St. John of the Cross is about as hard-core as they come. He leaves no wiggle room when it comes to seeking sanctity. In fact, this 16th century Spanish saint is called the “Mystical Doctor” because of the heights of holiness he achieved. His one goal was union with God.
For a long time my only real knowledge of John was in reference to his mysterious description of the “dark night of the soul” - the feeling of total abandonment by God that many Christians experience as they reach the highest levels of prayer and union with God in this life. It’s a phase of the spiritual life where God is teaching a soul to seek Him no matter what. It’s a phase where God is working on the soul, purifying it from all attachments to this world. It’s a phase that scared the dickens out of me, so I kept my distance. I’m no rocket scientist, but I could tell this guy would demand a lot from me, maybe more than I was willing to give. I hate it when I’m right.
Part of what makes John of the Cross so great (and scary) is that he doesn’t just encourage us to stop sinning. That’s not enough. He wants us to get rid of even our sinful desires, to mortify our bad appetites. (I told you he’s demanding.) He’s insistent on this point because he compares these sinful desires to remora fish which attach themselves to the bottom of boats and greatly inhibit progress even though they’re small fish. He finds it regrettable that some souls who have been given so much by God make little real progress because they won’t let go of little attachments.
Of course, we can’t get rid of our general inclination to sin as fallen humans, but we all know that weeds grow back if you don’t pull them up at the roots. That should be the goal, he says, because a person that is encumbered by anything other than God, “will not possess the freedom, solitude, and purity requisite for divine transformation” (The Ascent of Mount Carmel Bk 1 Ch 11 no. 6).
A man saturated in scripture, John uses the Israelites as an example of the threat that undestroyed desire for sin poses. In Judges chapter two the angel of the Lord tells the Israelites that because they didn’t destroy all of their enemies as God commanded – instead leaving some of them to live in their midst – those enemies would become an “occasion of their fall and perdition” (Ibid no. 7). We often do the same thing. Even though God has slain our giants (i.e. sins), we sometimes continue to “fraternize” with our imperfections and stay too friendly with them. We have to realize that sinful attachments and desires will continue to plague us if we don’t get rid of them. All it takes is one worm (or should I say “serpent”) to destroy the apple.
Right about now you’re probably wondering how this is even possible. (I’m wondering that again, myself.) How can we scrape off the remora that slow us down? I can’t really summarize the depth and beauty of John of the Cross’ plan of action in a few words, but it boils down to this: God must be number one in your life…period. There are no “ifs”, “ands” or “buts” about it. Enjoy the gifts of this world God generously gives, but realize that anything that actually distracts you from him has to go. Sounds difficult, but it is possible. Saints like John of the Cross are proof.
Detachment can happen through a sacramental life rooted in deep prayer. You draw close to God and he draws close to you. (James 4:8) And when you’re close to God, his desires become your desires. You want what he wants. His grace combined with your active desire for Him is a Molotov cocktail against sin and recipe for eternal life.
If you’re discouraged by your sinful attachments, take heart. Don’t forget that God wants all of this to happen even more than we do and he knows we’re powerless to do it on our own. That’s why he is constantly showering us with grace upon grace so that we can become saints. I wouldn’t dare to even think about following John of the Cross’ sage wisdom on my own, but I know that “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). May God continue to bless you in this Advent season, and St. John of the Cross – pray for us…a lot!
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