Sorry for the hiatus from blogging. I’m picking up where I left off with my spiritual retreat, which is why I am dating this entry as Saturday, Feb 28.
Saint John of the Cross established in his prologue to The Dark Night that this night was necessary in order to purify the soul of imperfections. “What imperfections!?!” some might ask. How insulting! Well, John is not about to mince words. When he, in the six chapters that follow, describes these imperfections in living technicolor, I can only say: “How did he get inside my soul? And did he have to speak about these imperfections so frankly?”
The answer is, of course, yes, it was his duty – a duty of love. Flattery is a form of violence we commit against others, but speaking the truth about their failings – when done for the sake of helping them along the road to God – is an act of love. But for most of us, if not all of us, when we first receive correction, our response is: “That idiot! He is completely wrong about me.”
And this is why, when John begins to describe the imperfections, he begins by discussing pride:
…Beginners feel so fervent and diligent in their spiritual exercises and undertakings that a certain kind of secret pride is generated in them that begets a complacency with themselves and their accomplishments, even though holy works do of their very nature cause humility. Then they develop a somewhat vain — at times very vain — desire to speak of spiritual things in others’ presence, and sometimes even to instruct rather than be instructed; in their hearts they condemn others who do not seem to have the kind of devotion they would like them to have, and sometimes they give expression to this criticism like the pharisee who despised the publican while he boasted and praised God for the good deeds he himself accomplished [Lk 18:11-12].
The devil, desiring the growth of pride and presumption in these beginners, often increases their fervor and readiness to perform such works, and other ones too. For he is quite aware that all these works and virtues are not only worthless for them, but even become vices. Some of these persons become so evil-minded that they do not want anyone except themselves to appear holy, and so by both word and deed they condemn and detract others whenever the occasion arises, seing the little splinter in their brother’s eye and failing to consider the wooden beam in their own eye [Mt 7:3]; they strain at the other’s gnat and swallow their own camel [Mt 23:24].
And John is just getting started. He goes on to notice the way beginners like to shine in the eyes of their spiritual directors, and will sometimes change directors when they hear counsel they do not want to hear. And they do not know how to face their faults:
Sometimes they minimize their faults, and at other times they become discouraged by them, since they felt they were already saints, and they become impatient and angry with themselves, which is yet another fault.
They are often extremely anxious that God remove their faults and imperfections, but their motive is personal peace rather than God. They fail to realize that were God to remove their faults they might very well become more proud and presumptuous.
For me, at least, there is a good deal here for reflection. I can especially relate to the part about discouragement as an experience of pride. At times in my spiritual life, it is not so much my faults that keep me from advancing on the road to God, as my lack of humility in regard to them. Getting anxious about faults does me no good; instead, it holds me back, turns me in on myself, and leaves me in the illusion that I will somehow save myself. Instead, it seems John would have me pick myself up – time after time after time – and place myself once again at the feet of the Master, saying to Him, “Nothing is impossible for God.” Or, in the words of Saint Ambrose (as quoted by Pope John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor, paragraph 105 ):
Remember, Lord, that you have made me as one who is weak, that you formed me from dust. How can I stand, if you do not constantly look upon me, to strengthen this clay, so that my strength may proceed from your face?