Saint John of the Cross: The Choice Between God and Self

I have recently been re-reading some of Rowan Williams’ Wound of Knowledge – an excellent analysis of Christian spirituality from the New Testament to Saint John of the Cross – and found in its concluding chapter (which deals with Saint John) an incisive and insightful consideration of what it really means to follow Christ, in terms of Saint John’s theology and spirituality. In fact, Williams states that he chose to end his study with John of the Cross precisely because he sees in him a particularly strong expression of all the deepest themes that run through Christian spirituality – themes which ultimately converge on the Cross of Christ and which place before us a stark decision to choose either the Way of the Cross or the way of the world.

Saint John (whose feast day is coming up soon) gives a consistent witness to the need for us to gradually, if we would be perfect (c.f.; Matthew 5:48), strip ourselves of attachments to things that distract us from God and instead nurture the root of self-love that is buried within us all. The process of purifying the will in this way begins with removing desire for worldly goods and the various means of instant gratification in our experience, but, as we advance in the spiritual life, we must inevitably go deeper – precisely to the degree that our inner vision is cleansed, we will see more and more clearly how much we place between ourselves and God:

Not all worldly desires are equally harmful; there are temperamental and “involuntary” matters involved, and, although they are a hindrance to full union, they are not a complete impediment. We have to concentrate first on those things in which we are free to choose for or against God – an important point. Yet John sees clearly that the more we advance, the more matters will present themselves to us in these terms of choice for or against God – the almost harmless attachments to places and things, habits that are not gravely sinful, but are still selfish. These, if neglected, will eventually be obstacles as great as any deliberate sin. Once the light of grace shows them as self-oriented, there is no alternative but to struggle for freedom in these things too.

The Wound of Knowledge (1990), pp.168-169, Darton Longman and Todd.

            What Saint John of the Cross’ analysis of the spiritual life suggests is that, if taken seriously, our discipleship must always be costly, must always involve abandonment of what is familiar and secure, to the extent that these things represent something which we rely on that is not God. However, Saint John is not advocating a solely negative system, but one which is designed to liberate us from attachment to worldly things so that we are more free to love God as God and for His own sake; he is actually advocating a path which leads to enhanced life – a life that is more beautiful and more utterly real than the one we ordinarily know. What is recommended is not an escape from creation, in the way of (e.g.) Buddhism, but a freedom from it, so that we may see it anew with a vision that has been both liberated and cleansed.

Saint John also affirms absolutely God’s presence within all of His creation, and that there is a purely natural union between the self and God mediated through created things; but he also knows that there is a sense in which God utterly transcends our sensory experiences and worldly expectations, as He is made known to us in the dereliction of the Cross. In the Cross of Christ, we see God’s own self lived out in the human life of Jesus, and have revealed to us the extent to which fidelity to the will of God in a fallen world will inevitably lead to a stark choice between Him and the easier choices that the world presents to us. Concern for finite matters and self-orientated wants cannot, ultimately, distract us from faith in He who is the source of all Being.

The purpose of natural revelation is to lead us to the supernatural vision of God revealed to us and which is known in faith, hope and love, so we can never remain at the purely natural level, but must allow our wills to be transformed by that supernatural vision. This, paradoxically, requires us to put aside the claims of the natural order on us in order that we may see creation with the eyes of Charity and thus appreciate it all the more. Our attachment to familiar things and experiences are attachments to our experiences, what makes us comfortable, and so choosing these instead of the Way of the Cross is also to choose the self over God, and to take a step backward in the path that leads to a purified knowledge of Him and His creation.

Just as Saint Paul could say about the created order that ‘his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made’ (Romans 1:20) but also that ‘I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2:2), Saint John of the Cross knows that whilst natural theology gives us a proper ground for talking about and even, in some way, for knowing and responding to God, that in the Cross of Christ we have the ultimate and most perfect revelation of His nature, and one which shatters all our illusions, both about ourselves and about God. Saint John (like his contemporary Saint Teresa of Avila) extends this divine iconoclasm even to spiritual consolations and mystical experiences

The conclusions are stark: no “spiritual” experience whatsoever can provide a clear security, an unambiguous sign of God’s favour. Real knowledge of God cannot be put into words with any approximation to completeness; thus real and personal knowledge of God cannot be identified with words in the understanding. “Manifestations of knowledge”, the passing experiences of wordless intensity and certainty, must be accepted, but not desired or relied upon; so long as they remain transitory, “accidental” and above all incapable of reduction to verbal formulae, they need not be negatively regarded. As soon as any such thing is turned into a “mystical experience”, to be described and analysed and intellectually “processed”, it will become a delusion…

…No experience that can be held on to, possessed or comprehended can have to do with God. The characteristic of authentic “touches of union” is sheer elusiveness.

ibid, p.173.

            Clearly it is not the experiencing of profound union with God that Saint John objects to, nor the writing about them (as he spends a great deal of time writing about such things himself); it is the claim to satisfactorily sum up such experiences and/or the attempt to say to oneself that in those moments that one can claim to have ‘got it’. In fact, Saint John’s suspicion of such neatness leads him to write that mystical visions or feelings that can be so packaged and picked apart are more likely to be diabolical than divine. As Williams writes above, true union with God is characterised by ‘sheer elusiveness’ and so any spiritual experience that claims to have fully comprehended God therein is likely to be, if not diabolical, then incomplete, at least partially still consisting of a desire to rely on self-generated experience rather than the unutterable reality of God.

This too – the stripping away of illusions in contemplation – is a difficult process, perhaps even more difficult than the purification of the active life mentioned earlier, as in that case we are not so much purifying ourselves as removing obstacles to make purification possible; in the passive process of contemplative prayer, we allow God to do the purifying. This draws closer to the deeply cruciform nature of Saint John’s teaching, as in this passive process the subject undergoes an even more profound union with the God who is made known in the abandonment of the Cross. The choice between God and self is made more stark as the one praying is no longer allowed to depend on anything familiar, is no longer self-reliant at all, and therefore has all the limitations of our humanity exposed, clinging to God solely by faith, hope and love.

Whilst this will be a rare occurrence for most of us, there is something in what Saint John says about the ‘dark night’ of self-abandonment in contemplation that corresponds to our everyday discipleship. To say that union with God via the Way of the Cross is something only accessible to contemplatives would not only be a kind of spiritual elitism, but would turn it into a ‘technique’, a kind of self-reliance that enables the individual to in some sense control how and when they know God, which is precisely the sort of thing Saint John is counselling against:

It is important to note that John is not discussing a merely “spiritual” or interior condition. Alienation and dread are produced by all kinds of experiences, by the frustrations and humiliations of daily life; for John himself, the hostility of his brothers and associates, the petty spite with which he was treated in his last months of life, would have been intrinsic to the experience of the passive night…

…The sense of God living constantly in the soul, of God’s goodness in all things, of the warmth of reciprocal love – all these things of which the Canticle speaks at length are described not at all in terms of revelations granted in ecstasy, but in terms of a general disposition or attitude of the soul, a regular daily mode of seeing and understanding, a new light on things.

ibid, pp.178-179.

            One of the central claims of Christianity is that, because of the Incarnation, Passion and Atonement, we can know that God has been in and through all of human experience, including grief, pain and darkness. An important corollary of this is that we can actually know God, sometimes with more clarity, in the dark places of life – in our own experiences of desolation, dispossession and unknowing, we can find God there, and through the gift of faith, can thereby cling to and know something of what is permanent, and more abundantly real. Coming out of such an experience we see the world anew, as being truly God’s world, but we also see the radical discontinuity between He who is Truth and the world that has rejected its Creator:

On the one hand: the Word is flesh and is communicated in flesh – in historical tradition, in personal human encounter, in material sacrament…

On the other hand: the Word made flesh is recognised as such in the great crisis and resolution of crucifixion and resurrection. The Word is rejected and crucified by the world; only when we see that there is no place for the Word in the world do we see that he is God’s word, the Word of the hidden, transcendent creator. And then, only then, can we see, hear, experience (what you will) the newness of that creative God, resurrection and grace, new life out of the ultimate negation and despair.

ibid, p.181.

            There is continuity between nature and grace, but also a conflict, and because of this there can never be a renewal, a resurrection, without a prior crucifixion – to believe otherwise is to believe in cheap grace. Because of that, it is very often that, as Saint Augustine (as quoted by Williams) wrote that ‘it is at night that his voice is heard’ and in the dark night of our own lives that we might be brought closer to Him. The practical upshot of this is that when we meet troubles in the world, rather than being overcome by them, we have a way not just of getting through those troubles (be they temptations, trials, hardships or grief) but, by going to that place that God Himself went, of becoming more transparent to the grace which would bring us into a more abundant life.

There are no books that can show us how to do this, as the answer to how we overcome temptation or endure suffering is always the same – we must kneel down before the Cross of Christ and pray for grace, hold on and trust in God even though we do not feel like it. This involves sheer obedience, and is of course, whilst simple in theory, very difficult in practice, but this is precisely what Saint John of the Cross wants to say to us – just do it, because it is only by letting go of our usual securities and supports that we are able to grow. He also teaches us that this is ultimately a matter of will, of desire – what (or rather who) do you actually want, for the sake of what/whom do you live; is it God or self? This is, in the final analysis, the only choice we really have to make, and we choose one way or the other in everything we do.

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3 thoughts on “Saint John of the Cross: The Choice Between God and Self

  1. Pingback: Saint John of the Cross: The Patient Reformer | Journey Towards Easter

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