“Endeavor to be inclined always not to the easiest, but to the most difficult.” from The Ascent of Mt. Carmel
When I was in High School, my main sport was soccer. I had played soccer and played it well since I was fairly young (in fact, I cannot remember a time when I did not play soccer). However, something strange would happen when I would try another sport. Being relatively naive, I believed that I could master other sports to the degree that I had mastered soccer. Time and time again, I would get frustrated when that was not the case. I didn’t like having to be a beginner all over again.
While others may have a more accurate understanding of what it takes to learn new skills, I think that many people struggle with adapting to new challenges in life. With some exceptions, most of us have areas of strengths and areas in which we have flourished. In one way or another, all of us have experienced the thrill of really getting something right, whether that be in school, sports, or some habit or skill that we have mastered.
The problem with success is we can fail to realize that everything has a learning curve. Before we are an expert, we must be a beginner, and there will always be parts of our life in which we are beginners. Perhaps, we must learn to have what some call a “beginner’s mind.”
Thus, St. John’s counsel to always seek the most difficult helps us to embrace the suffering that involves being a beginner. Despite what some may think, he does not want us to be miserable all the time, constantly dissatisfied and uncomfortable. Rather, he is helping us to look past our comfort zones so that we can tackle new opportunities with a sense of humility and purpose. While he has the spiritual life in mind, I think this kind of growth mentality is good for everyone, and thus represents a kind of perennial wisdom.
People who are not afraid of difficulties and challenges are willing to take risks and to overcome failures. In terms of the spiritual life, they are willing to continue their spiritual practices even when they face dryness and other deep disorders of the heart. Instead of running from fear and anxiety, they learn to adapt to suffering in ways that guide them to penetrate ever deeper into the mystery.
No one is immune from suffering, but this counsel teaches us to counteract our tendency to flee. With this in mind, let us do an examination of conscience. Are there parts of our life that we are avoiding for fear of the suffering it may cause? Are we avoiding challenges because we fear failure? If so, use this counsel in your meditation period to imagine how you might work against your desire for comfort.
This is the first in a series in which I will write a commentary on parts of St. John of the Cross