“Endeavor to be inclined always not to what means rest for you, but to hard work.”
There is a great commercial that really gets me stoked. In the Under Armor commercial, athletes have dedicated time in solitude in order to perfect their bodies and their ability to execute their sport. The line is memorable (and strangely connected with a saying of Jesus): “What you do in the dark puts you in the light.” The idea is simple enough. Victory often goes to the one who is willing to work the hardest to achieve; the one who has the grit to do what no one else is doing.
The same can be said for the spiritual life.
Our desire for rest and comfort can, paradoxically, lead us away from the discipline and training which grants us that rest that goes beyond sense experience, namely infused contemplation. A willingness to go the extra mile does not mean that we simply ignore our creaturely nature in favor of some lofty, but ultimately unattainable ideal.
In this counsel from St. John of the Cross’s work The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, the saint is teaching us that the key to real spiritual progress is the willingness to look past momentary discomfort in order to discern God’s will. We need rest, and St. John is not denying this.
However, sometimes we also need to embrace suffering for the sake of our work, our family, and our spiritual life. In terms of the contemplative dimension, sometimes we need to suffer our holy hours and embrace the deep disorders which disrupt our inner peace. In terms of prayer, we have to be willing to accept that before we experience the rest of infused contemplation; we have to undergo the purgation that is the work of the Holy Spirit.
In a certain sense, it is precisely in our willingness to embrace desolation and suffering that we learn to wait for the return of consolation. This waiting in expectation and desire must take place to prepare the heart for the higher forms of intimacy. In our willingness to go without rest, we cultivate within us a deep desire and longing for something that extends beyond our sense perception.
That something is contemplation and a complete availability to the work of the Holy Spirit. That something is to be a saint.