Dark Night of the Soul, Lenten Observance, Day 14, 2013

Happy Valentine’s Day: at some point in my grade school years, I’m sure that the nun who taught our class (I want to say this must have been in 4th grade, but I cannot remember for sure, could have been 6th) told us of St. Valentine. I guess she figured that we might get all caught up in the commercialization of the day, and wanted to counter it. It turns out that we really have no idea who Valentine might have been. The tradition has him as a Bishop in the area of Rome who was martyred on the Via Flaminia, north of Rome, in the 4th c. A.D. Valentine remains on the list of saints, but St. Valentine’s day is not a bit thing, liturgically speaking — the uncertainty of his identity (Valentinus was a popular name in the later Roman Empire) and his absence from a list of martyrs in the 4th c. (he makes the list in the 5th c.) caused the church, which was cleaning up their saints’ list in the late 1960s, to kick St. Christopher off the list, and resulted in St. Valentine not being quite in the same group as St. Augustine and St. Jerome, of whom we have plenty of information. At any rate, in either the 4th or 6th grade (I remember the classroom I was in, but not the nun), our teacher, a nun (either Sr. John Clare, or Sr. Paschal) told us of St. Valentine. As I recall, the key point was that Valentine, who was a bishop, helped shelter a pair of young lovers. As the good sister explained it, it was all romance and none of the carnal stuff (sort of like a G rated version of Romeo and Juliet, with Valentine being the good Friar Lawrence. As I was still rather innocent (so maybe more likely 4th grade, though I was a late bloomer), I recall that what I heard was probably more like “blah, blah, blah, St. Valentine, blah, blah, blah. You can now hand out your cards and candy, children.”

Ch. XII: Of the benefits which this night causes in the soul.
Again we have the image of weaning – it is a great day when we are weaned from our dependence on desire, though it does not seem so to the soul at the time. A reference is made to Abraham having a great feast when Isaac is weaned, and how pleased God is when we are weaned and can eat the food of a robust person. I get the image, and I get the idea of growing up. But I don’t see how God would be any more pleased than anyone else. I get how it might seem that the time of aridity would feel difficult for the person undergoing the Dark Night, and I can get how, despite that difficulty, it is all for the best. People who are dependent on tobacco or alcohol or some other substance, or who are engaged in behavior that is destructive to them, will, for a time, after having given them up, feel worse. Still, we are better for that. Even though such activity, as St. John says it, will offer us a chance for communion with God, I don’t see where that would affect God, for God’s own connection, if I understand it, remains the same no matter who we are, or what we do. It is only that we do not recognize that, and act in ways that are not healthy.
1. Benefit 1: “knowledge of oneself and of one’s misery.” It is important to know oneself, rather than be caught in illusion. Oedipus at the end of Oedipus Rex is miserable, but, as he finally knows himself and his situation, he is, in some ways, in a better place. This knowledge, for St. John, is similar to Oedipus’ – a knowledge of our “lowliness and misery.” Here, I wonder. I think a lot of the misery of our lives is of our own making. If lowliness means humility, that is healthy, but if it means recognizing something baser, I’m not sure how that differs from the dependence that we are supposed to be weaned of. Putting on the attire of aridity, we are like the Jews in the desert who have to put off their festal garments. And a comparison is made to the situation of Moses, who, when first encountering God is overjoyed and eager to approach God, but God tells him first to put off his shoes. And Moses learns not to look directly on God, but to be respectful and to be aware of “his wretchedness in the sight of God.” Again, this seems to me a bit too Puritanical, and seems to me to mistaken – we’ll have to see where St. John goes with this.
2. Benefit 2: We come to know the greatness of God. Again, this seems to be another instance of the high/low dichotomy that I think is a bit off track. I like the idea of St. Augustine noting that as one knows oneself, one comes to better know God. In a way, if we two are connected, then coming to know one end of the relationship will help that relationship develop. And I think I appreciate the idea of non-attachment put forth, but I still find the high/low idea a bit difficult.
The idea that such spiritual humility will help one avoid comparing one’s own progress with others seems a benefit to me – for it does not matter where the other person is on his/her journey, but only where I am on my own path. But I think that St. John may be making a fetish of humility, to the point that one thinks oneself a worm. Excessive humility seems to me rather akin to pride — you know the sort of thing — now I’m lower than you are — seems just as bad as I’m better than you are. A spiritual stillness, not one marked by envy, or pride, or self-loathing, seems a better approach.

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