Yesterday’s feast of St. John of the Cross points to a rich vein of teaching from the spiritual master. Among St. John’s teachings is that deep union with God requires a growing purification from the things of this world and from inordinate passions. The path to this is often not easy. In this post I would like to ponder some hard spiritual truths that will set us free.
In calling them “hard truths,” I mean that they are not the comfortable bromides that many seek. They speak bluntly about the more irksome and difficult realities with which we are confronted. But if we accept them, they have a strange way of bringing serenity by getting us focused on the right things instead of chasing after false dreams.
A person can spend his whole life being resentful that life isn’t perfect, forgetting all the while that we are all in exile. We are making a difficult journey to a life in which, one day, every sorrow and difficultly will be removed and death will be no more—but not now.
There is an unexpected serenity in living in the world as it is rather than resenting it for not being the way we want it to be. For now, the journey is hard and we have to be sober about our obtuse desires and destructive tendencies. That is why there is value in calling these insights “hard truths that will set us free.”
In the opening section of his Spiritual Canticle, St. John of the Cross lays out a presumed worldview that the spiritually mature ought to have attained. Because he presumes it of his reader, he states it only briefly.
The soul … has grown aware of her obligations and observed that life is short (Job 14:5), the path leading to eternal life constricted (Mt. 7:14), the just one scarcely saved (1 Pet. 4:18), the things of the world vain and deceitful (Eccles. 1:2), that all comes to an end and fails like falling water (2 Sam. 14:14), and that the time is uncertain, the accounting strict, perdition very easy, and salvation very difficult. She knows on the other hand of her immense indebtedness to God for having created her solely for Himself, and that for this she owes Him the service of her whole life; and because He redeemed her solely for Himself she owes Him every response of love. She knows, too, of the thousand other benefits by which she has been obligated to God from before the time of her birth, and that a good part of her life has vanished, that she must render an account of everything—of the beginning of her life as well as the later part—unto the last penny (Mt. 5:25) when God will search Jerusalem with lighted candles (Zeph. 1:12), and that it is already late—and the day far spent (Lk. 24:29)—to remedy so much evil and harm. She feels on the other hand that God is angry and hidden because she desired to forget Him so in the midst of creatures, Touched with dread and interior sorrow of heart over so much loss and danger, renouncing all things, leaving aside all business, and not delaying a day or an hour, with desires and sighs pouring from her heart, wounded now with the love for God, she begins to call her Beloved …
Let’s examine these hard but freeing spiritual insights one by one. My commentary is in red.
The soul has grown aware of her obligations and observed
- that life is short (Job 14:5)
More than in any other age, we today entertain the illusion that death can easily be postponed—it cannot. We are not guaranteed the next beat of our heart, let alone tomorrow! It is true that with advances in medical science, sudden death is relatively uncommon, but this can easily lead us to believe that we can cheat death—we cannot.
Life is short; we do not get to choose when we will die. Both my mother and sister died suddenly, swept away in an instant. They never got to say goodbye. You do not know if you will even finish reading this sentence before death summons you.
This is wisdom. It is a hard truth that gives us an important perspective. Life is short and you have no way of knowing how short.
What are you doing to get ready to meet God? What do you get worked up about? What are you not concerned about? Are your priorities rooted in the truth that life is short? Or are you making wagers in a foolish game in which the house (death and this world) always wins?
There is a strange serenity and freedom in realizing that life is short. If we do so, we tend not to get as worked up about passing things and become more invested in lasting things and the things to come.
- [that] the path leading to eternal life [is] constricted ( 7:14)
Another illusion we entertain today is that salvation is a done deal. A great heresy of our times is a belief in almost-universal salvation, which denies the consistently repeated biblical teaching that declares, Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matt 7:13-14 inter al).
In parable after parable, in warning after warning, Jesus speaks with sober admonition about the reality of Hell and the finality of judgment. No one loves you more than Jesus does, and yet no one warned you more about Hell and judgment than He did.
Salvation is not easy; it is hard. Jesus said this; I did not. He did not say this because God is mean, but because we are stubborn, obtuse, and prefer darkness to light. We need to sober up about our stubbornness and our tendency to prefer “other arrangements” to what God offers and teaches. In the end, God will respect our choice. The day will come when our choice for or against the Kingdom and its values will be sealed forever.
This is a hard saying but it sets us free from the awful sin of presumption, a sin against hope. It instills in us a proper focus on the work that is necessary to root us in God. Accepting this hard truth will make you more serious about your spiritual life and aware of the need for prayer, the Sacraments, Scripture, and the Church. It will help you to have more well-ordered priorities, ones that are less obsessed with the passing and more rooted in the eternal. It will make you more evangelical and urgent to save souls.
- [that] the just one [is] scarcely saved (1 Pet. 4:18)
This is a further truth that sets aside modern errors about an almost-universal salvation. The fuller context of the quote is this: For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (1 Peter 4:17-18)
And yet despite this and many other quotes and teachings like it, we go one presuming that almost everyone will go to Heaven. We set aside God’s Word and replace it with human error and wishful thinking. We substitute human assurances for God’s warnings. We elevate ourselves over St. Paul, who said that we should work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) and who spoke of disciplining himself lest, after preaching to others, he should be lost (1 Cor 9:27). Are we really better and more enlightened that Jesus? Than Paul? Than Peter?
Salvation is hard. This is not meant to panic us, but to sober us to the need for prayer, the Sacraments, Scripture and the Church. Without these medicines we don’t stand a chance. And we must persevere to the end.
This hard truth sets us free from illusion and sends us running to the Lord, who alone can save us. Smug presumption roots us in the world. Godly fear and sober awareness of our stubborn and unrepentant hearts send us to Jesus, freeing us.
- [that] the things of the world [are] vain and deceitful ( 1:2)
Such a freeing truth! First, that the things of this world are vain. That is to say, they are empty, passing, and vapid. We so highly value power, popularity, and worldly glories, but they are gone in a moment. Who was Miss America in 1974? Who won the Heisman Trophy in that same year? And if you happen to know, do you really care? Does it really matter? It’s empty show, glitter, fool’s gold.
And though we should fight for justice, for the sake of the kingdom, even here the Scriptures counsel some perspective: I have seen a wicked, ruthless man, spreading himself like a green laurel tree. But he passed away, and behold, he was no more; though I sought him, he could not be found. (Ps 37:35-36).
And how deceitful is this passing world! The main deceit of this world is to say,
I am what you exist for. I am what matters. I am what satisfies.” These are lies and deceptions on all fronts. The form of this world is passing away; it cannot fulfill our infinite desires. Our hearts were made for God and only being with Him one day will satisfy us.
Yet so easily do we listen to the world’s seduction and lies! Too often we want to be lied to. We prefer to chase illusions and indulge vanity and deceit.
How freeing this truth is! We learn to make use of what we need and begin to lose our obsession with vain and passing things and with our insatiable desire for more. Yes, perhaps you can survive without that granite countertop.
This is a very freeing truth if we can accept its hard reality. And, becoming more free, a deeper serenity finds us.
- that all comes to an end and fails like falling water (2 Sam. 14:14)
The world is passing away. It can’t secure your future. The world’s cruel lie that it can fulfill you is on display in every graveyard. So much for the world’s empty promise: “You can have it all!” Yes, and then you die.
Meditate on death frequently. Indeed, the Church bids us to rehearse our death every night in prayer by reciting the Nunc Dimittis.
Scripture says, For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come (Heb 13:14). Do you have your sights fixed where true joys are? Or are you like Lot’s wife?
Let this truth free you to have the proper perspective: Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God (Col 3:1).
- that the time is uncertain
Do you have plans for tomorrow? Great, so do I. The only problem is that tomorrow is not promised or certain, neither is the next beat of your heart. This is another hard but freeing truth.
- [that] the accounting [is] strict
Jesus warns, But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken (Matt 12:36). St. Paul says, He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart (1 Cor 4:5). And he adds, So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:9-10). And James chillingly says, So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy (James 2:12-13). What James says is particularly chilling because so many today are without mercy.
If God judges us with the same strict justice we often dish out to others, we don’t stand a chance. The accounting will be strict anyway, so don’t pile on unnecessary severity and wrath. This is another freeing truth that helps us take heed of the coming judgment.
- [that] perdition [is] very easy
I wonder why he repeated this. I just wonder!
- [that] salvation [is] very difficult
And look, he repeated this, too! I wonder why. Maybe repetition is the mother of studies.
- [that we are often and strangely ungrateful and unmoved] She knows on the other hand of her immense indebtedness to God for having created her solely for Himself, and that for this she owes Him the service of her whole life; and because He redeemed her solely for Himself she owes Him every response of love. She knows, too, of the thousand other benefits by which she has been obligated to God from before the time of her birth, and that a good part of her life has vanished
This is a sober truth that calls us to remember. What does it mean to remember? It means to have present in your mind and heart what the Lord has done for you so that you are grateful and different.
We live so many years and so many hours of each day in ingratitude. We get all worked up and resentful about the smallest setbacks while almost completely ignoring the countless blessings we receive each day.
Our ingratitude is particularly obnoxious because of the easy manner in which we mindlessly discount our incredibly numerous blessings, while magnifying every suffering, setback, and trial. We spend so much of our life in the “complaint department.” We are often stingy with even a simple “Thank you, Lord, for all your obvious and hidden blessings. Thank you, Lord, for creating, sustaining, and loving me to the end, and for inviting me to know, love, and serve you.”
- that she must render an account of everything—of the beginning of her life as well as the later part—unto the last penny ( 5:25) when God will search Jerusalem with lighted candles (Zeph. 1:12)
Did he repeat himself again? Now why do you suppose he does that? You don’t think he considers us stubborn, do you?
- [that] it is already late—and the day far spent ( 24:29)—to remedy so much evil and harm Repetitio mater studiorum.
- [that the unrepentant will experience the wrath to come] She feels on the other hand that God is angry and hidden because she desired to forget Him so in the midst of creatures
The wrath of God is really in us, not in God. It is our experience of discomfort before the holiness of God. It is like being accustomed to a dark room and suddenly being brought into the bright afternoon sunlight. We protest and claim that the light is harsh, but that is not so. We are incapable of tolerating the light due to our preference for and acclimation to the darkness. In the same way, God is not “angry.” He is not moody or harsh. He is God and God does not change.
St. John teaches here the hard but freeing truth that God is holy; no one is going to walk into His presence unprepared. If we prefer the world and its creatures to the Creator, we thereby prefer the darkness and cannot tolerate the light. Heaven is simply not possible for those who prefer the darkness. And thus Jesus says, And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil (John 3:19). That’s right, this occurs just three verses after the famous and oft-quoted John 3:16.
And while the sinful soul may “feel” that God is angry and is hiding Himself, the problem is in the sinful soul, not God.
The freedom of this hard saying comes in reminding us and urging us to get ready to meet God. God is not going to change; He can’t change. So we must change, and by His grace, become the light of His holiness.
- [that we need to call on the Savior] Touched with dread and interior sorrow of heart over so much loss and danger, renouncing all things, leaving aside all business, and not delaying a day or an hour, with desires and sighs pouring from her heart, wounded now with the love for God, she begins to call her Beloved.
Here is the real point of all of these hard truths: to make us love our Savior more, to learn to depend on Him and run to Him as fast as we can. Only when we know the hard truths are we really going to get serious.
After all, who is it that goes to the doctor? Is it the one who thinks he doesn’t have cancer (even though he does)? Or is it the one who knows he’s sick?
Sadly, the answer is not clear enough to us in modern times, times in which even within the Church there are many who don’t want to discuss any of the hard truths we need to lay hold of before we can get serious.
A steady diet of “God loves you and all is well no matter what” has emptied our pews. Why? Well, who goes to the spiritual hospital if all he hears is that nothing is wrong and that his salvation is secure, almost no matter what?
The good news of the Gospel has little impact when the bad news is no longer understood. What does salvation mean if there is no sin and nothing from which to be saved? Now of course the bad news should not be preached without pointing to the good news as well; the point is that both are needed.
Thus, St. John’s hard truths are not meant to discourage. They are meant to sober us and send us running to the doctor.
Now look, you’ve got it bad and that ain’t good. The good news is that there’s a doctor in the house. Run to Him now; He’s calling you!