pleased to strip them of this old man and clothe them with the new man.”
Henri “Papillon” Charrière leaps to escape prison in Papillon (2018).
Faith in times of struggle or times of great success can be difficult to maintain. Sometimes as in life we must take a leap of faith. The situation we are in, favorable or must unfortunate, can blind our spiritual and moral compass without us even noticing we have gone adrift. Sister Theresa described her situational challenges eloquently:
“Now, abandonment alone guides me. I have no other compass! I can no longer ask for anything with fervor except the accomplishment of God’s will in my soul without any creature being able to set obstacles in the way.”[viii]
“Knowing it is cowardly of me to enter into a duel, I turn my back on my adversaries without deigning to look them in the face; but I run toward my Jesus.”[ix]
We live in this world, not in the eternal world. We will be tempted to be driven by worldly pressures and fight unnecessary duels sometimes even invoking the name of God and higher morality. While we must never be silent we must always check our intent and which master we are serving.
The history of Discalced Carmelites[x] is a good starting point for the uninitiated in contemplative traditions. They do not own contemplative prayer but have an orientation that is directly focused on the Trinity as well as Mary, the mother of the Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Seeking God in Catholicism is not seeking an abstract unknowable God. It is seeking Jesus Christ, seeking the advocate (Holy Spirit), seeking the Father with the spiritual gifts that we have been provided (the Gospels, the Sacraments, the lives of martyrs and saints, and our rich traditions) while acknowledging we are God’s mercy for revelation.
It is profoundly deeply humbling with every perceived elevation of my spiritual journey I am simultaneously falling through a what I perceived to be a firm foundation under my feet to a new floor beneath. At once my faith is strengthened with each morsel of revelation and yet my hunger and desire inflamed. The more I come to understand the less I know.
All three books sited above if read without adequate preparation will present less spiritual value to the reader and hide inherent wisdom within the writings. I do not say this with any sense of condescension. I have myself read the Dark Night of the Soul prior years ago and on reading it today, have come to know how shallow my reading was prior. I also presume that if I were to reread this text in merely a few months from now, more would be revealed.
Oh, by Happy Chance may my writing find you and may it inspire you to find your contemplative soul. By Happy Chance may your suffering be transformed and your purpose in life enriched. Oh, by Happy Chance may we all live in greater unity with God. I am torn between Fitzgerald’s humor an Campbell’s synopsis of the Dark Night of the Soul:
STANZAS OF THE SOUL
- On a dark night, Kindled in love with yearnings—oh, happy chance!— I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest.
- In darkness and secure, By the secret ladder, disguised—oh, happy chance!— In darkness and in concealment, My house being now at rest.
- In the happy night, In secret, when none saw me, Nor I beheld aught, Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.
- This light guided me More surely than the light of noonday To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me— A place where none appeared.
- Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn, Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the Beloved!
- Upon my flowery breast, Kept wholly for himself alone There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him, And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
- The breeze blew from the turret As I parted his locks; With his gentle hand he wounded my neck And caused all my senses to be suspended.
- I remained, lost in oblivion; My face I reclined on the Beloved. All ceased and I abandoned myself, Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies[xi]
[iii] Story of a Soul The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux pg. 15
[iv] Story of a Soul The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux pg. 77
[v] Story of a Soul The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux pg. 109
[vi] Fire Within by Father Dubay
[vii] Serenity Prayer: God, grant me the Serenity, to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.
Third Step Prayer: God, I offer myself to Thee – to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of Life. May I do Thy will always!
Seventh Step Prayer: My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen.
Eleventh Step Prayer: Lord, make me a channel of Thy peace; that where there is hatred, I may bring love; that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness; that where there is discord, I may bring harmony; that where there is error, I may bring truth; that where there is doubt, I may bring faith; that where there is despair, I may bring hope; that where there are shadows, I may bring light. that where there is sadness, I may bring joy. Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted; to understand, than to be understood; to love, than to be loved. For it is by self-forgetting, that one finds. It is by forgiving, that one is forgiven. It is by dying, that one awakens to Eternal Life. Amen.
The “Promises”: From pages 83-84 in “The Big Book”: If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. Are these extravagant promises? We think not! They are being fulfilled among us – Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.
[viii] Story of a Soul The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux pg. 178
[ix] Story of a Soul The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux pg. 213