No Progress Without Darkness: The Cross the Only Way to Wisdom and Love

On this feast of Saint John of the Cross, the great master of the spiritual life, it is well to remember that our passage through mortal existence is eased by clarity on what matters most, the very goal of personality: to know and love each other within the infinite knowing and loving that is the divine life.

Our intellects long to know everything about everything, and our hearts long to love and be loved unconditionally. The true, the good, and the beautiful are the atmosphere of a common life of ever-greater intimacy with each other, within the ever-greater glory and goodness of the God Who Is Love.

But the joy of eternal love is bought at the price of temporal endurance. To get from here to there always requires dying, a daily dying to self culminating in the relinquishing of this form of temporal existence.

The treasure houses of heaven can be gained only through the narrow way, a path narrow enough to abrade all the excrescences of our egos, all the ways the truth of who we are has become distorted by our history and our willfulness.

That narrow way is the Cross of Christ.

And the second matins reading from Saint John of the Cross makes this clear: "The soul cannot enter into [the treasures of the wisdom and knowledge of God hid in Christ] unless it first crosses into and enters the thicket of suffering, enduring interior and exterior labors, and unless it first receives from God very many blessings in the intellect and in the senses, and has undergone long spiritual training."

Of course, only suffering can circumcise our fatty hearts. The agonies that envelop us bring this about. It is also the case that those of us who enjoy the prosperity of an American existence, in particular, should, all things being equal, undertake the voluntary mortification of fasting. Advent is a penitential season, so it is a very acceptable time for us to be prepared for the coming of Jesus in this way. Ascesis is an essential component of "spiritual training," as is of course prayer, including the Liturgy of the Hours, the rosary, the Divine Mercy chaplet and, above all, Mass as often as one can participate.

Now many of us have been through fiery trials, but the sanctity required to affirm completely what Saint John says next has not been wrought in me. Nevertheless, I know it to be certainly true, and not a matter of spiritual masochism. The broken and open heart wills to suffer all for love and wisdom: "Would that men might come at last to see that it is quite impossible to reach the thicket of the riches and wisdom of God except by first entering the thicket of much suffering, in such a way that the soul finds there its consolation and desire. The soul that longs for divine wisdom chooses first, and in truth, to enter the thicket of the cross."

Saint John brings it to a point by citing the perfect passage from Scripture: "Saint Paul therefore urges the Ephesians 'not to grow weary in the midst of tribulations,' but to be 'rooted and grounded in love, so that they may know with all the saints the breadth, the length, the height, and the depth--to know what is beyond knowledge, the love of Christ, so as to be filled with all the fullness of God."

To be filled with all the fullness of God (!), the human spirit must be stretched in every direction on the Cross of unrequited and solidary suffering.

We used to know more about this in a more chivalrous and knowledge-seeking age. The serious pursuit of the liberal arts and the sciences requires, and certainly the pursuit of love requires, lucubration. It is no favor to the transcendent eros of the human spirit to be weighed down by the consoling stuff of a consumerist interpellation and colonization of our desire.

We must endure, if we are to develop. Since this is the human lot, the universal community of Christianity must make it possible. We should support each other in undertaking the voluntary discipline of asceticism. 

But community is even more urgent when it comes to the decisive entry into the mystery of the Cross: the dark night, an involuntary operation by God upon and in the soul. When the dark night swallows someone, as a matter of basic Christian charity, we must accompany that person. 

Saint John writes in The Dark Night: "One ought to have deep compassion for the soul God puts in this tempestuous and frightful night. It may be true that the soul is fortunate because of what is being accomplished within it, for great blessings will proceed from this night; and Job affirms that out of darkness God will raise up in the soul profound blessings and change the shadow of death into light [Jb. 12:22]; and God will do this in such a way that, as David says, 'the light will become what the darkness was' [Ps. 139:12]. Nevertheless, the soul is deserving of great pity because of the immense tribulation and the suffering of extreme uncertainty about a remedy. It believes, as Jeremiah says [Lam. 3:18], that its evil will never end. And it feels as David that God has placed it in darkness like the dead of old, and that its spirit as a result is in anguish within it and its heart troubled [Ps. 143:3-4]."

We must all pass through the crucible. May we not abandon those who feel abandoned. May we do this work of spiritual mercy, which is also essential for our spiritual training.

The one consumed by the dark night cannot finagle some accommodation, or gin up some self-consolation, for the dark night is precisely the time when divine election has seized one out of the world. In the world, we delude ourselves into thinking our initiatives are originary, that boot-strapping makes sense. In the dark night, God the Father undertakes the severe mercy of stripping us of this delusion. If our goal is supernatural, we cannot attain it by our power. If the fulfillment of the human person is infinite knowing and loving, only God can bring us to it.

So the Christian community must be a community indeed, and surround the one marked out by God's hard favor with the loving accompaniment of co-suffering. That is what love does. How stupid it would be to harangue people in the darkness!

Even a well-meaning spiritual director, with words of comfort, is of no avail, for a person in the dark night cannot be exhorted to DO anything, even to buck up: the whole process is one of RECEIVING a supernatural shaping, in one's very depths: "Indeed, [the director's doctrine] is not a remedy, for until the Lord finishes purging them in the way He desires, no remedy is a help to them in their sorrow. Their helplessness is even greater because of the little they can do in this situation. They resemble one who is imprisoned in a dark dungeon, bound hand and foot, and able neither to move nor see nor feel any favor from heaven or earth."

Utter anguish.

The more God the Father loves someone, the longer He holds the person under. But He is no sadist. The one thing He seeks is loving union with us: "They remain in this condition until their spirit is humbled, softened, and purified, until it becomes so delicate, simple, and refined that it can be one with the Spirit of God, according to the degree of union of love that God, in His mercy, desires to grant."

When the night has ended, we will look back and praise the goodness of the Father. I suspect we will say something like: "Amen to all that has happened to me in my life! Amen, good Father! How I love You and Your strange ways! How elegant and intricate they are! How oddly precious that time spent united with Your crucified Son! How happy I am to have had the honor to suffer for a joy so infinitely free! Thank you for these tears now shed for sheer delight, O my good and gracious Father!"