Sunday, January 31, 2016

St. John of the Cross: Songs of the Soul in Rapture

St. John of the Cross[i] lived in the latter half of the 16th century. As a friend and confessor of St. Teresa of Avila he was arrested and imprisoned in the Carmelite Friary in Toledo where he was treated with incredible cruelty.  In his imprisonment he composed a number of poems which have become classics in contemplative theology. His poetry shows the influence both of secular love poetry and the Song of Songs.  “A nun asked him whether God ‘gave him these words which were so comprehensive and so lovely.’ John replied: ‘Sometimes God gave them and at other times I sought them.’”[ii] 

He speaks of the dark night of the soul and his search for God:
Et una noche oscura,                                      
Con ansias en amores inflamada,                   
ļOh dichosa ventura!                                      
Salí sin sera notada,                                       
Estando ya mi casa sosegada.                                    

Upon a gloomy night
With all my cares to loving ardours flushed,
(O venture of delight!)
With nobody in sight
I went abroad when all my house was hushed.

            The dark night is not gloomy in the normal sense.  The dark night is not a place of depression or accidie.[iii]  This darkness is expressed in Psalm 88 where the psalmist confesses that he is a man who has no strength; that he is shut in so that he cannot escape, and the precious knowledge that he is actually helpless.[iv] 

            It is precious knowledge because the discovery of the reality of the dark night of the soul is the discovery that we are helpless and that we can do nothing without grace.  That is only terrifying to the soul before the acceptance of helplessness.  After that surrender there is only relief, the relief that is in itself a birth of joy.  It is only there that we find all our yearnings inflamed to loving ardour;   that is indeed an adventure of delight.   

            It is important to note that there is nobody else in sight.  The time and occasion provided by solitude is the necessary bedrock for divine intimacy; but just because solitude can be a doorway into the presence of God doesn’t mean that intimacy with God is automatic.  Many people live in soul destroying isolation from others and they are alone and lonely.  Padre Fray Juan goes forth to seek the One Who loves Him in the silence of his house; that is to say that he has quieted himself like a weaned child quieted on his mother’s lap;[v] “Hush, my soul, be quiet.  Put your trust in the God of love.”

O oscuras, y sergura,                                      
Por las secreta escala disfrazada,                   
ļOh dichosa ventura!                                      
A oscuras, y en celada,                                  
Estando ya mi casa sosegada.                        

In safety, in disguise,
In darkness up the secret stair I crept,
(O happy enterprise)
Concealed from other eyes
When all my house at length in silence slept.

[i] St John of the Cross: The Poems, Translated from the Spanish by Roy Campbell, Introduction by P. J. Kavanagh, (London: The Harvill Press, 2000), p. 25-27.
[ii] Ibid. p. 13
[iii] To us today accidie appears as depression and its resulting sluggishness. 
[iv] Psalm 88:4, 8, 15 (ESV)
[v] Psalm 131

Monday, January 25, 2016


We have a unique perspective on life.  We are like the little green frog who views things from under the lily pad.  He sees a shadow pass overhead but doesn’t understand what it is.  If he were to climb up on the lily pad he might see that the shadow was actually a lark flying overhead.  His world is in fact a small pond lying cupped in a meadow and no matter how hard he tries he will never see over the surrounding hills.  Our God’s perspective is entirely different.  From far above the old eternal hills He sees the universe, the world, the meadow, the pond and the little frog under the lily pad.

From the perspective of eternity the tapestry of our lives shimmers with a glory and beauty known now only to God, but eventually also to us when we see Him face to face.  The Psalmist gives voice to our confusion and the cries of our heart when he sings:

“Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.”[i]

From our perspective, life gets very complicated!  Often the feeling is that one trouble calls another on.  We even say that disasters come in threes.  There is no biblical justification for this glum assessment, just the fears of our anxious hearts and an arbitrary linking of events together in ways that seem to justify the saying.  Reality is both harder and easier.  From one perspective, life is a series of crises with resting places in between.

The Psalmist doesn’t leave it there, but goes on to say:

“By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.”[ii]

It is in the presence of the Lord of Life that we will find the storms of life dispelled.  The steadfast love of the Lord presses upon us bidding us to open our hearts and receive His comfort.  He is our Rock, our Fortress, our Hiding Place, our Shelter in the midst of the storm.  But He is more than that.  He is the God who stands ready to redeem the effects of the storm.  He says, “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten.”[iii] He is the Redeemer!

Again He says” “I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”[iv] When it feels like the breakers and waves of life’s storm are crashing over you, put your trust in the Lord whose perspective is eternal, who redeems not only the past, but the present and the future as well, whose plans for us are plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give us a future and a hope.

[i] Psalm 42:7
[ii] Psalm 42:8
[iii] Joel 2:25
[iv] Jeremiah 29:11  

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Hunter and the Farmer at Prayer

My mind is like a skipping stone
Skimming across the surface of a pond.
Deliver me from the deep waters, O Lord.

      Not everybody has that experience at Prayer. I am a Hunter, that is my orientation. Farmers have another problem; for them slow and steady wins the race. They see the end of the furrow and enjoy the prospect of dinner, but can miss the rabbit that runs by, and have trouble seeing the lofty mountains beyond.

      Some studies on people with a so-called Attention Deficit Disorder are pointing away from a negative diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder to a deeper underlying reality.  I object to the ADD diagnosis and suspect that is must be a Farmer’s way of understanding Hunters. Farmers are prone to Vision Deficit Fixation, VDF.

      Put the Farmer and the Hunter plowing in the field, or at Prayer, and you have two different styles and results.  The Farmer ploughs a straight furrow with his eye on the goal. His course is steadfast as he plods along. The Hunter ploughs a crooked furrow because he is highly distractable, but he also capable of great concentration when the hunt is on.

      At the simplest level the Hunter constantly monitors the environment and is ever ready for a new chase to begin. When the rabbit crosses his trail he drops the plow, chases the rabbit, catches it, kills it, skins is, cooks it, eats it, and sits under a tree with his new rabbit skin mocassins and has a nap. The Farmer is not easily distracted from the immediate task at hand. He doesn’t see the rabbit and sits barefoot having vegetables for dinner; that is, unless the Hunter brings him some rabbit stew and a new pair of rabbit fur slippers.

      That brings us to the very first pair of brothers in the Scripture.  Cain is a Farmer, slow and steady wins the race.  Abel is a Nomad/ Shepherd, a Hunter who follows the flocks and constantly monitors the environment for dangers.  The danger that he fails to recognize is the jealousy and resentment of his brother, Cain.  These dynamics occur many times in Scripture and come to light in the followers of Jesus. 

      Mary and Martha are a clear example.  Martha has her mind fixed on the mundane task at hand and plods through her preparation as a hostess, while her Hunter-type sister has dropped the dishes and is mesmerized by Jesus and his teaching in much the same fashion as the Hunter would drop the plow and go and chase a rabbit.  Both the Cain and Abel story, and the Mary and Martha story are written with an appreciation of the Hunter type and a caution given to the Farmer type.  On the other hand we need to recognize that when the crisis of death of Lazarus hits the family of Mary and Martha, it is Martha who rushes to meet Jesus on the road with a clear statement of her faith.  Mary is so overwhelmed by her grief that she remains in the house waiting for the call from Jesus. 

      A simple overview of the Apostolic band uncovers obvious Hunters like Peter, and Farmers like his brother Andrew who is marked by a quieter and steadier approach to life.  What binds them all together is the person of Jesus.  He is the only thing that some of them have in common. 

      Jesus himself is an interesting study.  For the first thirty years of his life he lives as a farmer type methodically following the family business of carpentry.  It takes much more patience to finish a piece of carpentry than most Hunters possess. On the other hand, at the age of thirty, like a true Hunter he drops everything and becomes an itinerant preacher wandering from village to village preaching the good news of the Kingdom and healing the sick. 

      Jesus combines in himself the perfect balance of Hunter and Farmer.  He is the complete man who attracts them both drawing the impetuous Hunter Peter into a deeper steadiness in following him, and challenging the less adventuresome Andrew to go out and preach and perform miracles.  For the love of Jesus they both rise to the challenge.  For the love of Jesus those who are Hunters within the Church and those who are Farmers are called to honor and respect each other, to complement each other, and to grow in grace in his image.

      No one is 100% Hunter or 100% Farmer, but all of us are bent one way or the other. God made Hunters and Farmers for mutual support; that way the Hunter gets to have a balanced meal and sleep in the farm house that the Farmer built. The challenge for both the Hunter and the Farmer at Prayer is for each to learn from the other.

      I suspect that  St. Diadochus of Photiki is addressing the Hunter when he says,

If we fervently desire holiness, the Holy Spirit at the outset gives the soul a full conscious taste of God’s sweetness, so that the intellect will know exactly of what the final reward of spiritual life consists.  But later he often conceals this precious and life-creating gift. 

He does this so that, even if we acquire other virtues, we should still regard ourselves as nothing because we have not acquired divine love in a lasting form . . .

It is therefore necessary to work upon the soul forcefully for a while, so that we may come to taste divine love fully and consciously . . .

Those who have advanced to perfection are able to taste this love continually, but no one can experience it completely until ‘what is mortal in us is swallowed up by life.” (2 Cor. 2:4) [i]

      The strength of the Hunter is that he is easily brought into the hunt for the Presence of God, but in order to turn the chase into an abiding experience he must learn the attributes of the Farmer and “work upon the soul forcefully for a while,” instead of falling asleep under the tree. The challenge for the Farmer is that he must stretch beyond the methods which dominate his approach and raise his eyes to the distant mountains. Very often it is the Hunter who shares the vision that enflames the heart of the Farmer, and it is the Farmer who shows the way of making that vision an abiding experience. Both sides are needed.

            That is why St. Benedict gives the following instruction for the Farmer and the Hunter alike, “We believe that the divine presence is everywhere and that "the eyes of the Lord are looking on the good and the evil in every place" (Prov. 15:3).[ii] The Divine Presence is everywhere, in the fields and in the mountains beyond. The Presence of God is with the Farmer ploughing in the field and with the Hunter in the chase.

We have to remember Whom we seek. “When we wish to suggest our wants to persons of high station, we do not presume to do so except with humility and reverence. How much the more, then, are complete humility and pure devotion necessary in supplication of the Lord who is God of the universe!”[iii]  However remember that the chief end of Prayer is not the Prayers, nor the Intercessions, nor the Liturgies, but God Himself. St. Benedict goes on to say, “Let us therefore consider how we ought to conduct ourselves in sight of the Godhead and of His Angels, and let us take part in the psalmody in such a way that our mind may be in harmony with our voice.[iv] “Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.”[v]

To both Hunter and Farmer he says, “Our prayer, therefore, ought to be short and pure, unless it happens to be prolonged by an inspiration of divine grace. In community, however, let prayer be very short, and when the Superior gives the signal let all rise together.”[vi] In this there is an affirmation of the chase that is so dear to the heart of the Hunter, but there is also a caution not to extend that chase artificially. There is also an affirmation of the methodical nature of the Farmer, but the Farmer must bear in mind that the Vision of God is the goal. We are nevertheless to pray in community, in concert with one another, and to do so in a disciplined way. The end goal for both the Farmer and the Hunter is that they learn from each other and grow towards a place of balance in their experience of Prayer.

[i] Philokalia, Vol. 1, pg. 289
[ii] The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 19  ‘On the Manner of Saying the Divine Office’
[iii] The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 20  On Reverence in Prayer
[iv] RB, Ch. 19
[v] Psalm 34:5
[vi] RB, Ch. 20