Bk II: Ch. 1 Which begins to treat of the dark night of the spirit and says at what time it begins.
Ch. 2: Describes other imperfections which belong to these proficients.
I didn’t see where in ch. 1, St. John talks about when this dark night of the spirit begins. He does talk about how one cannot rush this, and once one has gotten past the beginner’s stage, that of the senses, one may take years further refining and purifying one’s soul. The soul has gotten past a dependence on meditation, and anxiety, and can find some kind of serenity within. This is not complete, though, and working towards greater purity can take years. Was this Mother Teresa’s problem? I would hesitate to say that – it seems, if this is what she was experiencing, it was the later more intense sense of aridity and deprivation of the Dark Night of the Spirit.
There seems also to be a distinction made between those who will or can attain that union with God with others, who will not attain that level, and for the latter, God will not push to the extent He will with those who have the potential to attain union. Some quote from the psalms is alluded to about God sending “His crystal” like morsels. It is all that those people can take at their level.
St. John suggests that the frailty of the flesh is what is most likely to get in the way. Quoting the Book of Wisdom, he notes “The corruptible body presseth down the soul.”
I still wonder if the idea of mortification and strict discipline can be taken too far – I think that St. John might look to people who take it to extreme as replacing God with their own need (or desire) for negation. And that position would show some sense. I think that the mortification and denial can be taken too far, and that it denies the blessings of the flesh. Here I’m not suggesting Bacchanals, but that the goodness of bodily pleasures is perhaps too easily dismissed by St. John.
Reading this, I was reminded of Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen master and author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. He says in that book that the beginner’s mind is open to all sorts of possibilities, but the expert’s mind has fewer (because certain paths have been closed down as not profitable). And in that book there is also a story in the Introduction where the author of the Introduction (don’t recall the name now) tells of meeting Suzuki’s wife, and asks about why the master is so reticent in talking about satori (enlightenment), and she responds, with a twinkle in her eye, that it’s because he never experienced it. This failure to experience satori might be the equivalent of failing to achieve union with God. And Zen practice is all about being true to the practice, and trying to retain the child’s or beginner’s mind. But Suzuki doesn’t seem a tortured soul (like Mother Teresa), so this path seems to be a more balanced way of trying to seeing the face of God, though, than the heavy emphasis on the aridity and toughing it out we see here. I wonder if that has something to do with the fact that the mind/body dualism of the West is not part of the Eastern tradition.
In ch. 2, St. John suggests there are two kinds of imperfections which may still plague the proficient: 1) habitual, and 2) actual. The first is somewhat like the root of a plant – it is deeply ingrained and so is difficult to eradicate. As progress has been made, it is possible for the proficient to think that he has passed the trouble zone, that his efforts have so prepared him that he cannot fail. And such confidence in his own ability will get the proficient in trouble. Here Suzuki might refer to the expert’s mind closing down all sorts of avenues – his/her mind is closed to a lot of possibilities. It is just such a delusion that, according to St. John, the devil sent.
Certainly we see pride here – one has gotten to be so good at meditation and other exercises that one has drawn the conclusion that he is ready for the final step. But such thoughts are delusional. And there is the sense that someone who has done much work might feel that he has acquired a level of security that he has not actually acquired.
I get the pride and overconfidence problems. Experts can develop a confidence in their own abilities that leads to blindness to helpful criticism from without. And such blindness will likely lead to a fall or to failure.
Only by stripping sense from pleasure, and walking humbly in faith and in the dark can the soul attain to the ultimate goal. “I will betroth thee… with Me through faith.” Only faith and submission will get you to the goal.