Archive for March, 2013


Lenten Observance, Day 40, 2013

I have to say that the only thing I’m thinking at the present is “and then he rested.” Not that I’m comparing myself to God, or that I’ve done anything substantial, but I think I always feel that way at the end of any project I set myself — I’m eager to get it done, and move on. That might suggest a lack of seriousness on my part, or a certain laziness.
What I’m interested in watching the next few days is how the papal selection goes. The last two were done in only a couple of days. I’m not sure how long the two before that were, but I seem to recall the choice of Paul VI took a bit of time, and even the choice of John Paul I was more than a couple of days. I’m not sure what a short turnover would indicate — it could indicate a willingness to take on some of the tough issues and take a radically different approach. Given the conservatism of most of the cardinals, I’m more likely to believe the fix is in. I hope that the Lenten spirit is much with these guys and they really want reform and reconsideration of the old ways, but it’s tough to break out of a rut, even when you are determined to do so. We’ll just have to see.
I’m going to take some time off from blogging to rest my little grey cells.


Lenten Observance, Day 39, 2013

Well, today I was watching a production of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. And it struck me that Pirandello’s absurd play could be entitled “Six Characters in Search of God.” The play does address permanence (the characters are ever-lasting — in a sense they never die, but humans die; the characters also have a certain fixity of emotion, as their lines and conception are always set, where humans change from person to person, from day to day — we are always reinventing ourselves). The figures in the play who represent people outside the play (the director, e.g.) are convinced that they have a permanent identity, until they are made to reflect on how different they are from how they were, and how their past is largely conditioned by the memory they have, so that their present version of themselves has largely rewritten past versions, in order to maintain an integrated and permanent identity. And this got me thinking of St. John of the Cross — I imagine he would believe in a permanent self, but that desires and other habits of life have encrusted that over. For St. John, the only way is to somehow break through to a deeper and truer reality than the world of appearances, which we cannot trust. But that concept itself is developed by a sentient being, one who feels and perceives, often incorrectly or inaccurately. So how valid is that concept? Can we ever know? As we have to evaluate it in a system of language, and any such system will itself be somewhat inaccurate. And yet, that union with God is something that is not negotiable with St. John — that has to be a fixed point which is true, beyond anyone’s conception of it. All of that sounds a lot like Plato and his concept of forms (which exist behind and beyond the world of things — that world is a world of shadows, but the world of forms and ideas which stands behind it is the light). And Platonism and Neo-Platonism have played a large part in Catholic theology, even when modified by neo-Aristotelians like St. Thomas Aquinas. As we do not see God as a physical being in the world around us, we must imagine God to be some unseen, but real, presence behind the world of sensation. And to get at that reality behind our illusion, we somehow have to short-circuit our senses. Of course, I can only reflect on this a bit, before my brain starts to swirl and everything goes through the Looking Glass.


Lenten Observance,Day 38

Here continuing my goal of getting 40 posts before I take a break from blogging for a while. What’s in the news lately is the whole brouhaha over choosing a new pope. I saw an article by Sr. John Chittister (she has a weekly article in National Catholic Reporter called “From Where I Stand…” She noted that this is the 6th papal conclave that has happened in her life. And she added that, as always, she looks on these events with a great deal of hope and promise, even though things have not always turned out as she’d like. But each time, I guess like Charlie Brown and the football, hope springs anew. As this is taking place during Lent (that hasn’t been the case in any of the papal conclaves of my life (58, 63, 79, 79, 2005)) I too take some hope that during this time of reflection and a purging of the soul that the cardinals in Rome will reflect deeply and take this chance to choose a Pope who will take things in a new and more open direction. Given that cardinals are naturally secretive, and that they have some dirt to hide, I’m not so hopeful. But I do hope that this season of Lent, with the promise of a new beginning, will sink in and short circuit the hard and fast rules of the College of Cardinals and we’ll get something new. We did get something new in the selection of John Paul II, but that did not turn out so well — a church that had been opening more and more to the world around it offered the papacy to someone outside of Italy (a good sign), but someone who was marked by his own history as a conservative Catholic fighting against the Communist rulers of his own country. And the Church’s phobias with regard to Communism have often led the Church to support very repressive regimes (e.g. Franco’s in Spain, Mussolini’s in Italy, and they made a deal with Hitler too) against those forces they fear as Communist. In Latin America, the promising new theology, Liberation Theology, was put on hold by John Paul II’s Vatican, though that theology alone was fighting the good fight for the poor in Latin America against the power structures with whom the Church had been aligned. And John XXIII, the beloved pope of my youth, was seen as an old guy who wouldn’t have much time to shake things up. Well, he did make a good start of shaking things up, but then his age and health allowed him only 5 years as Pope. So I wonder, will the church make a move towards greater solidarity with the poor? Will it make greater outreach to other faith traditions? Or will it use the next papacy to further turn the clock back, following in the steps of JP II and Benedict? Will it aim at a much more militant and restrictive church, smaller and meaner? Or will it open the tent more? I hope for change, and believe that people can change and that redemption (personal, not from someone long ago) is possible. Maybe we’ll get it. I hope so, even as I fear it is unlikely.


Lenten Observance, Day 37, 2013

Though I finished up with Dark Night of the Soul yesterday, I thought I’d continue for a few days more to get my 40 days for Lent. Of course, those 40 days don’t include Sundays in Lent, but my postings did go up daily, including Sunday.
First of all, how did I think the reading of Dark Night go? Well, that’s tough. I found certain passages almost unintelligible. And others I think I got, but as St. John is a mystical writer, perhaps I did not. There is the whole problem of overconfidence and pride — thinking my way is God’s way. And I’d have to say that certain premises of St. John I’m not willing to accept. For instance, there is a lot in Christian saints on mortification of the flesh, and a suspicion of the body which is separated out from the soul. So much of this goes back to the binary opposition of Manichaeism, which St. Augustine followed before becoming a Christian. And so his Christianity has a Manichaean tinge. But that denial of the senses and the joy one gets from sensual pleasures seems to me false. And the idea that there is a greater reality in the soul (whatever that is) than in the body puzzles me. Surely if there is something called the soul, it is incarnated. It is tied up with our bodies and our senses. That is not to say that senses can be wrong — as I get older, my hearing, sight certainly get vaguer. So the input is a bit muddled. Does that mean my thinking is also muddled? In as much as thinking is tied up with the physicality of the brain and circulation within the brain, yes it must be muddled somewhat. On the other hand, I’m more experienced and so can take input that is muddled and make some corrections. And I don’t believe that we are nothing more than our physical stimula — there is the construct of the ego and superego, which may be mental constructions, just as dreams are, but that does not mean they lack reality, even if we cannot touch them in the same way as we can touch ears, nose, eyes. And the idea of mortification of the flesh I find troubling. We see this in our physically focused world — women and men both wonder what if they were thinner, and take that fixation to unhealthy levels. St. John does address that somewhat, as he notes early in the Dark Night that some people get fixated on these techniques and so mistake that for the real thing.

I was reading something about Mother Teresa the other day, a suggestion that some of the miracles that have been attributed to her, and pave the way for sainthood, may have been manufactured. And I read that her treatment of the poor was based on an assumption that suffering was good for the soul. It’s true that she chose to live among the poor, but if she advocated prayer, or even conversion of these poor souls, over making sure they got proper nutrition or medical help, that’s troubling. I do not know that such is the case, but such is what does come from valuing the soul over the body, and looking beyond to some truth, rather than looking around one in the world.


Dark Night of the Soul, Lenten Observance, Day 36, 2013

Book II, Ch. XXIV: Completes the explanation of the second stanza.
This section looks at the final phrase of the second stanza, “My house now being at rest.” This line ended the first stanza as well, and St. John says that’s because the first stanza was largely focused on the sensual side, and this 2nd stanza on the Dark Night of the Soul itself, and that the sensual side and the spiritual side both had to be purged. Only after both the sensual and spiritual sides have “become tranquillized and strengthened,” and all their domestics (the desires and faculties) put to rest and quieted, can the Divine Wisdom come.
Bk. II, Ch. XXV: Wherein is expounded the third stanza
Here the whole third stanza is given a brief overview. Here, the soul continues in secret, neither seeing nor seen, the only light being that which burned in the heart.
The soul is removed and remote from the senses that would disturb it.
And the soul sees nothing that is not God, with a view of reaching the goal of union, with no other forces to block it.
And the burning light in the heart, though the way is dark, somehow propels one on towards God.
The manuscript ends with this brief exposition of the third stanza, and does not comment on anything further, nor about this stanza in the detail given to the 1st and 2nd stanzas. St. John did not die soon after this, so his decision to set it aside may be for other reasons. The editor/translator in his introduction does not offer an explanation for this setting aside. It is quite possible that St. John, a reformer of the Carmelite order and founder of the Discalced Carmelites along with St. Teresa of Avila, had his plate full with other matters.
I wondered, as I was reading this how much of an effect St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa had during their own time. They did create an offshoot of the Carmelite order which has continued up to the present. So they were important figures, but were they recognized as such during their own time? St. John was seen as a pest by the Carmelites who imprisoned him. And there were efforts made to suppress the Discalced Carmelites during the 1570s and 1580s.
An edition of St. John’s works were published in 1618 and a later, more complete, collection published in 1630. St. John himself was not beatified until 1675 and not canonized until 1726. Though it is not uncommon for a long period between a saint’s death and his/her canonization (St. Thomas More was canonized about 400 years after his death – though some of the delay there may have been for political reasons), the length of time may reflect a reluctant Church only gradually realizing St. John’s power.
St. John was a solitary figure, and he much preferred the solitary contemplation of scripture to the hustle and bustle of the world. And this work, though incomplete, suggests a retirement from the world to get one properly prepped for a mystical vision of God. St. John was drawn to St. Teresa’s call for a return to the older Carmelite practice of radical poverty and mortification of the flesh from the more relaxed mode the order found itself in from the 15th c. on. Clearly he saw the pleasures of the world an entrapment, and believed mightily in the purification and purgation of the soul. His Dark Night seems very much to suggest a Purgatory for the worthy in this life, and the Dark Night of the Senses, which is required first, does seem a lot like a junkie going through withdrawal. But dependence on pleasure is unhealthy in St. John’s view, and only by going through the hellish pains of withdrawal can one become whole again. Unfortunately, such adherence itself can prove to be unhealthy, as if the body is something brutish to be tamed through violent measures, rather than as part of one’s makeup.
It is unclear what St. John would have done with the remaining 5 stanzas of the poem in his explication. As they point more to the union with God, it seems they would have gotten more and more difficult to develop or explain. For surely such a union must be personal to an extent that language cannot adequately represent it. There is a phrase in Italian “traduttore traditore” which literally means “translator (is a) traitor.” This refers to attempts to translate ancient works into modern idiom. Any attempt to translate a work will miss a lot (as the phrasing in the original language and its tone is so important, and a new language will not be able to capture that, but will have its own linguistic peculiarities). Surely in the case of a mystical experience, something that must be rather like an acid trip, will be such that language cannot capture its magic. And maybe St. John found that explicating the final stanzas was too difficult, and so it was shelved for the time, and never restarted (he died in 1591, six years or so from the date of the work as we have it). And, what if he had done that. Could he have captured the nuances of his own situation (which he surely uses as the template for the soul’s journey towards God)?


Dark Night of the Soul, Lenten Observance, Day 35, 2013

Bk. II, Ch. XXII: Explains the third line of the second stanza.
and Bk II, Ch. XXIV: Expounds the fourth line and describes the wondrous hiding-place wherein the soul is set during this night. Shows how, although the devil has an entrance into other places that are very high, he has none into this.
Ch. XXIII is very short, and adds very little to the discussion, but there are a couple of things in this brief (1 page) section which jumped out at me. First is what St. John saw as his mission in undertaking this work: “the explanation of this night to the many souls who pass through it and yet know nothing about it.” So the work is primarily aimed at those who, of their own, are going through this trouble, but without any guidance. That’s what it sounds like. And yet, that makes it sound a lot like a self-help book, which someone might pick up, and I don’t think that is St. John’s intent. Certainly only a very few people are likely to go to this work, and only those people who are already spiritually minded. That is not to say that this cannot be of some assistance in helping those going through such troubles as the dark night to name their troubles and so better face them. I just wonder how he imagined the work would be disseminated, and how awareness of it would spread about. It is a famous work of spiritual struggle, and so must reach some people, but I wonder how St. John saw it that way during his day.
The other section that jumped out at me follows immediately after the above, when he adds that “this explanation and exposition has already been half completed.” What we have ends in a few short chapters, so we are quite a bit further than half, and he’s only gotten through the first 2 of 8 stanzas, so was there more? Or did he imagine there was more? We don’t have the autograph of the work, but have some early manuscripts of the work. So did he have more written than has come down to us? We’ll never know, but this suggests there should be more than we have.
And then in Ch. XXIV we move into a discussion of the fourth line of the 2nd stanza: “In darkness and in concealment.”
This continues the ideas he has already mentioned, that the devil will work upon the senses and the sensual side to lead one astray, so it is important to remain very much insulated from such sensations, hidden from view, as it were. In this discussion, he calls upon the statement to “not let the left hand know what the right is doing.” And he identifies the right hand with the spiritual efforts, and the left hand with the senses. But cannot the devil get into one’s thoughts as well as senses? I’m not sure how one escapes the devil here, or how God is more present in the one manner than in the other.
The devil cannot know this inner communication (not sure how that is), but can see when the soul remains somewhat unperturbed by his attacks that such interior communication is at work. And then he’ll try harder, but, according to St. John, the soul, realizing it is under attack will burrow deeper into this interior cave of spirit. But then St. John goes on to point out that the soul is aware of this great inner peace, “although it is often equally conscious that its flesh and bones are being tormented from without.” What’s that all about? It sounds like some physical attack on the body. But such physical ailments cannot be laid on the devil. Physical troubles have to do with the equipment you have, and with the care you take of your own body. So I would think that excessive zeal in starving the flesh might cause some harm, but that harm isn’t so much from without as from within.
And then St. John says that sometimes there are certain blessings of God which come to us through angels, and those blessings are made known to the other side. Sounds like the Rule of Discovery in law, but how does that work out here? Sounds like God and the adversary in Job betting on Job’s goodness and ability to stand up to all sorts of difficulties. St. John suggests that God does this because a lobsided victory for good does not test the soul, and so there is no great victory. Sounds rather convoluted idea to me – as if God is competing against himself in some way.
And St. John goes on to say that the devil is given leave to present a rather strong (if misleading) argument for his side, so that “the soul which is not cautious may easily be deceived by their outward appearances.” Again, this seems wrong somehow. As if we are all being tested by God. I’m not sure I’m following the logic of this. I can believe in human fallibility, but the idea of God making it easier for the devil to trick us to see if we are weak and can be tricked seems a trifle sadistic.
This trial, in any event, can be long and hard, with the soul quite shaken (but what happened to the idea of the soul burrowing deeper into its safe cave?). And when the good angel allows this to happen, he does so to give life and to exalt, and not to debase. And yet, when God visits the soul, it is in this interior space that neither the angel nor the demon can fully get at, though it remains open to God. And this divine communication is union with God. And when the soul has achieved this level of connection, there seems to be a dichotomy between the spiritual side and the sensual or corporeal side of a person.


Dark Night of the Soul, Lenten Observance, Day 34, 2013

Bk II, Ch XXI: Which explains the word “disguised,” and describes the colours of the disguise of the soul in this night.
When one is aiming at a goal, one might very well take on the appearance of one who is likely to attain the desired goal, and one is also likely to take on another guise as a means of confounding those who might get in one’s way to achieving the goal. The three foes are the devil, the world, and the flesh.
And so, to attain to God’s love, the soul goes forth in a garment of white, green and purple. The white is faith, and that dazzling white tunic of faith will confound the devil, who cannot see it, nor harm it. And this garment of faith will give it strength to remain constant through the various trials. But isn’t faith a true part of the seeker? How is it part of a disguise? If one is faithful, and that faith is deep seated, then the “devil,” in the form of doubt or desires, won’t have much of an effect on the seeker.
On top of this is a green vestment, which represents hope. Hope is protection against the world, for, if one keeps one’s hopes and eyes pinned on the eternal reward, then there is nothing in the world that will tempt the soul. The things of this world are “dry and faded and dead and nothing worth.” I’m not sure that I fully go along with this. I think that the materialism one sees so much of in the US is false and will lead one down a path of pain, but I think there is a lot in the world that should cause one to rejoice. For the world is not just some inanimate object, to be acted upon by humankind, but also the repository of the divine. The world is God’s world, and that is not to be sneezed at. So I can’t fully buy St. John’s dichotomy, separating the divine from the world, and even viewing the world as a temptation against the promise of the divine beyond.
Finally, the outer cloak is that of bright purple, that of charity, which inspires love in the Beloved. This serves as protection against the flesh. Going hand in hand with love directed to God is a denial of self and of those things connected with self (one’s physical appetites). The problem of the flesh is a long-standing problem within Christianity and especially within Catholicism. Fleshly desires are seen to be sins (gluttony and lust, especially), and that one has to work past those hungers to something deeper. Again, I’m not sure I fully buy this. And the distortion of sexuality in this Manichaean world of binary opposition has done much harm.
And these are a fit preparation for union with God, through the three faculties, those of understanding, memory and will. The white of faith blinds understanding (here I’m thinking St. John sees “understanding” as a belief in the powers of reason as sufficient – this would then be an offshoot of pride, a belief that one can know the world and that one’s conclusions are the “truth”), while hope voids memory of creature comforts, and charity voids and annihilates the desires and affections of the will. Here we have again some idea of getting around the rational mind and our appetites. The truth comes from some other route, though when we think of ourselves we may pride ourselves on what we have (success) and on our rationality.
Only in such a disguise will the soul come to union with God.