See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. - James 5:7

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Living Flame


Do not be discouraged.
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"As the sun was about to set, a trance fell upon Abram, and a deep terrifying darkness enveloped him.  When the sun had set and it was dark, there appeared a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, which passed between those pieces..." - [Genesis 15: 12-18, Second Sunday of Lent]
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This passage from today's first reading at Mass always reminds me of John of the Cross - I can't remember exactly where but the Saint notes this passage from Genesis in terms of the dark night of the soul.  Contrary to what the casual listener/reader of this passage may think, or indeed what a student of John of the Cross may have been taught, the nights of the soul  can be "deep and terrifying" as these words from today's reading suggest.  Hence the soul cries out, "Your presence Lord I seek, hide not your face from me; do not in anger repel your servant, you are my helper; cast me not far off.  I believe that I shall see the bounty of the Lord in the land of the living...  wait for the Lord with courage, be stouthearted and wait for the Lord." [Ps. 27]
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One contrary when close to the other makes it more manifest.
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I think one aspect of the purifying trials of an ordinary night some souls can experience is their own propensity for a particular sin.  Especially after the penitent reaches a new resolve in the spiritual life with the determination to live more generously and devoutly.  Frequently, depending upon the habit or inclination for certain sins, a person can on occasion fall back into sin when the going gets rough.  That is, when satisfaction in spiritual works or prayer is lacking and one feels distant from God.  The purification process, or purgation which is commonly understood as a night of the senses - may bring things to a head as it were, and the soul can sometimes fall into many faults - the temptation always being to give up the fight of course.  "Nothing more tortuous than the human heart" - as one prophet tells us.
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Struggling with dryness this Lent?
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I love reading John of the Cross.  Though he writes for contemplatives and souls advanced in the spiritual life, I too find encouragement in his counsels, since my conversion from a sinful life, which has progressed in fits and starts for the past several years, has involved some fairly intense purifying trials - with a great deal of backsliding and failures I might add.  Even the dogs can eat the leavings of his master's table.  I've had no lofty dark nights however.  That said, I do not presume to understand St. John or his doctrine, nor do I claim to be a contemplative.  I simply find his doctrine encouraging and edifying.
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It is interesting to note that when speaking of the suffering of souls in the "deep, terrifying darkness" of the actual dark night (the initial stages of contemplation or the purgative stage), the intensity of their suffering is likened to that of the soul in purgatory.  Keep in mind John of the Cross is speaking about contemplatives here.  Nevertheless there is something analogous to what every soul experiences sooner or later - later meaning purgatory if we are fortunate.  The following is an excerpt from The Living Flame of Love, by John of the Cross, just for your edification.
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All the soul's infirmities are brought to light; they are set before its eyes to be felt and healed.
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19. Before the divine fire is introduced into the substance of the soul and united with it through perfect and complete purgation and purity, its flame, which is the Holy Spirit, wounds the soul by destroying and consuming the imperfections of its bad habits. And this is the work of the Holy Spirit, in which he disposes it for divine union and transformation in God through love.
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The very fire of love that afterward is united with the soul, glorifying it, is what previously assailed it by purging it, just as the fire that penetrates a log of wood is the same that first makes an assault on the wood, wounding it with the flame, drying it out, and stripping it of its unsightly qualities until it is so disposed that it can be penetrated and transformed into the fire.
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Spiritual writers call this activity the purgative way. In it a person suffers great deprivation and feels heavy afflictions in the spirit that ordinarily overflow into the senses, for this flame is extremely oppressive.
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In this preparatory purgation the flame is not bright for a person but dark. If it does shed some light, the only reason is so the soul may see its miseries and defects. It is not gentle but afflictive. Even though it sometimes imparts the warmth of love, it does so with torment and pain. And it is not delightful, but dry. Although sometimes out of his goodness God accords some delight in order to strengthen and encourage it, the soul suffers for this before and afterward with another trial.

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Neither is the flame refreshing and peaceful, but it is consuming and contentious, making a person faint and suffer with self-knowledge. Thus it is not glorious for the soul, but rather makes it feel wretched and distressed in the spiritual light of self-knowledge that it bestows. As Jeremiah declares, God sends fire into its bones and instructs it [Lam. 1:13]; and as David also asserts, he tries it with fire [Ps. 17:3].
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20. At this stage persons suffer from sharp trials in the intellect, severe dryness and distress in the will, and from the burdensome knowledge of their own miseries in the memory, for their spiritual eye gives them a very clear picture of themselves. In the substance of the soul they suffer abandonment, supreme poverty, dryness, cold, and sometimes heat. They find relief in nothing, nor does any thought console them, nor can they even raise the heart to God, so oppressed are they by this flame. This purgation resembles what Job said God did to him: You have changed to being cruel toward me [Jb. 30:21]. For when the soul suffers all these things jointly, it truly seems that God has become displeased with it and cruel.
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21. A person's sufferings at this time cannot be exaggerated; they are but little less than the sufferings of purgatory. I do not know how to explain the severity of this oppression and the intensity of the suffering felt in it, save by what Jeremiah says of it in these words: I am the man that sees my poverty in the rod of his indignation. He has led me and brought me into darkness and not into light. Only against me he has turned and turned again his hand. He has made my skin and my flesh old, and he has broken my bones. He has surrounded me and compassed me with gall and labor. He has set me in dark places as those who are dead forever. He has built around me that I might not get out. He made my fetters heavy. And besides this when I have cried out and prayed, he has shut out my prayer. He shut up my ways with square rocks and turned my steps and paths upside down [Lam. 3:1-9].  - Living Flame of Love
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Reading John of the Cross.
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When I was in the Discalced Carmelite novitiate, we were told that the very best way to read St. John of the Cross was to begin with the Spiritual Canticle, and before that to read his life - the name of the biographer I can't recall just now.  I believe The Canticle more or less summarizes his doctrine and makes it attractive.  Later, I came to the conclusion a careful reading of St. Therese of Lisieux and her 'little way' also helps immensely in understanding St. John, since Therese makes it understandable for ordinary souls.  In effect, her doctrine is something of a synthesis of John of the Cross. 
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In studying any of the Carmelites, I think it is best to start by reading their lives, especially as regards St. Teresa of Avila - her Autobiography contains the most simple, straight-forward teaching on prayer.  I know The Interior Castle is often indicated as a good introduction to her writings, but I personally found her Autobiography more helpful, especially if one has led a sinful life. 
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I'm sure there are many good new books on Carmelite spirituality these days. Yet I have always found the classic two volume work by Father Marie-Eugene, OCD; I Want To See God and I Am A Daughter of the Church to be very useful to anyone interested in Carmelite Spirituality.  Today there are numerous Secular Carmelite groups around the country whose formation process guides the members in these studies, therefore my reflections here are strictly personal, while the books I've recommended would be beneficial to anyone, Carmelite or not.
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Art: Guercino: Adultress‎
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Remember we are never alone because God is always present at the deepest center of our souls, and we are united there in prayer.

7 comments:

  1. Anonymous12:40 PM

    I am very happy to come across this post! I feel as though I am spiritually dry lately and fortunately I found St. John of the Cross' Dark Night. I do not think I am worthy enough to consider it a time of growth and purification, but I did notice I have several of the "symptoms" described by the Saint, such as temptations and images intruding into my prayer life and horrible thoughts affecting even holy persons and things. His writing was much too advanced for me, but from what I understood I realized that I need to persevere. Thank you for this post-- they always seem to be perfectly suited for me! It is encouragement for me in my time of darkness and spiritual pain.

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  2. Austringer2:45 PM

    Terry, I spoke with the contact person for one of the local secular Carmelite groups, and a book she recommended was "The Impact of God: Soundings From Saint John of the Cross", by Iain Matthew. I've just read a few chapters (it's a short book), and thought it useful, though his writing style is not my favorite. Are you familiar with this book at all?

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  3. Maria3:20 PM

    Terry: Thanks so much for the post and the references. I love it when you post things like this. I haven't read Avila's bio. Was she very sinful prior to entering? Do you know?

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  4. I find the mystics really difficult. For me it's like wading thru a deep current trying to reach the understanding that I'm sure it's trying to convey. I don't know if that means my sprituality is shallow or I'm just not spending the contemplative time necessary to "get it"

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  5. Fr. Erickson referred to the dark night of the soul today in his homily. He talked about how everyone will experience dryness, lack of consolations, desolations, and a host of other challenges, but few will go through the dark night that St. John of the Cross describes. More interesting, he mentioned how some theologians consider the words of the Creed, "...He descended into hell" to mean that Jesus experienced the dark night, which is certainly debatable (at least in this context). But, he stressed Jesus' humanity and how He experienced (to an unfathomable degree) the same sufferings we all do. Found it interesting to ponder Jesus' humanity during this time of Lent, which was Father's point...it just seemed to finally sink in a little this time.

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  6. Austringer - never heard of it.
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    Cath - I just read St. John's counsels for beginners - the faults they fall into and that kind of stuff.
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    Monica - Fr. is absolutely right - few souls ever make it - Teresa of Calcutta is one of those rare souls in our day we know of who did.
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    Most of us run away when severe difficulties and trials set in. Little souls do not have to worry about that however since their way is confidence and love - but that doesn't mean the absence of suffering. As I said - the doctrine of St. Therese is the synthesis of St. John of the Cross - Fr. Marie-Eugene OCD says the same thing.
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    I don't know what Father is referring to regarding the descent into hell - theologians disagree on the exact meaning of this mystery, both in the East and the West. What St. John of the Cross teaches is the doctrine of the Cross, and the absolute desolation Christ suffered upon the Cross which led him to ask why God had abandoned him. And of course, since he is God it was his humanity that suffered this absolute annhilation and desolation.
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    Maria - Teresa of Avila thought of herself as a great sinner, she was a worldly nun in the begining - though it's doubtful she ever committed mortal sin. Her sinful status is what the world calls saintly.

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  7. Maria8:47 PM

    Terry--Thanks.

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