I suspect that adherents to any religion find themselves tugged this way and that by two well attested extremes of setting about drawing close to God. You can either do the minimum or do the maximum. Most people probably fall somewhere along a spectrum between the two extremes.
Among the 102 Pilgrims on a sea voyage aboard the Mayflower in 1620 -- "undertaken for the Glory of God" -- a minority thought of themselves as Saints and saw the rest as Sinners. Forty-one adult males signed the famous Mayflower Compact of 11/11/1620, the first written framework for self-government applied in what in a part of what is now the United States of America.
Shakespeare caught something of the flavor of the tug between extremes of godliness and worldliness in his 1601 play TWELFTH NIGHT. There (Act II, Scene III, line 58) hard drinking, self-indulgent Sir Toby Belch taunts his hostess Mistress Olivia's spoil-sport puritan steward Malvolio: "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?"
Similarly in 16th Century intensely Roman Catholic Spain, even hundreds and hundreds of holiness-striving men and women, priests, brothers, choir nuns and simple laboring sisters of the Carmelite Order felt something of that abiding tension between "virtuous" and "cakes and ale." Carmelites had always identified themselves with the Old Testament Prophet Elijah. From their beginnings in the Holy Land, they had chosen to grow closer to God through long, intense prayer and withdrawal to forlorn and forsaken desert places. There they lived simply and in poverty and sought to do God's will in one of many different ways approved by the Catholic Church.
Once the Order largely transferred itself to Europe, popes approved a realistic modification of the ancient rule. Life need not be quite so austere. Nuns might reach out to laymen and open schools for girls. Just a wee concession to "cakes and ale."
Then came two great reformers of Carmel, both descended from grandparents converted from Judaism, each regarded to this day as master stylists of the Spanish language, both later canonized as saints and both declared sound Doctors (i.e.,Teachers) of the Cathlic Church. They were Saints Teresa of Avila (1515 - 1582) and John of the Cross (Juan de Ypes, 1542 - 1591). They persuaded against great odds a large fraction of European Carmelites to re-emphasize anew in Europe meditative and contemplative prayer along with larger withdrawal from the world and from purely worldly pleasures as central functions of the Order.
All well and good. But if you are going to emulate the God-driven, totally demanding way of life of Elijah and other prophets, how in the concrete do you do this?
Saint John of the Cross, in both ecstatic mystical poems and in essays rooted in Scripture and in the theology and psychology of the school of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274) made himself the "how to" teacher of Spain's new-old Carmelite men and women. As a confessor to Teresa's nuns and as spiritual director of laymen, Saint John comes across in his writings as a man who listens carefully to the penitent sinners who seek his guidance. He senses empathetically where they stand in a sincere quest for God. He judges whether they can rise farther and whether they can bear the cost of taking up the cross of Jesus and following their Lord.
Saint John's life and teachings are sketched and analyzed by German Jewish convert from atheism Carmelite nun Edith Stein (1891 - 1942) within a philosophical framework owing much to her beloved teacher Edmund Husserl (1859 - 1938) founder of the philosophical movement called Phenomenology, Edith had been invited by her superior at the Carmelite convent in Echt, Netherlands, to commemorate the 400th anniversary in 1942 of the birth of Juan de Ypes, Saint John of the Cross. In her late 40s the philosopher and feminist Edith Stein had barely completed her study when German SS showed up at her convent and removed her and her sister Rose for rail transport with hundreds of other Jewish Catholics in the Netherlands to Auschwitz in Poland and extermination in August 1942 in the gas chambers. By 1998 Stein herself would be a canonized Carmelite Saint. She is also, for Catholics, one of several saints declared Patrons of Europe.
Amazingly, Edith Stein's manuscript survived, hidden from the Nazis and moved from place to place. It has since been published and carefully edited, first as KREUZESWISSENSCHAFT: STUDIE UEBER JOANNES A CRUCE, translated into English and published in 2003 as THE SCIENCE OF THE CROSS.
Edith Stein, whose self-chosen name in religion, was Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, makes it clear in THE SCIENCE OF THE CROSS that Saint John was not a spokesman for "cakes and ale" Christians. The Christians he counseled, like himself, were maximalists, not minimalists, when it came to drawing close to God. All or nothing. But doing and giving humanly, within the limits of human strength of soul and prudence determined by God. Edith Stein describes and critiques the many steps that Saint John of the Cross recommends his penitents to take, if they have the strength. Stein sees John's overriding image, especially in his poems, as not the cross but darkness. God is so utterly unlike his creatures (who are, of course, in some mysterious sense His images, His echoes) that the way to Him lies through the deepest possible darkness, emptiness, personal aloneness.
No matter how hard a Christian soul systematically and step by step prepares herself for ecstatic mystical union with God of the sort experienced by the great Saint Teresa of Avila, that union is utterly beyond the ability of human nature to achieve. It is a pure gift of God. To many who strive for mystical ecstasy before death God denies it. To others who to the Pharisaical among Catholics might seem to belong to the "cakes and ale" crowd, God sometimes freely, inexplicably, perhaps darkly, does offer mystical union.
Nonetheless, a striving soul who elects this approved way to God can and should live and pray in such a way to prepare for mystical, rapturous union with God even in this life should God decide to offer it. Saints John of the Cross and Edith Stein encourage souls to draw on human nature with its expressions of soul, will, intellect, senses, imagination, memory and more, to "purify" them, to use them as deliberate, disciplined steps along an increasingly dark, unknowable road to God for which Faith alone can overcome the terror, the loneliness and the sense of abandonment by his Father that even Jesus felt on the road to Calvary and crucifixion.
Saint John teaches, in effect, that Jesus demands that his followers emphasize "virtuous" over "cakes and ale." Working as church people with their human all too human spiritual guides, individual souls must identify the crosses unique to them, pick them up and walk confidently into darkness through the dark night of the soul. Picking up your personal cross will not kill you or destroy you, say the mystical saints. To carry your cross is not death, suicide. You must trust to the God who loves you to decide how close to Jesus in his sense of abandonment by the Father that the Father and the Spirit will permit you to approach and at what price.
This review gives the merest hint of the attractive practicality and the theological depths found in Edith Stein's THE SCIENCE OF THE CROSS. Stein is one of the most lucid and easy to follow writers of autobiography, philosophy, Christian feminism, theology and spirituality that the German world has yet produced. The doctrines that she and Saint John of the Cross taught to Carmelite nuns and novices in Spain or in the Netherlands are sound and approved by the Catholic Church. Mystical union with God in this life consciously striven for by systematic prayer and exercise is but one of hundreds of approved approaches to God available within the Catholic Church.
If the subject interests you and if you wish to see if mysticism just might be the direction that God wants you to go, Saint John of the Cross would encourage you to talk over your aspirations and experiences to date with an approved spriitual director. For as long as you still cling to your senses and their pleasures as something other than springboards to God, then Satan has a certain ability to lead you astray. So be counseled!
THE SCIENCE OF THE CROSS is a very clear, focused treatment of mystical union with God possible but not certain even before death and heaven. If that subject interests you, this book by Edith Stein is a good place to start.
THE SCIENCE OF THE CROSS
Series: Stein, Edith//the Collected Works of Edith Stein
Paperback: 358 pages
Publisher: ICS Publications (February 3, 2003)
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