In seminary, my favorite professor taught both ascetical and Carmelite theology. I agree with him that St. John of the Cross was probably not a sullen melancholic. St. John is made out to be today as a debby-downer (especially by us perman-grin Americans) because he writes so much about detachment. But even a cursory study of the life of St. John of the Cross reveals his high levels of energy, not only towards the ascetical life, but even the evangelical life of helping the townsfolk outside his 16th century monastery in Spain.
St. John of the Cross’ pathway of the Nada, Nada, Nada is where we arrive at the apex of Mount Carmel to find only the honor and glory of God, the Todo, Todo, Todo. But this is quite a process. We do not earn the love of God, especially at the beginning. That is true. But St. John of the Cross would quickly add: Equally true is it that we can’t be rewarded for seeking anything but God-alone. This is something everyone needs to know. The first myth to dispel here is that St. John of the Cross is only for experts of the interior life. As we will see in the next myth-disproved below, his writings are for those found in the Purgative stage of prayer, the Illuminative stage of prayer and the Unitive stage of prayer. So, if you’ve had a spiritual director tell you to stay away from St. John of the Cross “until you are more advanced,” consider that such a spiritual director may not realize how supremely accessible is the writings of this saint for people at all stage of the interior life.
Still, many people mis-diagnosis their depression as “the Dark Night of the Soul.” The Dark Nigh of the Soul is a very, very advanced detachment of the interior life that has nothing to do with despression. Here’s the progression that happens in the spiritual life: After someone has been living in sanctifying grace for a while, they enter the Purgative stage of prayer where God detaches her (we’ll use the feminine as the Carmelites point to the soul in Latin and Romance languages in the feminine) from illicit pleasures.
After living in the Purgative stage of prayer, the person goes through “the Dark Night of the Senses.” At this point, the person is detached from not only illicit pleasures, but often licit pleasures. Basically, any attachment to pleasure or human-respect is completely lost in the Dark Night of the Senses to go from the Purgative stage of prayer to the Illuminative stage of prayer. Notice that I wrote “attachment to pleasure,” not “pleasure itself.” Pleasure is not wrong, per se. But St. John of the Cross wants us to get rid of any reliance on anything except God Himself. Sadly, probably less than 1% of Catholics alive today have moved from the Purgative way of prayer to the Illuminative way of prayer. In fact, probably only a percentage slightly higher than that have even made a firm resolution to refrain from mortal sin in order to begin the beginning way of prayer, namely, the Purgative way of prayer.
After a person has gone through total detachment of pleasure (both illicit and often licit) and caring about the opinions of others (the Dark Night of the Senses) they live for months or years in the Illuminative Way of Prayer. At this stage of interior progression, God is enlightening the intellect constantly and forging the will with great grace to live virtue. Finally, after however long God sees fit for the soul to live in that Illuminative way, she must pass through “the Dark Night of the Soul.” In the Dark Night of the Soul, God withholds from the soul not only physical pleasures, but even spiritual pleasures. It is a very lonely time without any consolation. St. John of the Cross saw many monks and nuns of the 16th century give up at this point of the interior progression. He wrote his books, for one, to help them to see why they should keep going.
St. Ignatius of Loyola is clear that lack of consolation in prayer is often due to our own laziness in prayer or mortification. Thus, St. John of the Cross would add on top of that: Such desolation is not the Dark Night of the Soul, but simply the fact that God can not deny Himself in giving joy in prayer to someone who is still living for herself. I imagine probably only a fraction of serious Catholics alive today have gone through the Dark Night of the Senses. Even more narrow is the road after that to the Dark Night of the Soul. Probably there are some imprisoned Catholics (especially those in prisons in China or the Middle-East) and a handful of other priests, religious and lay across the globe who have gone through the Dark Night of the Soul into the Unitive Stage of prayer. (I don’t claim to be there, for example.) Point is: It’s extremely rare. It’s not run-of-the-mill Catholic depression!
So if a nun or housewife found herself entering the Dark Night of the Soul, why would God still withhold consolations to someone living such a generous life of mortification? Because God is teaching that soul to love the God of consolations, not the consolations of God. When a soul decides to love God even when God is withholding interior consolation, then this is true sacrificial love on the part of the Beloved, reflecting a small glimmer of Christ on the Cross for us. The Beloved soul is returning Love to the Eternal Lover not because of gifts received, but because of the Lover Himself. The Living Flame of Love at that stage finally burns much more quietly, but also much more powerfully.
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