As I struggle for resolution through this final full day of retreat, I was led to continue my reading of the Living Flame of Love. There I encountered a serious challenge to my perfection! No coincidence of course.
It starts in paragraph 24, where John of the Cross quotes Acts 14:22: “It is necessary to undergo many tribulations to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Then in 25, he writes: “this highest union cannot be wrought in a soul that is not fortified by trials and temptations, and purified by tribulations, darknesses and distress…. [I]n this life they must undergo the fire of these sufferings to reach the union of perfection…. according to what they must be purged of.” In a footnote to this, KK (the translator) notes that John frequently compares this to Purgatory. Throughout my reflections on union in recent months, I have fantasized that my efforts in this life might lead to avoidance of Purgatory; so it’s worth paying attention here!
Then in paragraph 26: “Through these trials in which God places the spirit and the senses, the soul in bitterness acquires virtues, strength and perfection, for virtue is made perfect in weakness and refined through the endurance of suffering.”
In paragraph 27, he addresses the question as to why so few reach the high state of perfect union with God. This is not God’s will. Rather, “he tries them in little things and finds them so weak that they immediately flee from work, unwilling to be subject to the least discomfort and mortification…. As a result he proceeds no further in purifying them.” Do I not feel targeted here? Even in the immediacy of this retreat, I sit here sipping my espresso and acknowledging that I have not fasted at all, for example. I recall my frequent prayers for progress towards sanctification when I read this: “There are many who desire to advance and persistently beseech God to bring them to this state of perfection. Yet when God wills to conduct them through the initial trials and mortifications, as is necessary, they are unwilling to suffer them and they shun them, flee from the narrow road of life and seek the broad road of their own consolation, which is that of their own perdition; thus they do not allow God to grant their petition. They are like useless containers…”
Lest I become too fixated on my very small trials, I consider John’s quote from Jeremiah 12:5: “If you have grown weary running with footmen, how will you contend with horses? And if you have had quiet in the land of peace, what will you do in the swelling of the Jordan?”
His second question brings to mind my frequent observation that it is far easier to be “spiritual” in private than in the midst of the world. Beware of the temptation of hermitage! John takes this a step further: “And if you have not wanted to forego the peace and pleasure of your earth, which is your sensuality, or contradict it in anything or stir up a war, I do not know how you will desire to enter the impetuous waters of spiritual tribulations and trials that are deeper.” In this connection, I have two observations about myself: my withdrawal from sensuality has correlated with the decline of libido in old age (so no real credit there!); as for stirring up wars, I cannot claim to have fought bravely against my own concupiscence nor against the wills of others.
Paragraph 28 is an impassioned warning about the necessity of purgation. He writes in part: “You would instead carry the cross and, placed on it, desire to drink the pure gall and vinegar. You would consider it good fortune that, dying to this world and to yourselves, you would live to God in the delights of the spirit, and patiently and faithfully suffering exterior trials, which are small, you would merit that God fix his eyes on you and purge you more profoundly through deeper spiritual trials in order to give you more interior blessings.” In a note, KK comments: “These are nothing but the exigencies of following Christ and sharing in the mystery of his cross; see A. 2.7 [pp 168 ff] where John enlarges on this theme.”
John adds something very important: He states that God sends the favor of trials to those who have lived a life of merit. Hence the trials are a means to advancement to greater perfection. He quotes Raphael’s words to Tobit: “Since you were acceptable to God, he favored you by sending you temptation that he might try you more in order to exalt you more” [Tb. 12:13] The way Tobit handled that temptation had the outcome that “all the rest of his life was in joy.” [Tb. 14:4] John finds the same lesson in the experience of Job [Job 1-2; 42:10, 12]. I must admit that I do not pass the screen of a prior life of merit. Only in the last 18 months, have I attempted to live by His commandments. So, realistically, I might still be looking forward to the very beginning of purgation.
John ends his long aside on this theme of trials in paragraph 30, where he invites us to endure with patience the trials God places on us, both exterior and interior, both spiritual and bodily. These are to be accepted as from God’s hand and not fled.
Perhaps I am truly ready now to just begin my real purgation. But I must remember that purgative trials and the Dark Night are gifts from God. I may embark on mortifications in an effort to aid my detachment from the things of this world, but the Dark Night descends upon us like twilight, not like a light switch that is flipped.
The apostolic call is just that — a call. One must hear it, and one must heed it. It demands a humble and courageous “fiat” — Mary shows us the way.