Tag Archives: Mysticism

Patience of a Saint

Patience of a Saint

by Andrew M. Greeley (1987)

If you have read this book, I would guess you liked it. If you haven’t, there’s only one way to find out. This is sort of the Green Eggs and Ham entry on the Men’s Spiritual Reading List.

 

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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 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.

 

Treatise on the Love of God

Treatise on the Love of God

by St. Francis de Sales (1616; contemporary English edition, 2011)

Francis was the Bishop of Geneva and made it his life’s work to try to win back Catholics lost to the Protestant Reformation. He was hugely successful. St. Francis de Sales is known more for his earlier work, Introduction to the Devout Life, which he addressed to “Philothea”, as a stand-in for the soul (though it was written as a series of correspondence to an actual lady).  This work is addressed to “Theotimus”, due to some objections by men that they did not want to take advice addressed to a woman. De Sales decided to give equal time, though I suspect he would have preferred to keep the addressee feminine had there been no objections to the first book. It obviously bothered him at least a little, as he goes on about it in the preface. In the end, it turns out to be a minor thing. The end result is a great book. Or actually twelve books.

This is a modern abridged version that takes twelve books down to twelve chapters. Since this work, like The Cloud of Unknowing, is referenced by many other writers, it seemed like one with which I should familiarize myself.

I offer two excerpts from this one. First, from Chapter 6, “Contemplation and Meditation–Love in Prayer”:

This makes contemplation quite different than meditation, which nearly always takes a lot of effort on our part. Meditation is like eating. It is necessary to chew, turning spiritual meat this way and that between the teeth of consideration. Working on it, we grind it up to make it digestible. Contemplation is like drinking. There is no protracted labor by our teeth. We calmly swallow our drink with pleasure. There is even the possibility of sacred drunkenness. We can contemplate frequently and ardently enough to be completely out of ourselves and totally in God. This is quite different from inebriation of the flesh. It does not make us dull and stupid. Instead of lowering us to the level of animals, it lifts us to the level of angels. It allows us to live more in God than in ourselves.

To arrive at contemplation, we must hear the word of God, confer with others on spiritual matters, read, pray, sing, and conceive worthy thoughts.

– pg. 52

And from Chapter 11, “The Love of God Inspires Other Virtues”, in a section titled, “Fruit of the Spirit”:

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galations 5:22-23). Notice, Theotimus, that when Paul lists the various qualities of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, he counts them as one single fruit. He does not begin with the plural, “fruits.” He uses the singular. This is why: “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5:5). Love is the only fruit of the Holy Spirit. This one fruit has an infinite number of excellent properties. Paul mentions a few of them as examples. When we state that the fruit of the vine is grapes, wine, brandy, the drink “to gladden the human heart” (Psalm 104:15 NRSV), the beverage that settles the stomach [1 Timothy 5:23], we do not mean all these different things grow on the vine. There is only one fruit, yet it has many different qualities depending on how it is used.

Paul simply means that the fruit of the Holy Spirit is love. This love can be joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, and gentle, and it can improve self-control. Divine love prompts all these things and more.

Love is the life of the spirit.

– pg.  127

 

 

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).

 

 

Thoughts in Solitude

Thoughts in Solitude

by Thomas Merton (1958)

This book has the distinction of containing the prayer most commonly associated with Thomas Merton. It is also unique in that it does not carry the Nihil obstat and Imprimatur that usually appear at the beginning of his books. No matter, as there is very little of what would pass for doctrine in these pages.

“A voice of one crying out in the desert”

Merton on trusting God’s mercy

Merton on facing despair

Merton’s prayer of total trust