Category Archives: Classic

The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross

The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross (primarily The Dark Night)

by St. John of the Cross (1585: The Dark Night commentary is completed)

The Dark Night (or as it is oftentimes called “The Dark Night of the Soul“) is the best known of the writings of St. John of the Cross, a Spanish Carmelite priest who was a contemporary of St. Teresa of Avila.

The Dark Night would most likely be the main attraction of a volume of his collected works, as it was for me. But there are three other major works that are also quite worthwhile: The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Spiritual Canticle, and The Living Flame of Love. All four are based off of the same general pattern. First there is a poem of some length, broken into stanzas, usually five lines each. Then what follows is a commentary that takes one stanza at a time and shows how these stanzas, by design, apply to the spiritual principles St. John is trying to illuminate for us.

Like Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross is not easy reading. Therefore, like I  did for The Interior Castle, I once again strongly advise the reading of Fr. Thomas Dubay’s Fire Within beforehand.

As it turns out for me, I found myself liking The Living Flame of Love as much if not more than The Dark Night.

As John is such a superior and gifted writer and theologian, let’s share some excerpts.

First, from The Ascent of Mount Carmel, we have a passage that could serve as a summary of God Wants You Happy by Father Jonathan Morris. It comes from Book Two, Chapter 6, section 1 (which covers the second stanza):

The theological virtues perfect the faculties of the soul and produce emptiness and darkness in them.

1. We must discuss the method of leading the three faculties (intellect, memory, and will) into this spiritual night, the means to divine union. But we must first explain how the theological virtues, faith, hope, and charity (related to those faculties as their proper supernatural objects), through which the soul is united with God, cause the same emptiness and darkness in their respective faculties: faith in the intellect, hope in the memory, and charity in the will. Then we shall explain how in order to journey to God the intellect must be perfected in the darkness of faith, the memory in the emptiness of hope, and the will in the nakedness and absence of every affection.

As a result it will be seen how necessary it is for the soul, if it is to walk securely, to journey through this dark night with the support of these three virtues. They darken and empty it of all things. As we said, the soul is not united with God in this life through understanding, or through enjoyment, or through imagination, or through any other sense; but only faith, hope, and charity (according to the intellect, memory, and will) can unite the soul with God in this life.

– pg. 166

Next, from The Dark Night, we have another concentrated dose which comes from Book Two, Chapter 11, section 3:

3. This happens very particularly in this dark purgation, as was said, since God so weans and recollects the appetites that they cannot find satisfaction in any of their objects. God proceeds thus so that by both withdrawing the appetites from other objects and recollecting them in himself, he strengthens the soul and gives it the capacity for this strong union of love, which he begins to accord by means of this purgation. In this union the soul loves God intensely with all its strength and all its sensory and spiritual appetites. Such love is impossible if these appetites are scattered by their satisfaction in other things. In order to  receive the strength of this union of love, David exclaimed to God: I will keep my strength for you [Ps. 59:9], that is, all the ability, appetites, and strength of my faculties, by not desiring to make use of them or find satisfaction in anything outside of you.

– pg. 420

And finally, from The Living Flame of Love, the commentary on Stanza 1, section 24:

24. Not many people undergo so strong a purgation, only those whom God wishes to elevate to the highest degree of union. For he prepares individuals by a purification more or less severe in accordance with the degree to which he wishes to raise them, and also according to their impurity and imperfection.

This suffering resembles that of purgatory. Just as the spirits suffer purgation there so as to be able to see God through a clear vision in the next life, souls in their own way suffer purgation here on earth so as to be able to be transformed in him through love in this life.

– pg. 651

NOTE: John of the Cross was influential on many saints and saints-to-be, such as Térèse of Lisieux, Edith Stein (see her Science of the Cross), and John Paul II, who wrote one of his two doctoral dissertations on John of the Cross.

 

The Screwtape Letters

The Screwtape Letters

by C. S. Lewis (1942)

This work of imaginative fiction is a series of letters from Screwtape, a senior demon, to Wormwood his fledgling nephew with advice on how to win the soul of the human (the “patient”) that has been assigned to him.

Here is a brief excerpt from letter number 14 to give you the flavor:

My dear Wormwood,

The most alarming thing in your last account of the patient is that he is making none of those confident resolutions which marked his original conversion. No more lavish promises of perpetual virtue, I gather; not even the expectation of an endowment of ‘grace’ for life, but only a hope for the daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation! This is very bad.

I see only one thing to do at the moment. Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By jove! I’m being humble’, and almost immediately pride–pride at his own humility–will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt–and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don’t try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed. …

Your affectionate uncle

SCREWTAPE

– pp. 69-70, 73

 

The Interior Castle

The Interior Castle

by St. Teresa of Avila (1577)

I would not recommend reading this book — even a study edition — without first having been prepped by Fr. Thomas Dubay’s Fire Within. If you are wrestling with trying to locate yourself within the landscape of the spiritual journey, Teresa of Avila will help shed some light, but I will warn that reading her raised as many questions as answers for me. This is not all bad: we are talking about an extremely transcendent subject, so anything less would not be nearly as interesting, and even captivating and engrossing.

Her basic model is of a castle with seven chambers, each of which represents a major stage within the soul’s spiritual journey inward. The first three are fairly basic, but the fourth is clearly a departure, in which the beginnings of contemplative prayer are discovered. Five, and especially six and seven, are described in ways that are full of vivid imagery and indications of exceptional phenomena, though I have come to understand that these are not necessarily essential.

If you are going to explore deeply the mystical aspects of the spiritual life, you will not want to omit St. Teresa. Just go in prepared.

 

The Imitation of Christ

The Imitation of Christ

by Thomas à Kempis (15th cent.)

This book ranks only behind the bible itself historically in terms of readership and influence. Even closer to our own times, it is said that Pope John Paul I was found on his deathbed with this book upon his chest, suggesting he was reading it right before he died.

Written by a monk for monks, it soon became wildly popular with the masses, and even more so with the development of the printing press. Originally written in Latin by a German (in an area that is present-day Netherlands),  the first English translation appeared in the following century.

I must confess that I used to read this book a lot when I was young, but not as much lately. On the occasions that I do pick it up, I am quickly reminded why I liked it so much in the first place. And with the increased reading of mystical writers I have been doing lately (as opposed to more theological, catechetical, or apologetic writings), it has been dawning on me that The Imitation has had a wider influence than I ever realized.

From Book I (of four), “Admonitions Useful for a Spiritual Life”, which has 25 sections:

16. Of Bearing Other Men’s Faults

Such faults as we cannot amend in ourselves or in others we must patiently suffer until our Lord of His goodness will dispose otherwise. And we shall think that perhaps it is best for the testing of our patience, without which our merits are but little to be considered. Nevertheless, you shall pray heartily that our Lord, of His great mercy and goodness, may vouchsafe to help us to bear such burdens patiently.

If you admonish any person once or twice, and he will not accept it, do not strive too much with him, but commit all to God, that His will may be done, and His honor acknowledged in all His servants, for by His goodness He can well turn evil into good. Study always to be patient in bearing other men’s defects, for you have many in yourself that others suffer from you, and if you cannot make yourself be as you would, how may you then look to have another regulated in all things to suit your will?

We would gladly have others perfect, yet we will not amend our own faults. We desire others to be strictly corrected for their offenses, yet we will not be corrected. We dislike it that others have liberty, yet we will not be denied what we ask. We desire that others should be restrained according to the laws, yet we will in no way be restrained. And so it appears evident that we seldom judge our neighbors as we do ourselves.

If all men were perfect, what would we then have to put up with in our neighbors, for God’s sake? Therefore, God has so ordained that each one of us shall learn to bear another’s burden, for in this world no man is without fault, no man without burden, no man sufficient to himself, and no man wise enough of himself. And so it behooves each one of us to bear the burden of others, to comfort others, to help others, to counsel others, and to instruct and admonish others in all charity. The time of adversity shows who is of most virtue. Occasions do not make a man frail, but they do show openly what he is.

– pp. 49-50

A word of caution: extensive reading of this work will expand your vocabulary to include words like “vouchsafe” and”behoove”, which might be “superfluous” additions.  What you make of that is up to you.

 

The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud of Unknowing

by Anonymous (2006 trans., originally 14th cent.)

Unlike another spiritual classic, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, written in present-day Netherlands slightly later, this work was (no pun intended) unknown to me until about two or three years ago. Then all of a sudden, I was seeing it everywhere. It would be referenced in one book, and then another, until my curiosity was piqued. I was shocked to learn that the author of such a work was (not again!) unknown.

Nevermind. So I finally grabbed this modern translation of the original Middle English (presumed written by a Carthusian monk in Great Britain) and eventually got around to reading it. The book consists of 75 extremely short chapters, some a half page long, with the longest around three or so pages.

The basic premise is that you need to let go of your conceptual idea of God because it stands in the way of actually getting to know God. Because we are all susceptible to this, we actually have to keep at this repeatedly. What we think of God needs to be let go of, so that we can get to know him, again and again. It all sounds so Jedi mind trick, but if you relax and let the proposal penetrate you, much like faith, believing becomes seeing.

Or so that’s how my interpretation of it goes. If you start to read more widely, you are likely to see references to this book. It’s probably less frustrating if you have already read this book by the time that becomes a regular occurrence.

Do not let me leave you with a false impression: I do recommend this book. You will just need to be prepared for a very different sort of reading experience. It’s just a slippery sort of topic. A little hard to grasp at first, but it can be done.

Here is all of Chapter 5, “The Cloud of Forgetting”:

If you want to enter, live, and work in this cloud of unknowing, you will need a cloud of forgetting between you and the things of this earth. Consider the problem carefully and you will understand that you are farthest from God when you do not ignore for a moment the creatures and circumstances of the physical world. Attempt to blank out everything but God.

Even valuable thoughts of some special creatures are of little use for this exercise. Memory is a kind of spiritual light that the eye of the soul focuses upon, similar to the way an archer fixes his gaze upon a target. I tell you, whatever you think about looms above you while you are thinking about it, and it stands between you and God. To the extent that anything other than God is in your mind, you are that much farther from God.

I will also say, with reverence and respect, that regarding this exercise, even thinking about the kindness and worthiness of God, of any other spiritual being, or of the joys of heaven contributes nothing. These are uplifting and worthy subjects, but you are far better off contemplating God’s pure and simple being, separated from all his divine attributes.

– pg. 11

(NOTE: See the discussion of the less-common usage of “simple” at the bottom of the post for The Sanctifier.)

UPDATE: There is an impressive documentary on the Carthusians, which is available for streaming free online: Into Great Silence (the comment at this site states that there are no subtitles, nor are any needed–while largely true, there are scripture quotes interspersed throughout, and the version streaming on Netflix has subtitles for those, which you might want).

 

 

Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy

by G. K. Chesterton (1908)

I am reluctant to say much about this book (as I unconsciously also was about The Everlasting Man, apparently), because discovering what it’s about is too enjoyable to spoil for you. I will say that I cannot think of another book that has such an ostensibly off-putting title and then turns out to be as every bit as lively and open-minded as the title appears to suggest only dullness and rigidity. That is quite a triumph. And a thoroughly delightful one indeed.

One thing that I cannot omit: Chesterton was about 100 years ahead of his time. Lucky for us. He is so very readable today.

One more thing: I have seen mentioned somewhere that this is a companion piece to GKC’s Heretics, which preceded this book by a couple years.

I will again give a taste of this great work with a couple of quasi-brief excerpts.

First, from Chapter VI, “The Paradoxes of Christianity”, this is without a doubt my favorite quotation on courage:

[T]ake the case of courage. No quality has ever so much addled the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages. Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice. He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying.

– pg. 94

And following on the heels of that, a couple of lines later, comes this sublime passage:

And now I began to find that this duplex passion was the Christian key to ethics everywhere. Everywhere the creed made a moderation out of the still crash of two impetuous emotions. Take, for instance, the matter of modesty, of the balance between mere pride and mere prostration. The average pagan, like the average agnostic, would merely say that he was content with himself, but not insolently self-satisfied, that there were many better and many worse, that his deserts were limited, but he would see that he got them. In short, he would walk with his head in the air; but not necessarily with his nose in the air. This is a manly and rational position, but it is open to the objection we noted against the compromise between optimism and pessimism–the “resignation” of Matthew Arnold. Being a mixture of two things, it is a dilution of two things; neither is present in its full strength or contributes its full colour. This proper pride does not lift the heart like the tongue of trumpets; you cannot go clad in crimson and gold for this. On the other hand, this mild rationalist modesty does not cleanse the soul with fire and make it clear like crystal; it does not (like a strict and searching humility) make a man as a little child, who can sit at the feet of the grass. It does not make him look up and see marvels; for Alice must grow small if she is to be Alice in Wonderland. Thus it loses both the poetry of being proud and the poetry of being humble. Christianity sought by this same strange expedient to save both of them.

It separated the two ideas and then exaggerated them both. In one way Man was to be haughtier than he had ever been before; in another way he was to be humbler than he had ever been before. In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners. All humility that had meant pessimism, that had meant man taking a vague or mean view of his whole destiny–all that was to go. We were to hear no more the wail of Ecclesiastes that humanity had no pre-eminence over the brute, or the awful cry of Homer that man was only the saddest of all the beasts of the field. Man was a statue of God walking about the garden. Man had pre-eminence over all the brutes; man was only sad because he was not a beast, but a broken god. The Greek had spoken of men creeping on the earth, as if clinging to it. Now Man was to tread on the earth as if to subdue it. Christianity thus held a thought of the dignity of man that could only be expressed in crowns rayed like the sun and fans of peacock plumage. Yet at the same time it could hold a thought about the abject smallness of man that could only be expressed in fasting and fantastic submission, in the gray ashes of St. Dominic and the white snows of St. Bernard. When one came to think of one’s self, there was vista and void enough for any amount of bleak abnegation and bitter truth. There the realistic gentleman could let himself go–as long as he let himself go at himself. There was an open playground for the happy pessimist. Let him say anything against himself short of blaspheming the original aim of his being; let him call himself a fool and even a damned fool (though that is Calvinistic); but he must not say that fools are not worth saving. He must not say that a man, qua man, can be valueless. Here, again in short, Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious. The Church was positive on both points. One can hardly think too little of one’s self. One can hardly think too much of one’s soul.

– pp. 95-96

UPDATE: I have tagged this as Anglican, though I believe Chesterton himself was already a Catholic in his heart by the time this was published. He would wait more than a decade before making his Catholicism officially explicit. By the time The Everlasting Man was published, he was formally a Catholic.

 

The Everlasting Man

The Everlasting Man

by G. K. Chesterton (1925)

There can be no imaginable higher praise for this book than to point out that C. S. Lewis credited this book for his conversion to Christianity.

With that, let’s give an excerpt that opens the second half of the book:

This sketch of the human story began in a cave; the cave which popular science associates with the cave-man and in which practical discovery has really found archaic drawings of animals. The second half of human history, which was like a new creation of the world, also begins in a cave. There is even a shadow of such a fancy in the fact that animals were again present; for it was a cave used as a stable by the mountaineers of the uplands about Bethlehem; who still drive their cattle into such holes and caverns at night. It was here that a homeless couple had crept underground with the cattle when the doors of the crowded caravanserai had been shut in their faces; and it was here beneath the very feet of the passers-by, in a cellar under the very floor of the world, that Jesus Christ was born. But in that second creation there was indeed something symbolical in the roots of the primeval rock or the horns of the prehistoric herd. God also was a Cave-Man, and had also traced strange shapes of creatures, curiously coloured, upon the wall of the world; but the pictures that he made had come to life.

A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end, has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded. It is at least like a jest in this, that it is something which the scientific critic cannot see. He laboriously explains the difficulty which we have always defiantly and almost derisively exaggerated; and mildly condemns as improbable something that we have almost madly exalted as incredible; as something that would be much too good to be true, except that it is true. When that contrast between the cosmic creation and the little local infancy has been repeated, reiterated, underlined, emphasised, exulted in, sung, shouted, roared, not to say howled, in a hundred thousand hymns, carols, rhymes, rituals, pictures, poems, and popular sermons, it may be suggested that we hardly need a higher critic to draw our attention to something a little odd about it; especially one of the sort that seems to take a long time to see a joke, even his own joke.

– pp. 169-170

(For a good short commentary on the book, see Chesterton biographer Joseph Pearce at The War of the Wells: Bellocian Bellicosity vs. Chestertonian Charity.)

UPDATE: In the post for Orthodoxy, I state that GKC was about 100 years ahead of his time. One of the best examples is found in this book–and it falls only one page later than the above quotation:

Here begins, it is needless to say, another mighty influence for the humanisation of Christendom. If the world wanted what is called a non-controversial aspect of Christianity, it would probably select Christmas. Yet it is obviously bound up with what is supposed to be a controversial aspect (I could never at any stage of my opinions imagine why); the respect paid to the Blessed Virgin. When I was a boy a more Puritan generation objected to a statue upon my parish church representing the Virgin and Child. After much controversy, they compromised by taking away the Child. One would think that this was even more corrupted with Mariolatry, unless the mother was counted less dangerous when deprived of a sort of weapon. But the practical difficulty is also a parable. You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a new-born child. You can not suspend the new-born child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a new-born child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a new-born child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother; you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother. If we are to think of Christ in this aspect at all, the other idea follows as it is followed in history. We must either leave Christ out of Christmas, or Christmas out of Christ, or we must admit, if only as we admit it in an old picture, that those holy heads are too near together for the haloes not to mingle and cross.

– pg. 171