ARE THERE RULES FOR A SPIRITUAL LIFE?
“Endeavour to be inclined always:
not to the easiest but to the most difficult;
not to the most delightful but to the harshest;
not to the most gratifying but to the less pleasant;
not to what means rest for you but to hard work;
not to the consoling but to the unconsoling;
not to the most but to the least;
not to the highest and the most precious but to the lowest
and the most despised;
not to wanting something but to wanting nothing;
do not go about looking for the best of temporal things
but for the worst,
and desire to enter into complete nakedness, emptiness and
poverty in everything in the world....
This advice if truly carried out is sufficient for entry into the ‘night of the senses’.”
Thus wrote St John of the Cross in the 16th century. He is considered one of the greatest of Western mystics. When reading something written four centuries ago it is important to approach it wisely. If you started ‘cold’ to carry out that advice of his that I quoted above, you would surely drive yourself insane within a few weeks. It would be a ‘night of the senses’ all right, but it would have no connection with spirituality. If you noticed that some great chess players held their heads in their hands when they were planning their moves, and you began to do the same, thinking that this is how one becomes a great chess player, you would be considered very stupid. There is no use in monkeying the behaviour of chess players; you have to go and learn the game. You have to begin with chess, not with chess players and their idiosyncrasies. Chess is a mental activity in the first place. Similarly in the spiritual life, one has to begin with the spirit, not with imitating other people’s behaviour or following their rules.
St John of the Cross is also considered by many the greatest of Spanish poets; in 1952 he was proclaimed patron of Spanish poetry. The remarkable thing is that his collected poems are a mere handful, with only three or four major ones. They are of enduring beauty and power. Later on, he wrote lengthy prose commentaries on a few of these poems, and it is from one of these that the quotation above is taken. It is truly surprising to find that in most editions of his collected works the poems are put at the end of the volume - even though the prose works are commentaries on them. From these tortuous volumes scholars extract ‘the spirituality of St John of the Cross’.
There are lessons for us in this. Athletes put themselves through physical regimes that would make the lives of Carthusian monks look soft and self-indulgent. This is because they are heart and soul in love with their game. Love urges you to tremendous effort, but no amount of effort can urge you to tremendous love, nor even to mediocre love. We whittle down the truth of this by repeating that love is a decision; the intention is to say that work can get you there. In the absence of deep understanding and an inner spirit of love, such sacrificial love breeds guilt and resentment. The question is: how do we learn to love? Where do we start? It is a very difficult question, and it is not surprising that in the absence of clarity we start on the outside, with the visible side of it, the works of love. All the better then, we think, if we can find a rule-book that tells us how to proceed. In this way, from time immemorial, religion has tended to turn into rules of behaviour.
How does a Christian learn how to love God? The traditional answer is that we don't really! It is “infused”, it is a gift; you just have to be in the right place at the right time and it is yours. The place is the Church, the Christian community; the time is now, the time of the new covenant. Instead of trying to learn to love, we should try to understand how we manage to unlearn it! Watch with careful attention the way you live, the way you act, the way you react, the contents of your mind when you are with people, when you are alone, when you are daydreaming. Just watch and try to understand. There are no rules for doing this.