John Donne and the Catholic Church

John Donne (1572 – 1631) was born and raised as a Catholic but died as an Anglican – quite a notable one in fact, as he was the Dean of Saint Paul’s cathedral for the last ten years of his life. This much is a given, but the nature of Donne’s actual convictions and his idea of where the true Church subsisted is harder to establish. In fact, it is important to note at the outset here that nothing can be conclusively proved with respect to Donne’s religious affiliation, and anything I write here must similarly be taken as speculation; this is not to say that no theory can be any more convincing than another, only that nothing can be said with absolute assurance.

John Donne was born into a well-off Catholic family in London, and was educated at home until the age of twelve, when he went to study at Oxford. At the age of fourteen he transferred to Trinity College, Cambridge, and shortly after this his thought began to diverge from Catholic teaching. It must be remembered that during this entire period adherence to the ancient Faith of England was attended by heavy penalties and would lead to social exclusion, so there is an antecedent possibility that Donne would have been attracted away from the Church in order to avoid persecution and enjoy the freedom of society. Moreover, the shadow of anti-Catholicism was cast heavily over his family history, as his great-grandmother was the sister of Saint Thomas More.

On top of this more distant legacy, Donne’s brother died in prison, having been sent there for hiding a Catholic priest, and two of his uncles (on his mother’s side) were among the first English members of the Society of Jesus; Jasper, one of these uncles, who was by all accounts quite an arrogant man and therefore may have led to Donne’s bad feeling towards the Jesuits later in life, was in fact Superior of the Jesuit Mission to England. It is difficult to say what sort of legacy all this left in the mind of the young John Donne – one could argue that it fostered a life-long admiration for his relatives’ adherence to the Catholic Faith, or that it simply put him off remaining as a Catholic.

The reality is probably a mixture of the two, but the latter aspect had a more immediate influence – Donne was keen on an academic career, and not being able to take a degree at either Oxford or Cambridge because of his Catholicism must have rankled him greatly and contributed to his later decision to convert away from the Church. At any rate, by the time he was twenty he was admitted to practise law, and whilst he still identified as a Catholic, was openly espousing heterodox ideas. It is also at this time that we see in his poetry the embracing of a libertine and cynical philosophy of life, as well as the emergence of some rather salacious imagery in his love poems. So whilst Donne was being converted away from Catholicism, he was certainly not being converted to any other form of Christianity.

The times that Donne lived in were, whilst relatively quiet politically (the Thirty Years War only took place right at the end of his life and the English Civil War was to come yet later), a period of great metaphysical and theological confusion, as well as an era of growing philosophical and scientific scepticism. The old, ordered universe of the Middle Ages was thrown up in the air, and thanks to the upheavals of the Protestant Reformation, many did not quite know what to believe any more – what the nature of the Church was, where it was to be found, how to reconcile the traditions of previous generations with the novelties of the day, were questions on the minds of many.

On top of this, Donne was a deeply emotional man, and therefore often driven one way and another in his doctrinal convictions by the change of mood or circumstance. This is not to say that he had no conviction, or was not a man of conscience, but only that in his earlier years his temperament often seems to have had the better of him, and in a world of great uncertainty this did not help him to become easily settled in his beliefs. On top of this, there was the practical issue that remaining as a Catholic would preclude any chance of the public career he so desired – this pragmatism seems to have funnelled any latent doctrinal confusion away from Rome, thus leaving his only remaining option as the Church of England.

Isaak Walton attributes the beginning of Donne’s conversion to Anglicanism at around nineteen/twenty, and this is certainly the time when he was beginning to be open about his divergence from Catholicism. However, it was not until 1614, when he was forty-two, that Donne formally rejected the Church and settled on the Anglican position. At the suggestion of King James I, he then became ordained to the Anglican ministry, and when he was forty-eight became Dean of Saint Paul’s cathedral. In 1618, his wife Anne died, and this caused him to also reject the cynicism of his youth and embrace devotional themes in his poetry to a greater extent. It is his poetry to which I now turn in order to get some sense of how much, whilst he had officially pledged allegiance elsewhere, he had retained affection for the Catholic Church.

The first poem which may shed some light on this matter is Satyre III, which has been dated to 1597 at the latest, so precedes Donne’s official rejection of Catholicism. However, it does give an insight into just how concerned Donne was about the question of where Truth resided, and the difficulties he found in coming down on any one side of the argument over the other. The relevant section is as follows:


On a huge hill,

Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will

Reach her, about must, and about must go;

And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so;

Yet strive so, that before age, death’s twilight,

Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.


Donne here describes the search for Truth as one that man must commit himself to, but (at least for Donne at that moment) admits of no firm conclusion – it is an ongoing process that we are bound to journey onward with, even if we cannot ever say with satisfaction that we have reached that point atop the ‘huge hill’ where ‘Truth stands’. In this poem Donne does not really examine the pros and cons of Canterbury, Geneva or Rome, but merely stresses the necessity of that truth-searching process. In a later poem, Holy Sonnet XVIII, though, which was written after he had been ordained to the Anglican ministry, we find the same themes and the same search still unresolved in the poet’s mind:


Show me dear Christ, Thy spouse, so bright and clear.

What! Is it She, which on the other shore

Goes richly painted? or which robb’d and tore

Laments and mourns in Germany and here?

Sleeps she a thousand, then peeps up one year?

Is she self-truth and errs? now, new, now outwore?

Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore

On one, on seven, or on no hill appear?

Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights

First travel we to seek and then make love?

Betray kind husband Thy spouse to our sights,

And let mine amorous soul court Thy mild dove,

Who is most true, and pleasing to Thee, then

When she is embrac’d and open to most men.


Apart from the startling imagery of the Church as prostitute (which has biblical precedent, at least if one considers the descriptions of Israel in the Old Testament as types of the Church), an image that Donne manages to present with a great measure of reverence – testament to his talent – here we have the poet still wrangling with the problems of where and what the Church is, even after taking up life in the Anglican ministry. Another interpretation has been suggested, namely that Donne is contrasting the Church promised in Scripture and the Church in the world, and it is possible that this theme is included as well. But the anguished nature of Donne’s questioning, and the specific raising of different options (the seven hills being Rome, the one as Jerusalem, probably representing the Eastern churches, and the none for Geneva) as candidate for the true locus of the Church’s life, seems to preclude this latter interpretation as being the dominant theme.

Moreover, Donne does not seem to allude to Anglicanism at all in this poem – there is no discernible reference to Canterbury as a possible candidate. This could be due to the growing sense within seventeenth century Anglicanism that it represented a middle way, inclusive of Catholicism and Calvinism, but given Donne’s personal history and his knowledge of the real differences that existed between Anglicanism and these other options, this does not seem likely. Might it more likely represent the continuation of a deep ambivalence about the authenticity of the Church of England as a church? Another poem, written in 1601, when Donne was twenty-nine and, at least publicly, professing Anglican beliefs, may shed some more light on this question.

The poem in question is entitled The Progress of the Soul (not to be confused with a later poem, also with the same name, but subtitled The Second Anniversary, and written in 1612) and presents the history of the soul of heresy, from the apple in Eden and through successive reincarnations in the great heretics. In this list of heretics Donne includes Muhammed, Luther, Calvin, and finally Elizabeth I, Queen of England and the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Apart from the fact that Donne was now professing Anglican beliefs, his official position was secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, a man who was opposed to Catholicism both in his official capacity and in his private beliefs, and who had prosecuted Saint Edmund Campion. He would not likely have taken Donne into his employ if his beliefs were still openly Catholic.

However, in The Progress of the Soul, Donne’s objections to Queen Elizabeth are theological in character – she is presented as a great heresiarch, following men like Luther and Calvin. If he had moved away from the Catholic Church, his feelings about Anglicanism were far from positive. What this makes clear is that Donne, before taking up his position as an Anglican minister (where, as we see above, he was still unsure of where the truth lay) he was able to live as an Anglican whilst rejecting much of its theology. In 1612 he wrote The Second Anniversary, the female figure in which is widely believed to refer to Elizabeth I (at least on one level – it is a complex poem with several layers of meaning), and again his feelings are deeply ambiguous:


She, who being to herself a State, enjoy’d

All royalties which any State employ’d;

For she made wars, and triumph’d; reason still

Did not o’erthrow, but rectify her will:

And she made peace, for no peace is like this,

That beauty, and chastity together kiss:

She did high justice, for she crucified

Every first motion of rebellious pride


There is a deeply ironic tone to Donne’s praises of Elizabeth’s achievements here, and the crucifixions of ‘rebellious pride’ mentioned are more than likely a reference to her severe treatment of Catholic recusants, something Donne well knew about due to his family history. Furthermore, the ‘high justice’ of the Queen could just as easily mean high-handed or overbearing rather than exalted and majestic. It is hard to say from the poem alone, but given what else we know of Donne’s attitudes, it is not completely without warrant to see this as a sly rebuke of the Queen’s actions. Another poem, written the year before and entitled The First Anniversary seems to compare the new Church of England to the old Catholic Church in England, and favours the latter:


For there’s a kind of world remaining still,

Though she which did inanimate and fill

The world, be gone, yet in this last long night,

Her ghost doth walk; that is, a glimmering light,

A faint weak love of virtue, and of good,

Reflects from her, on them which understood

Her worth; and though she have shut in all day,

The twilight of her memory doth stay;

Which, from the carcass of the old world, free,

Creates a new world, and new creatures be

Produc’d; the matter and the stuff of this,

Her virtue, and the form our practice is.


This passage has a deeply nostalgic tone, and Donne seems to be reconciling himself to the fact that the Catholic Church of his youth, which he still seems to love, is gone from England, but that her ‘ghost doth walk’ in the Church of England. I.e.; there has been, within the new church, some preservation of the old ways, and the poet finds some measure of solace in that, but ‘she which did inanimate and fill the world’ is gone – the fullness of the Faith has disappeared from England, and Donne, having long ago decided to abandon that Faith for the new ways (for whatever reason) is trying to make the best of it. It is not the most reassuring picture, tinged as it is with sadness for the old ways, but Donne at least gives himself the hope that there is some kind of continuity.

The ambiguous nature of all that is presented in Donne’s poetry with respect to his true religious beliefs is to be expected, as, if he held on to the Catholic beliefs of his youth, it would have been impossible for him to espouse them plainly and keep his position in society. Indeed, to do so may even have been to raise the possibility of martyrdom, and there are few of us who, if we are really honest, would welcome such a fate. Praise be to those who do walk that path, but it would, I think, be unfair to label John Donne a coward for concealing his true beliefs. Nevertheless, he could have concealed those beliefs by choosing a less illustrious path for himself and rejecting a career in public life – again, one cannot know, let alone judge, the motivations of another, but this does seem to have been, at least in part, a motivation for his leaving the Church.

As to what John Donne’s beliefs were during that last period of his life, as he continued in the Anglican ministry, noone can ever really know. But it is known that he exercised a very ‘high’ churchmanship, leaving behind only a few of the actual teachings of the Catholic Church (albeit highly significant ones, like the papal primacy) and it was no doubt the ambiguity of Anglicanism itself on a lot of matters that suited Donne and helped him to settle there. Whether his doubts about it as an authentic ‘branch’ of the Faith were ever resolved must also remain mysterious. But, strangely, it is when he tries to communicate his uncertainty on such matters in his poetry that he seems most sincere – ambiguity and doubt were, paradoxically, the themes he communicated most clearly, and so in that respect it is perhaps best to end on a note of uncertainty here as well.

Karl Barth: Sloth as the Essence of Sin

In discussions about temptation, spiritual discernment, etc, the sin of sloth does not seem to get mentioned quite as much as its more illustrious cousins. Lust tends to get the most press, as it is more visible than the other deadly sins, easily noticeable to the one affected by it, and wreaking evident havoc in the lives of those who give in to it. Greed is another very noticeable sin, though one which we tend to see more in others than in ourselves, and which is often discussed in the public sphere with reference to bankers, politicians and other prominent civic figures; similarly with gluttony, which is something that we in the West are particularly conscious of, focusing as we do on our physical wellbeing almost to the exclusion of the spiritual.

Wrath is, like lust, hard to ignore, and envy is something that, although it is an operation of the soul that often lacks physical expression with its effects therefore often more subtle, we are still quite conscious of, particularly the extent to which it is liable to do us long-term damage if we indulge it. Pride, which is more elusive still, vies with lust for being the most notorious deadly sin of all – it is certainly widely reckoned to be the deadliest, if not the most obvious, and the vast majority of spiritual directors and theologians have seen it (with good reason) as being at the root of all other sins. Sloth however, never seems to get quite the recognition it deserves – it is the one that most of us will have wondered to ourselves at some point or other how it got on the list; it is a sin for sure, but its deadliness is often hard to see.

Karl Barth, in his seminal work the Church Dogmatics, examined pretty much every aspect of Christian doctrine, rigorously investigating foundational concepts, and the question of the essential nature of sin was inevitably one of the things that he studied. In the second part of its fourth book, Barth examines the traditional view that sees pride or hubris as representing the essential character of sin, and then suggests an alternative view – namely that sloth might more accurately capture that essence. Pride, Barth argues, is a heroic, Promethean expression of sin’s essence – disobedience – which at times even approaches a tragic beauty. Sloth however, is an expression of sin as a reluctance to know and follow God in its more trivial aspect:

The sin of man is not merely heroic in its perversion. It is also – to use again the terms already introduced in the first sub-section – ordinary, trivial and mediocre. The sinner is not merely Prometheus or Lucifer. He is also – and for the sake of clarity, and to match the grossness of the matter, we will use rather popular expressions – a lazy-bones, a sluggard, a good-for-nothing, a slowcoach and a loafer. He does not exist only in an exalted world of evil; he exists also in a very mean and petty world of evil (and there is a remarkable unity and reciprocity between the two in spite of their apparent antithesis). In the one, he stands bitterly in need of humiliation; in the other he stands no less bitterly in need of exaltation. And in both cases the need is in relation to the totality of his life in action. We will gather together what we have to say on this second aspect under the term or concept “sloth.”

The forbidden or reprehensible tardiness and failure of man obviously fall under the general definition of sin as disobedience. In face of the divine direction calling him to perform a definite action, man refuses to follow the indication which he is given. Even in this refusal to act, however, and therefore in this inaction, he is involved in a certain action. The idler or loafer does something. For the most part, indeed, what he does is quite considerable and intensive. The only thing is that it does not correspond to the divine direction but is alien and opposed to it. He does not do what God wills, and so he does what God does not will. He is disobedient and he does that which is evil. In all that follows we must keep before us the fact that because sin in its form as sloth seems to have the nature of a vacuum, a mere failure to act, this does not mean that it is a milder or weaker or less potent type of sin than in its active form as pride. Even as sloth, sin is plainly disobedience.

from Church Dogmatics (1961), IV.2.65, pp.404-405, T&T Clark.

            Barth goes on to emphasise the fact that sloth, whilst giving the appearance of mere inactivity, is really just as much an active form of unbelief as is pride – it is an expression of the interior disposition which does not wish to do God’s will and thus wishes He would simply go away, leaving us to ourselves. Whilst pride is often expressed in subtle ways within a person’s makeup or behaviour, sloth is by its very nature always understated and hard to pin down as direct disobedience. Pridefulness, while often complex and woven in together with other disordered desires, is often notable by its overt expression as rebellion, and in this form is actually easier to convert and sanctify than sloth.

The man who shakes his fist at the heavens is one who deep down cares about truth and justice, though his conception of such things may be misconceived; the slothful man simply wishes to be left alone, and hates God for intruding on the security of his detachment from the obligations of Goodness and Truth. A desire to make such an escape, argues Barth, may actually find a home in purely ‘natural’ religion, and thus it is not just God in the abstract but the concrete expression and revelation of God in Jesus Christ that the slothful man in his heart truly despises:

Sin in the form of sloth crystallises in the rejection of the man Jesus. In relation to Him the rejection of God from which it derives finds virulent and concrete and forceful expression. For it is in Him that the divine direction and summons and claim come to man. It is in Him that the divine decision is made which he will not accept, which he tries to resist and escape. It is to be noted that in the main there is no radical opposition to the idea of God as a higher or supreme being to whom man regards himself as committed, nor to the thought of a beyond, or something which transcends his existence, nor to the demand that he should enter into a more or less conscious or unconscious, binding or non-binding connexion with it. He will never seriously or basically reject altogether religion or piety in one form or another, nor will he finally or totally cease to exercise or practise them in an open or disguised form. On the contrary, an escape to religion, to adoring faith in a congenial higher being, is the purest and ripest and most appropriate possibility at which he grasps in his sloth, and cannot finally cease from grasping as a slothful man…

…But he is not tolerated, let alone confirmed, by the reality and presence and action of God in the existence of the man Jesus. He is basically illuminated and radically questioned and disturbed and therefore offended by the deity of God in the concrete phenomenon of the existence of this man. His own tolerance is thus strained to the limit when he has to do with God in this man. His rejection of God finds expression in his relation this man. Tested in this way, he will unhesitatingly avoid God even as the religious or pious man. But this means that he will unhesitatingly resist God. In his relation to God he will show himself to be slothful man, turned in upon himself and finding his satisfaction and comfort in his own ego.

Why is it that this is expressed in the rejection of the man Jesus? The reason is that in this man, as opposed to all the higher beings and transcendencies which he knows to be congenial and to which he may therefore commit himself, he has to do with the true and living God who loved this man, and was His God, from all eternity, and who will love this man and be His God, to all eternity; the God whose outstretched hand of promise and preservation of deliverance and command, has always been, and always will be, the existence of this man. The reason is that what God always gave to all men, what He was and is and will be for them, is simply a demonstration of the free grace which became an historical event in the appearance and work, the dying and rising again, of this man. The God of this man, and therefore concretely this man, offends us. Our sloth rejects Him. In relation to Him it is our great inaction, our hesitation, our withdrawal into ourselves. Man rejects Him because he wants to elect and will himself, and he does not want to be disturbed in this choice.

ibid, pp.406-408.

            The line taken by Barth above, which I think is a pretty accurate assessment of what many of us will have either seen in others or experienced in ourselves (or more likely both), reminds me of the basic plot of G. K. Chesterton’s The Ball and the Cross, where two men – a devout Catholic and a staunch atheist – dispute and attempt to duel across the country, yet ultimately find that they have much more in common with one another than with the rest of the populace; they at least care about God, everybody else floats along in semi-indifference, some tipping their hat to religion, some not, but all desperate to be left to get on with day-to-day business and to the creation of a secure corner of the world for themselves.

Barth and Chesterton agree that the impassioned atheist perhaps has more of a chance of redemption than the agnostic, the man who is ‘spiritual but not religious’, or even worse, the church-goer who goes through the motions but either crosses their fingers whilst reciting the Creed or doesn’t pay much attention to it in general. Whilst Karl Barth’s thesis that Christianity is fundamentally opposed to natural religion is, I think, overstated, failing to account for the confluences between the two and the sense in which the latter can be a ‘schoolmaster’ for the former, his instinct is right. It is very easy to turn religious observance into an idol, or into something that gives me the space for paying my respects to a congenial, vague God who doesn’t challenge me or shine a light on my weaknesses at all.

The God revealed in Jesus Christ though is one who shatters all the illusions we have about ourselves – that we are basically good people, that we can save ourselves, that we deserve to be respected for our ‘fine’ qualities and to have our selfish behaviour tolerated. The truth about ourselves is something that we routinely shy away from and thus the essence of sin as expressed in sloth is to turn our back on God because we know He will expose the very things we are trying to hide (Barth, earlier in the essay, uses the apposite image of man rolling himself into a ball like a hedgehog – secured from the light and passively turning his spikes outwards towards God). The purely natural religion – a vague theism (or sometimes even pantheism) – that now espoused in many churches is thus a betrayal of the Gospel, as it fails to shine the searching light of Christ onto us, instead confirming us in our sloth.

The desire to be left alone, left to our illusions of self-sufficiency and ‘basic decency’, is just as essential to sin as is the overt rebellion of pride – in fact, as Barth notes, they are two sides of the same coin. We want to be left alone so that we might ignore God and His call for us to live in true freedom – a freedom that involves risk and responsibility but that is full of light and life – but God will not do that. He came to us in Jesus Christ so that we might know Him and in doing so know our real need of Him. Whilst this revelation should be and in reality is joy to the world, for many it remains a threat – a challenge to our indifference and a disturbance of our self-created securities. Sloth is something stubborn and perverse, which makes man cosy in his rejection of the living God – this makes it a very deadly sin indeed.

Saint John of the Cross: The Patient Reformer

I wrote recently about the mystical theology of Saint John of the Cross – something for which he is justly renowned, and on the basis of which the Church has named him Doctor Mysticus (the ‘Mystical Doctor’). But today* I would like to focus more on his biography, especially the reforms he implemented together with Saint Teresa of Avila, and the patient suffering he endured during that process. Saint John, who was beatified by Pope Clement X in 1675, canonised by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726 and made a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI in 1926, was born Juan de Yepes y Alvarez near Avila in 1542, in the small village of Fontiveros.

His father, Gonzalo, was of noble birth, but had been disinherited and thrown out of his home because he had chosen to marry someone of lower class – a silk weaver named Catalina – and Gonzalo died when John was nine. At this point the family moved to Medina del Campo, near Valladolid, and John attended the nearby Colegio de los Doctrinos, whilst working for the sisters of a local church-convent. He later put these skills to good use as a nurse, before entering the Jesuit College in Medina del Campo at the age of 18 to study humanities, rhetoric and classical languages. In 1563, he entered the novitiate of the local Carmelites, and a year later began further study at the prestigious University of Salamanca, reading humanities and philosophy there for three years.

In 1567, Saint John was ordained to the priesthood, and returned home to Medina del Campo to celebrate his first Mass with his proud family looking on. It was here that he first met Saint Teresa of Avila, who proved to be a kindred spirit and powerful influence on Saint John’s life. She shared with him her plans for reforming the Carmelite order, and encouraged him to help her with reforms for the male branch. On December 28th 1568, the very first house of the Discalced Carmelites was opened at Duruelo in the Province of Avila, with the male community there consisting of Saint John and three other members. It was here that he took the name John of the Cross. At the end of 1572, at Saint Teresa’s request, he became confessor and vicar of the Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila, where Teresa was prioress.

This is when the difficulties began – promotion of the reformed Carmelites was not met with enthusiasm by many superiors, and the task of the Canonical Visitors who had to oversee the reforms was not easy. In Castile, balance was achieved, but in Andalusia the Visitor gave clear preference to the Discalced Carmelites, infuriating the Carmelite Prior General there. This imbalance and subsequent bad feeling flowed over into other provinces, and when in 1577 another Andalusian Visitor supportive of the reformers died, some of the Carmelites opposed to the new reforms kidnapped John and imprisoned him. He had already been warned by some of his superiors, who told him to leave Avila, but John invoked the higher authority of a papal nuncio who supported the Discalced Carmelites.

Nevertheless, Saint John was held for nine months at Toledo in a tiny cell measuring ten feet by six, with no light except that which came through a hole into the adjoining room, was given a diet of water, bread and scraps of salted fish, and on top of this was publicly lashed weekly before the community. Amazingly, despite this treatment and conditions, John managed to compose his famous Spiritual Canticle (as well as some other, shorter, poems) on paper passed to him under the door of his cell by the friar on guard. It seems that the deprivation he experienced during this period was at least in part responsible for the intensely ascetic spiritual vision that he developed, and anyone who sees his teaching as being unduly demanding must remember that it came from the pen of a man who was well acquainted with great suffering.

After escaping on August 15th 1578, Saint John was nursed back to health by some of Saint Teresa’s nuns at Toledo before returning to reform. He was appointed as superior of a monastery near Beas in Andalusia, where he remained for ten years, and continued to write poetry as well as the spiritual commentaries for which he is so well known. However, his suffering was not at an end, as later when disagreement emerged amongst the ranks of the reformed Carmelites (who had been officially granted separation from the original Carmelite order in 1580 by Pope Gregory XIII) John, who took the more moderate position, was removed from his post, again treated badly, and sent to a remote priory at La Penuela. He fell ill there, and died some months later at the Ubeda monastery in 1591.

The consistency of opposition to the Discalced reforms, and the intensity of the ill-treatment which Saint John of the Cross received is a remarkable testimony to the patience of the man and of his fidelity to the Church. The example of Saint John stands in sharp contrast with someone like Martin Luther who, seeing the need for reform in his country at the same time, instead gave a response characterised by hubris and rebellion – what was more important to Luther was that he was in the right, and thus he was willing to cause schism to make his point; what was important to Saint John of the Cross was obedience to the Truth, and thus he was willing to bear all manner of things to see it brought to light in accordance with truths already known.

Furthermore, as noted briefly earlier, the experience of Saint John’s patient suffering had no little impact on his mystical vision – by becoming united to the Cross of Christ in life, he was better able to see that at heart, all Christian spirituality is cruciform, and so requires a stripping away of dependence on things, images, and consolations (both worldly and spiritual). Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI summarised this approach well in a General Audience on Saint John in February 2011:

According to John of the Cross, all that exists, created by God, is good. Through creatures we may arrive at the discovery of the One who has left within them a trace of himself. Faith, in any case, is the one source given to the human being to know God as he is in himself, as the Triune God. All that God wished to communicate to man, he said in Jesus Christ, his Word made flesh. Jesus Christ is the only and definitive way to the Father (cf. Jn 14:6). Any created thing is nothing in comparison to God and is worth nothing outside him, consequently, to attain to the perfect love of God, every other love must be conformed in Christ to the divine love.

From this derives the insistence of St John of the Cross on the need for purification and inner self-emptying in order to be transformed into God, which is the one goal of perfection. This “purification” does not consist in the mere physical absence of things or of their use; on the contrary what makes the soul pure and free is the elimination of every disorderly dependence on things. All things should be placed in God as the centre and goal of life.

Of course, the long and difficult process of purification demands a personal effort, but the real protagonist is God: all that the human being can do is to “prepare” himself, to be open to divine action and not to set up obstacles to it. By living the theological virtues, human beings raise themselves and give value to their commitment. The growth of faith, hope and charity keeps pace with the work of purification and with the gradual union with God until they are transformed in him.

taken from General Audience at Paul VI Audience Hall, February 16th 2011.

            Pope Benedict then goes on to place this process of purification, of preparation for the work of God to be effective in our lives, in the context of the end which all authentic Christian spirituality is oriented towards – immersion in the life of the Most Holy Trinity itself. The essence of all that Saint John of the Cross teaches is that we should walk the Way of the Cross in order that we may love God in the same way God loves Himself as Blessed Trinity, and thereby also love the things He has made in the way He loves them. Thus, as Pope Benedict says:

…there is no true union of love with God that does not culminate in Trinitarian union. In this supreme state the holy soul knows everything in God and no longer has to pass through creatures in order to reach him. The soul now feels bathed in divine love and rejoices in it without reserve.


            The life and teaching of Saint John of the Cross are then, as with all the great Doctors of the Church, one. It was through his realisation that the Way of the Cross is the only way to truly immerse oneself in the Triune Love of God that he was able to endure so patiently the suffering that was imposed upon him, and those experiences in turn helped to confirm and expand his initial intuitions. Ultimately it is love that characterises his mystical theology – obedience to the sinful men within the Church during times of strife out of love for her and the One from whom she came; the setting aside of things that may be good in and of themselves out of love for the greater Love that lies behind and gives life to all things; patience and charity in all things through the Charity imparted to his soul by God, who gives freely to all and wishes nothing more than we love as He does.


*Today is the feast day of Saint John of the Cross according to the older General Roman Calendar, which was effective until 1969. His feast day is now celebrated on December 14th, the day of his death and therefore his dies natalis or ‘birthday to heaven’ as a saint.

Jesus of the Scars: the Kingship of Christ is not of this world


This is a re-blog of a post on Christ’s Kingship from the same time last year

Originally posted on Journey Towards Easter:

Today is the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King, where we both mark the end of the liturgical year and celebrate Jesus’ lordship over all earthly powers and authorities. On this day we remember to whom we owe our true allegiance, and that He whom we acknowledge as King is the Lord of all time (indeed, of eternity as well).

How though is Christ our King and Lord? Earthly rulers of all times and places have exercised and displayed their authority over their subjects by acts of power and proclamations of their own greatness. Not so with Jesus Christ, who, though co-equal in substance and honour with the Father, ‘did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant’ (Philippians 2:6-7) and ‘being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even…

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Saint Rafael Arnaiz Baron: Will We Follow Him?

In a letter to his aunt on the 16th of November 1935, Saint Rafael Arnaiz Baron wrote about the frustration he felt with respect to the great need the world has for God’s love, but the reluctance people have to open their hearts and respond to it – that the cure for our ills is before us all the time but we are so preoccupied with satisfying any number of petty, selfish desires that we block out the voice calling us to be healed. Saint Rafael likewise laments his insignificance, and the tension between his desire to call the world to love God and his inability to effect any change in people’s hearts – though he knew that it is not our arguments that convert our neighbour but the grace of God, he was at this time suffering the common anxieties that stem from an inability to be reconciled to our limitations as human beings and trust in God alone.

In a deeply moving passage, he then continues to consider the people who Our Lord and His disciples passed during the years of His ministry, and the many who heard His preaching and teaching only to remain unmoved. When I first read this, I thought of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (perhaps because of the upcoming Solemnity of Christ the King being on my mind) but Saint Rafael no doubt intended his meditation to apply to all the times at which Jesus and His disciples were surrounded by crowds, large and small. Rafael’s description of the joyfulness of the Apostles upon the addition of a new member to their group is wonderful to read, especially given the sorrow expressed earlier in the letter, and the tender love that he depicts as emanating from the glance of Our Lord is acutely affecting.

Furthermore, the simplicity of the response desired that Saint Rafael describes is greatly moving, as it reminds us that God does not ask of us any great works or eloquent words. He does not look to be impressed or coerced into loving us – He loves us already, because that is who He is, and all He asks is that we love Him in return and love others as He does. The question is though, will we follow Him? Whilst Our Lord Jesus walked past those in the crowds of Judea and Galilee, His glance then was but a temporary thing; but His eternal gaze remained upon them, on all people before and thereafter, and remains upon us now – His look is one of Love, and the offer to follow Him is always open:

How sad those people make me who, seeing the procession of Jesus and his disciples, remain unmoved. What joy must the apostles and friends of Jesus have felt every time a soul opened its eyes, left everything and joined them in following the Nazarene – he who asked for nothing else but a little love. Will we follow him, my dear sister? He sees our intentions and looks at us, smiles and helps us. There is nothing to fear; we will go to be the last in the procession that traverses in silence the Judean countryside yet sustained by a very great, immense love. He has no need of words. We don’t have to raise ourselves to his level for him to see us. We have no need of great works or of anything that attracts attention: we shall be the least of Jesus’ friends but those who love him most.

Excerpt taken from Spiritual Writings, courtesy of Daily Gospel.

Thomas A Kempis: On Resisting Temptation

Thomas a Kempis (1380 – 1471) was born at Kempen, near Dusseldorf, and left home at the age of thirteen to join his brother at the Latin school at Deventer – a school which he attended from 1392 to 1399. However, Thomas’ brother (John) had, whilst at school there, become attracted to the Congregation of the Common Life (also known as the Brethren of the Common Life) – a religious community mostly made up of laymen, founded by Gerard Groote, an influential evangelist who had, inspired by the example of a local Carthusian Prior, given up great worldly status and preferment in order to dedicate himself to constant prayer, study and self-discipline – and Thomas soon found himself attracted by the movement as well.

The Congregation/Brotherhood were not bound by permanent vows, but were bound together by a rule of common ownership, poverty, chastity and obedience, as well as a desire to challenge the laxity and corruption of the times. One of Groote’s disciples was a priest named Florentius, and it was under his tutelage that Thomas a Kempis spent much of his time at Deventer, learning from him by word and example the importance of dedicating oneself to the Christian life, as opposed to nominal self-identification as a Christian – this spirit permeates the work for which Thomas is known today, The Imitation of Christ, written later on when he had become an Augustinian Canon Regular.

Nevertheless, the reason Thomas a Kempis is so well remembered even now is that his presentation of that spirit of evangelical zeal and apostolic revival that he had imbibed is particularly clear, and that he has a remarkable knack for clarity, as well as a great insight into the means by which Christian imperatives can be applied practically in everyday life (especially remarkable given that his counsel was meant for other men who had taken religious vows, not for lay people). Making allowances therefore for the occasions where Thomas’ advice is not applicable to lay life today, the Imitation remains a tremendously useful spiritual guide – something to be dipped into for inspiration, or for use as a companion for systematic reflection on one’s inner life.

The first section of his book is entitled ‘Counsels on the Spiritual Life’ and is principally concerned with the way of purgation – a clearing away of attachments to and preoccupations with worldly interests so that the soul may attain knowledge of its great need for God and be able to set itself obediently before Him, allowing itself to be transformed. In the thirteenth chapter of this section Thomas discusses, in terms that are characteristically honest, practical and clear-cut, the means by which temptation gets a hold of us, and the ways in which we can prepare ourselves before any assaults arrive, as well as effectively defend ourselves at the moment they occur:

So long as we live in this world, we cannot remain without trial and temptation: as Job says, “Man’s life on earth is a warfare.” We must therefore be on guard against temptations, and watchful in prayer, that the Devil find no means of deceiving us; for he never rests, but prowls around seeking whom he may devour. No one is perfect and holy that he is never tempted, and we can never be secure from temptation.

Although temptations are so troublesome and grievous, yet they are often profitable to us, for by them we are humbled, cleansed, and instructed. All the Saints endured many trials and temptations, and profited by them; but those who could not resist temptations became reprobate, and fell away. There is no Order so holy, nor place so secluded, where there are no troubles and temptations.

No man can be entirely free from temptation so long as he lives; for the source of temptation lies within our own nature, since we are born with an inclination towards evil. When one temptation or trial draws to a close, another takes its place; and we shall always have something to fight, for man has lost the blessing of original happiness. Many try to escape temptations, only to encounter them more fiercely, for no one can win victory by flight alone; it is only by patience and true humility that we can grow stronger than all our foes.

The man who only avoids the outward occasions of evil, but fails to uproot it in himself, will gain little advantage. Indeed, temptations will return upon him the sooner, and he will find himself in a worse state than before. Little by little and by patient endurance you will overcome them by God’s help, better than by your own violence and importunity. Seek regular advice in temptation, and never deal harshly with those who are tempted, but give them such encouragement as you would value yourself.

The beginning of all evil temptation is an unstable mind and lack of trust in God. Just as a ship without a helm is driven to and fro by the waves, so a careless man, who abandons his proper course, is tempted in countless ways. Fire tempers steel, and temptation the just man. We often do not know what we can bear, but temptation reveals our true nature. We need especially to be on our guard at the very onset of temptation, for then the Enemy may be more easily overcome, if he is not allowed to enter the gates of the mind: he must be repulsed at the threshold, as soon as he knocks. Thus the poet Ovid writes, “Resist at the beginning; the remedy may come too late.” For first there comes into the mind an evil thought: next, a vivid picture: then delight, and urge to evil, and finally consent. In this way the Enemy gradually gains complete mastery, when he is not resisted at first. And the longer a slothful man delays resistance, the weaker he becomes, and the stronger his enemy grows against him.

Some people undergo their heaviest temptations at the beginning of their conversion; some towards the end of their course; others are greatly troubled all their lives; while there are some whose temptations are but light. This is in accordance with the wisdom and justice of God’s ordinance, who weighs the condition and merits of every man, and disposes all things for the salvation of those whom He chooses.

We must not despair, therefore, when we are tempted, but earnestly pray God to grant us his help in every need. For, as Saint Paul says, “With the temptation, God will provide a way to overcome it, that we may be able to bear it.” So, let us humble ourselves under the hand of God in every trial and trouble, for He will save and raise up the humble in spirit. In all these trials, our progress is tested; in them great merit may be secured, and our virtue become evident. It is no great matter if we are devout and fervent when we have no troubles; but if we show patience in adversity, we can make great progress in virtue. Some are spared severe temptations, but are overcome in lesser ones of every day, in order that they may be humble, and learn not to trust in themselves, but to recognise their frailty.

The Imitation of Christ (1952), pp.40-42, Penguin Classics.

            Apart from the fact that it is littered with excerpts from and allusions to Scripture, what I love about this counsel is Thomas’s frankness and realism – he doesn’t try to make our lot out to be any easier than it is, nor does he shy away from the fact that some seem to be tried less than others. This is the way of things, and if we believe in God and His wise Providence, then we must believe it is so for good reason; Thomas thus sees the variety of degrees of temptation experienced throughout humanity to be a reflection of the variety of states of people’s souls – if some are tried more than others, it is because they have certain flaws that can only be corrected by particular trials.

Similarly, there are those who, whilst they do not suffer many great temptations, are routinely subject to frequent lesser ones, and Thomas sees this as being God’s means of constantly recalling them to humility and faith in God – and this being a particular case of the role that temptations play in our life in general. For, as he writes above, it is ‘no great matter if we are devout and fervent when we have no troubles; but if we show patience in adversity, we can make great progress in virtue’ (c.f.; 1 Peter 2:19-20; Romans 5:2-5) – because of our fallen nature, we need the trials that temptations occasion in order to grow. This is something that Julian of Norwich also writes about, albeit in slightly more inviting terms, as I considered in an earlier post.

Another salient part of Thomas’ advice, and one that I personally find particularly useful, is the reminder to block out any hint of temptation as soon as it arrives – that the temptation grows in intensity if one does not divert attention from it (and towards God) straight away, that ‘first there comes into the mind an evil thought: next, a vivid picture: then delight, and urge to evil, and finally consent’, and so we must not entertain it even for the slightest moment. As soon as we recognise the thought or external stimulus for what it is, we must turn away from it and turn instead to the Cross of Christ, kneeling before Him and asking for grace. This, as Thomas reminds us, is the pivotal moment, as after this the force of the temptation will only grow, and we will only become more enslaved to it.

Knowing from experience the truth of this, as well as much of what Thomas a Kempis writes about above, I have found myself returning to the Imitation of Christ many a time for inspiration, and thereby committing a great deal of it to memory (the content, as opposed to the words – if only my memory were that good). It is a salutary guide and excellent corrective to much of what we hear in modern life (including, unfortunately, much that is delivered from the pulpits); a voice that still sounds fresh and has the capacity to cut away the swathes of mental and spiritual clutter that we accrue as we go through life, and that recalls us to the essence of what the Christian life is about – trust in, love for, and the imitation of Our Lord.

True Non-Conformism in the Modern West

In a recent article at The Imaginative Conservative, Peter Strzelecki Rieth interviewed the Polish politician Marek Jurek – a Member of the European Parliament, founder of Poland’s Christian National Union and leader of an autonomous conservative political group that is allied to, as well as providing part of the intellectual grounding for, Law and Justice (Poland’s largest conservative party). The interview is primarily concerned with the legacy of Communism in contemporary Polish politics, and the extent to which liberal politicians after the fall of Communism effectively collaborated with ex-communists during regime change, rendering a proper return to Poland’s cultural roots and values (which values had been instrumental in delivering the grassroots change necessary to overthrow Communism) harder to implement.

Whilst this is an interesting discussion in and of itself – particularly given the important role a Poland fully returned to and re-engaged with its cultural heritage could play in the revitalisation of European culture as a whole in the future (and I would strongly encourage anyone reading this to study the interview in full) – there is one passage in particular that has an immediate relevance for all of those in the West who are concerned with the way in which our traditional, Christian-inspired, cultural and moral principles are steadily being eroded. In response to a question about the extent to which family is still highly valued in Poland and what other countries could learn from their example, Jurek concludes that:

…we must proudly defend our Christian civilization. What’s more—we must defend our Christian civilization even if we are in the minority. More so if we are in the minority. Pope Benedict XVI, towards the end of his pontificate, said that in the modern world, the Catholic Faith is the counter-culture. The Catholic faith functions as a counter-culture in our modern world. Great ideas can take entire generations to put into effect. The Left, over the years, has successfully built an aura of being the “non-conformists” in our society; of being the non-conformists who are out to change the world. Any sober observer of political reality can see that this is a complete lie—because the Establishment in our world is a Leftist Establishment. Yet despite this fact, the aura of Leftists as “non-conformists” persists. Yet what is true non-conformism in our world? True non-conformism is persistent adherence to authentic conservatism. This situation is also an opportunity for us to demonstrate the power of our beliefs.

True non-conformism, in contradistinction to ideological extravagance, must be political. True non-conformism cannot close itself up in an ivory tower, where it is enough to write essays in comfort, click the “send” button, and mail them off to friendly editors. True non-conformism must be political: it must go out to the people, it must awaken the sentiment of responsibility dormant within thousands of people who believe in the God of the Decalogue and the Evangelists, who believe in the value of our civilization, who believe in our national and state traditions. True non-conformism must be political because it aspires to give voice to these ideas in representative institutions and then force the Establishment to listen to our voices. We take up these causes not only for our own good, but in fact, we defend these causes for the good of our opponents as well.

Jurek’s response here is a salutary reminder to us all not only to be wary of the tactics employed by those on the Left (which, while often as disingenuous as they appear, also just as often emerge from an in-built utopian spirit – in a desire to always progress, socialism cannot see the status quo as anything but something to be overcome, and will thus in a certain sense always consider itself to be counter-cultural, no matter how much it already controls a culture), and of the true position conservatives find themselves in today, but also of the responsibility that is incumbent upon those who are committed to the ‘permanent things’ – the principles and traditions which have made our civilisations what they are.

The Church, as mentioned above with reference to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, because it was the progenitor of those principles and traditions upon which Western civilisations have been based, and remains the guardian of them now, is possibly the most counter-cultural institution on earth. It represents a sure and constant voice, reminding us of and recalling us to those things which formed the warp and woof of our culture, and which can again inspire us to a more humane vision of society. It already acts as a haven for many who are disillusioned with the turns the West has taken, but to really fulfill its calling (particularly the prophetic office) the Church must continue to raise its voice publicly, critiquing the false vision of humanity perpetuated by our leaders, and providing the lost sheep of our world with the good news that there is something more than the materialistic utilitarianism they have been fed for so long.

Furthermore, this responsibility is laid upon everyone within the Mystical Body of Christ – this is not just a job for the clergy, but for all of us. True non-conformism, as articulated by Marek Jurek, is an active responsibility laid upon all who recognise the great treasures that have been given to us and are so rapidly being lost or thrown away. If one truly recognises these treasures for what they are, there is nothing left to do except to pass that gift on – to ‘awaken the sentiment of responsibility dormant within thousands of people who believe in the God of the Decalogue and the Evangelists, who believe in the value of our civilization’. That ‘sentiment of responsibility’ is also intimately bound up with the deepest yearnings of the human heart for the reality of God and His Love – true conservatism must inevitably involve a return to the One in whom all we value ultimately finds its source and justification.