In Book 1 Chapter 13 of The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, St. John of the Cross discusses what he calls, “The manner and method of entering this night of the sense.” In the Chapter that ensues, St. John lays out what has been called in summary his theology of “Nada.” In many ways, this section entails a dramatic presentation of the need to rid one’s self of all the attachments that prevent us from embracing the person of Jesus Christ. In a series of counsels, he recommends a radical interior poverty in which one abandons everything for the sake of Christ.
On the surface, these counsels can seem both impractical and perhaps irrational. To take one example, he advises us to “Endeavor to be inclined always not to what means rest for you, but to hard work.” On the surface, such a counsel can seem the ideal of a workaholic who sees the point of existence simply to be productive. While it might be tempting to hold such an ideal, this does not, however, harmonize well with the Catholic notion of leisure and contemplation. It seems even stranger when you consider the fact that St. John was writing as a contemplative.
However, I would propose a slightly different way of reading this important section of The Ascent. I would propose that St. John of the Cross is giving us a series of spiritual exercises that are intended to help guide our discursive reasoning. In this way, he has given us active means by which we are able to come to greater discernment. The goal is not always to act as if rest is bad and that we must always choose hard-work, but in our thinking, we must learn to overcome our disordered tendency towards pleasure and comfort.
If understood as a spiritual exercise (St. John himself uses the phrase in section 8 of the Chapter), these practices can teach us to see beyond our limited perspectives and egocentricity. In the case of the previous counsel, we can use it to guide our discernment by asking ourselves how would our time be spent if I was not always concerned with maximizing our comfort and pleasure. In a concrete way, this might impel us to consider spending more time in prayer (something that many of us find difficult) and less time watching television (something many of us find pleasurable). I am not saying that is what you must do, but rather how we might use this spiritual exercise in a concrete circumstance.
With that in mind, in this post and in a future post, I will share the original texts of St. John of the Cross. I would encourage you to sift through these “spiritual exercises” and see what challenges you to grow. We should be mindful that if they inspire us to some extreme behavior that goes against either our local Catholic community or creates disharmony in our family, then chances are our discernment is off. Authentic discernment leads to communion, that concrete expression of harmony with the Catholic Church, our community, and our home. We should embrace these exercises to the extent in which they lead us towards that communion.
Here is one text to get you started. I provide my own notes which I believe will help you apply these exercises to your life. My notes will be in italics:
Endeavor to be inclined always:
not to the easiest, but to the most difficult,
not to the most delightful, but to the most distasteful,
not to the most gratifying, but to the less pleasant,
not to what means rest for you, but to hard work,
not to the consoling, but to the unconsoling;
not to the most, but to the least;
not to the highest and most precious, but to the lowest and most despised;
not to wanting something, but to wanting nothing.
Do not go about looking for the best of temporal things, but for the worst, and, for Christ, desire to enter into complete nakedness, emptiness, and poverty in everything in the world.
When you begin to imagine these counsels, what might you do different if you did not always expect to be given the best of material things? What purchases might be different if you did not always satisfy your inclination towards good food or other material goods? How might you live differently if you were not afraid of suffering?