If you are ready to make the radical choice to do whatever it takes to obtain the high calling to total transformation in Christ (divine union), then take note that the first step will be painful. But the “pain” will be purifying and ultimately will end in sweetness, interior stillness, freedom, peace and repose.
As mentioned in the Introduction, a “beginner” for Saint John of the Cross is one who is all in, so to speak, and has already established a life of prayer, but has not yet surrendered fully to the will of God. If that is you, then it is time to let God draw you deeper into a life of prayer so as to enter through what Saint John calls the “night of the senses.”
The night of the senses is one of two “dark nights” through which every soul must pass in order to achieve divine union (also called spiritual marriage and transforming union). This first dark night, the night of the senses, is divided into two parts: active and passive. This chapter will attempt to present Saint John’s teaching for beginners on the active night of the senses.
Summary of the “Active Night of the Senses”
The goal of the “active night of the senses” is to free your soul from the lowest forms of pleasure, so that you can more fully seek God who also produces within you the highest form of spiritual delight, resulting from the perfection of divine union with Him. This first step is just that: the first step. Once a person walks through this initial purgation of their appetites and desires, God will take them through three more levels of purgation. But the first step is where we begin.
In this step, the person must engage in intentional acts of self-denial and must also seek to know God in a new and deeper way through the prayer of meditation. Selfishness must be stripped away, and all the deceptive pleasures flowing from sinful attachments and unhealthy desires must be eliminated.
The reason for this is that we are easily deceived about that which is good for us. In the beginning of our spiritual journey, we still cling to the pleasure that comes from sin and from the many other things of this world. We may still believe that the things that satisfy us are money, sensual delights, excessive food or the satisfaction of other disordered cravings. And while those things do produce a certain form of temporary delight, the end result is slavery and bondage. Therefore, God wants you free. So this first step involves you making specific choices to turn away from these deceptive attachments and desires while, at the same time, you grow in your knowledge of the glorious truths that God wants to reveal to you.
Prayer Proper to the “Beginners”
It’s important to note the form of prayer proper to each stage of spiritual development. In this first stage, the person must regularly practice the prayer of meditation. Meditation simply means you engage your mind in the Scripture or some other inspiring truth of God. When God is calling you to this beginning stage of prayer, you will regularly be “inspired” by grace and, at times, take great delight in the things of God. Your soul will feel God’s closeness and will find great joy in spiritual things, such as long periods of prayer, fastings, spiritual reading and works of charity.
This life of meditation, inspiration and consolation is the way that God initially nourishes the soul as if it were a small infant. The infant is fed pure warm milk, caressed, carried, and treated with delicate care. All of these delicacies and consolations are from God and assist the soul during the active night of the senses. Later, during the passive night of the senses, God begins to change the person’s prayer and their relationship with Him to that of a spiritual child or adolescent rather than an infant. This child will then grow further, becoming more spiritually mature, reaching adulthood through a deeper form of prayer called contemplation. Eventually, the person will reach a state of perfection (divine union) and will live a life fully united to God through habitually sustained contemplation.
Let’s now look at some of the philosophical language Saint John of the Cross uses for his teachings on the active night of the senses. This language may be new to some, but it is important to understand, so study it attentively.
Defining the Language
So, what is the “active night of the senses?” Simply put, this refers to the initial actions that you must do in order to grow in holiness once you have begun your spiritual journey. Some things you can only accomplish by a special grace of God (Chapter Two and Four will focus on these). But initially, there are many things you actively must do in order to move forward in your spiritual journey.
The key concept you must begin with is “purgation” or “dark night.” Though Saint John will speak of varying levels of purgation, this term will mainly be used in this chapter to describe the voluntary purgations that you must go through, so as to obtain freedom from all of your attachments to inordinate pleasures you have formed by giving in to your sensory appetites and desires. Let’s carefully define each one of these italicized words so that you are prepared to understand the beautiful wisdom given to us by Saint John in regard to this first active purgation.
Sensory: This refers to everything you come to know and experience through your five senses. To understand what a “sensory” experience is, imagine that you had lost all five senses. What would you experience in this world? Nothing! You’d be pure spirit. You could still think, remember and make acts of your will, but you would not be able to receive anything into your sensory appetites from this world. Imagine further if you had never had access to any of your five senses. In that case, you would not even have any memories or concepts that come from this world via your senses. You would still think and will, but only on a purely spiritual level like the angels. Thus, everything you see, touch, smell, feel or hear in this physical world feeds your sensory appetites. Everything you do purely in your mind and will make up your spiritual sensory appetites when that thinking and willing is based on that which initially came to you through your five senses.
Appetites: Human beings were created with appetites. There is no escaping this experience, since it is a natural part of who we are. God made us with the natural ability to be drawn to what we perceive as good. For example, if you were working all day in the hot sun and you began to become dehydrated, your body would naturally crave water. You cannot not desire this. It’s how you were made. The key to understanding your appetites is to realize that you always desire that which your appetites perceive as good. It’s impossible to desire something that you perceive as bad. Even if the desire you have is, in fact, bad for you, you will not desire it because you perceive it as bad; rather, you will desire it because your appetites are confused and perceive the object of your desire as something good.
Another important distinction to make regarding the various appetites we have is that there are natural appetites and voluntary ones. A natural appetite comes from natural inclinations within your senses, such as in the above example of desiring water when thirsty. These appetites have little or no moral significance in and of themselves unless they become indulgent. The voluntary appetites, however, are the ones that are more concerning. These are desires we have that originated because of some decision we made, such as choosing a sin, or choosing to give in to a natural appetite in an indulgent way.
To illustrate a voluntary appetite, let’s consider an extreme example. Let’s say someone is addicted to a very powerful drug such as heroin. The truth is that another dose of heroine is not good for that person. But nonetheless, the person who is addicted to heroin desires the drug because the appetites are enslaved to this drug and the appetites are drawn to the satisfaction that comes from the euphoric feeling of pleasure the body receives when taking the drug. Therefore, intellectually the person knows that the drug is not good, but the appetites desire it anyway because the appetites are misled and perceive this drug as good. And this appetite originated in the initial willed or voluntary choice to use heroin. Of course, the addictive nature of this drug makes it even worse, but the key concept to understand here is that you don’t have a natural desire for heroin when you are conceived. It only comes after you willingly tried it out. Thus, it is a voluntary appetite. More will be said on this shortly in the section entitled “voluntary.”
Attachments: An attachment is what results from habitually choosing that which you desire. To illustrate, consider again the heroin addict. He is attached to heroin because he has given in to the desire for it time and time again. He has allowed his bodily appetites to take delight in the drug and, as a result, he is attached to it. He is addicted. Though a heroin addiction is an extreme example, the same principle applies to everything you become attached to. For example, you become attached to money when you choose, over and over, to give in to the appetite for money. This attachment applies even if you have very little money. The appetite for more leaves you attached and desiring more. The problem is not that you do or do not have money; rather, the problem is being attached to the desire for it. Other examples include the appetite for a certain kind of food, entertainment, satisfaction, pleasure, and so on. These become attachments when you allow your appetites for these things to form habits within you. Though you may start with a natural appetite for something (such as a particular food), you become attached to it when you voluntarily choose it in an indulgent way. You can also become attached to immaterial things, such as the praise and honor others give you or fail to give you. When you desire the praise of others, and then continually act in such a way so as to receive that praise, you become attached to the praise.
Similarly, a dog also has appetites and attachments. For example, a dog may learn tricks and perform them, because it forms a habit of desiring the praise of its owner. This attachment to praise (or a tasty treat) is what enables a dog to do one trick after another at the command of the owner. A dog is controlled by its appetite and the memory of the reward. The praise (or the treat) causes a delight and, as a result, it is sought over and over. One difference between us and animals is that an animal cannot freely choose to be purified of its appetites. We can. An animal is purely sensory, affectionate and ruled by appetites. We have a free will that can override our sensory appetites.
Voluntary: A voluntary action is one that you freely make. Specifically, for the purpose of understanding the lessons in this chapter, a voluntary action is one that you make prior to forming a habit. This is an important distinction because once a habit is formed, your actions are less voluntary. Again, a heroin addict often experiences a loss of freedom and, therefore, no longer makes completely voluntary decisions each time he takes the drug on account of the addiction. An attachment weakens your ability to freely choose in a voluntary way. You act out of habit rather than freedom, just like animals. This applies to every habit you form. If you habitually use foul language, speak gossip, desire money, or form any other habit, you become less and less free to make voluntary actions. However, as a human being with a free will and intellect, you can always work to undo the habitual attachments you have voluntarily formed.
A true voluntary action is one you make with the full consent of your will. If the choice you freely make is for a grave sin, then you become a slave to that sin and attached to it. If the completely free choice you make is for a venial sin or some lesser spiritual imperfection, then you become attached to that sin or imperfection. And if the completely free choice you make is to habitually indulge in some natural appetite you have (such as for chocolate), then you will form an attachment to that natural desire. However, if the completely free choice you make is for some virtue, flowing from God Himself, then you also grow in the virtuous habit and become attached to God more completely.
Pleasure: The word “pleasure” does not need much of an explanation. But for our purposes, there is a twofold distinction that must be made. One form of pleasure comes from unhealthy (or inordinate) desires, and the other flows from union with God. Unhealthy pleasures enslave, distract and confuse you. But the good form of pleasure increases and changes according to the extent that your soul is united to God in divine union. In this case, even friendships and other natural goods are more purely enjoyed when your soul is united to God. In other words, the holier you become, the more capable you are of taking true delight in all that God sets before you.
Purgation: Purgation sounds like a painful word, and indeed it is. But purgation is more than just painful, it’s also freeing. Purgation is the process one must go through to remove bad habits and attachments to anything and everything other than God and His perfect will. This purgation is a process of complete interior detachment from everything that is not God. Purgation is at the heart of Saint John’s teaching and will be the central focus of any soul seeking the perfection of divine union. As mentioned earlier, purgation in the spiritual life takes on two forms: active and passive. “Active” means those actions that you can do to be freed of your unhealthy attachments. “Passive” means not resisting those things that God does in you to help finish the purgation you have started. Your responsibility in passive purgation is simply to consent to the work God is doing within you. Passive purgation is necessary for perfection, because you cannot fully free yourself by your own effort. Only God can ultimately accomplish complete freedom from every unhealthy attachment within your soul.
Freedom: Freedom is what happens in your soul when you complete your purgation. It is experienced in two ways. First, when an attachment is purified from your soul, you are set free from that which bound you and are no longer weighed down and oppressed by your sinful habits. Second, once you are set free from your unhealthy attachments, you are more capable of freely choosing God and His perfect will in your life. This liberation produces great joy! You are then able to truly exercise your free will in a new and complete way. And when you use this free will to choose God and His perfect will, there is no end to the experience of liberty you will enjoy.
Pleasure as Your Goal
Before we get into the dark night and the many purgations your soul must go through in order to achieve transforming union with God, it might be helpful to “ease the pain,” so to speak, by offering a hopeful and encouraging reason to fully embrace every purgation of your soul. The reason is that purgation is the only way to obtain the greatest satisfaction, fulfillment and, yes, pleasure in life.
God wants you happy. Happier than you could ever imagine! He wants you fulfilled. To a greater degree than you desire for yourself! He even wants you to take great delight in every aspect of your daily life. He wants every meal you eat, every hobby in which you partake, every relationship with which you are blessed and every action of your day to be sources of unfathomable pleasure and sweet delight. But in order for that to happen, there must first be a purgation of your entire self so that you engage your daily life in a new way. Furthermore, there has to be a discovery of the essential spiritual truth that the passing pleasures of this world are like dust in comparison to the delights that God wants to bestow upon you. Therefore, any purgation of a lower form of “pleasure” will ultimately result in the enjoyment of so much more.
Sometimes people can misconstrue Saint John of the Cross as a saint of pain and sorrow. The concept of entering into purgation and the dark night can be frightening and uninviting when misunderstood. But when understood properly, Saint John reveals to us that more joy, delight and purified pleasure awaits us than we could ever obtain on our own. And the delight is of a much higher level than we are even aware that exists.
Think about the worldly image of the hedonistic “pleasure seeker.” This is the person who lives for the moment, lives the high life, is always seeking greater adventures or new experiences that the world can offer. Well, the truth is that when a person makes it their goal to seek every pleasure the world can offer, they may end up obtaining just that! And that is a sad result! Why? Because the pleasures of the world, even if one were to be able to indulge in all of them, are like pure torture and filth compared to the incomprehensible joys of a life lived in the transformation of divine union. There is simply no comparison.
So, does God want you to enjoy life and take pleasure in it? Most certainly. But He wants your pleasure to be of the highest order, the order for which you were made, the eternal delights, the spiritual delights. He does not want you to selfishly indulge in passing and finite pleasures that never fully satisfy and always leave you hungry for more. God wants you satisfied, not hungry. He wants you at rest, not always anxious. He wants your heart to be overflowing with joy, not always craving for more.
Here are a few lines taken from Book I, Ch. IV, #4-5 of the Ascent of Mount Carmel that illustrate the comparison between seeking fulfillment in the world vs. seeking fulfillment in God:
…all the grace and beauty of the creatures, compared with the grace of God, is the height of misery and of uncomeliness.
…all the goodness of the creatures of the world, in comparison with the infinite goodness of God, may be described as wickedness.
All the wisdom of the world and all human ability, compared with the infinite wisdom of God, are pure and supreme ignorance…
In other words, if a person were to obtain everything the world holds up as beautiful, good and wise, what they actually obtain is misery, wickedness and ignorance when compared to that which God wants to give them through divine union. If that is difficult to understand and accept, don’t get discouraged just yet. For now, simply accept the fact that the fulfillment, joy, pleasure and delight that God wants to bestow upon you through divine union is infinitely more fulfilling, joyful, pleasurable and delightful than what the world can give or than you can obtain on your own by satiating all of your appetites. Even if you were to obtain the greatest material wealth, enjoy the best entertainment, daily eat the finest food, be greatly esteemed by the world, learn every bit of knowledge humanly possible, etc., you would still be absolutely miserable in comparison to what God wants to give you. Keep this in the forefront of your mind as you now look at the beginning process of purgation.
The Truth Leads to Purgation
If “purgation” sounds painful, difficult and depressing, that is because you have allowed yourself to be deceived by the world, the flesh, the evil one and your own misguided will. Do you want the truth, or do you prefer to live in a lie? That’s actually a difficult question to answer for many people. Many people choose to remain in a state of ignorance rather than face the glorious truth God wants to speak to them. Why? Because if they remain in ignorance, they do not have to change. They can go on pretending they are happy and can continue seeking pleasure in all the easy worldly and fleshly appetites they have. Purgation begins when the lies are revealed and unmasked. You must first come to know the Truth so that the Truth can set you free.
Identifying Your Attachments and Desires
It’s now time to begin getting practical by looking at what happens within your soul in regard to attachments and desires on a sensory level. Here are some concrete examples of “sensory attachments and desires” offered in no particular order:
- Being very talkative
- Desiring wealth
- Desiring food prepared in a particular way
- Desiring excessive amounts of food or drink
- Wanting the most comfortable amenities
- Desiring a promotion at work
- Wanting to go first
- Desiring disordered sexual gratification
- Desiring the finest clothes and other belongings
- Clinging to a person in a selfish way
- Wanting others to notice you
- Being overly curious about the latest gossip
- Regularly being attached to your mobile phone, tablet or social media
- Desiring always the easiest way
- Desiring the best of things
- Having an extreme love of your possessions
- Etc., etc., etc.
Now it may be the case that as you read that short list of examples, you find yourself guilty of every one of them. Ouch, the truth may actually hurt. It may be painful to go through the slow and careful process of discovering why these and so many other attachments you have in life actually do you far more harm than you realize. If you are attached to the things above or to any other similar thing, you will probably be tempted to immediately justify your attachment and come up with all sorts of reasons as to why they are good, or at least OK. Do not fear. The process of purgation may be slow and painful but remember that it is also renewing and freeing. It’s the only way to true joy and pleasure.
It’s important to note that some items in the above list are far worse for the soul than others. And the list is not referring to natural preferences, likes or dislikes. For example, if you like spicy food or the color blue, there is no way to unlike spicy food or the color blue. But that’s not the goal. There is nothing wrong with liking one thing or another. But Saint John does clearly teach that if you want to obtain the heights of perfection, all of your natural likes and dislikes must be tempered and brought into order by God’s divine grace, so they do not become indulgent, resulting in inordinate attachments. In other words, your natural preferences cannot control you, they cannot have an unhealthy hold on you. In fact, the only way to truly enjoy the natural likes and dislikes you have is to make sure that they are tempered by God’s grace and that the desire for them is properly ordered within your appetites.
The list above could go on for pages. In Chapter Six of this book, there is a thorough examination of conscience that will help you to identify many of your attachments and unhealthy desires. For now, the goal is to get a basic understanding of attachments and desires and to begin accepting the fact that you have attachments and desires that need to be purified, if you are going to be fully happy in life by entering into divine union.
Do I have to Give up EVERY Attachment?
I’m happy to tell you that the answer to that question is absolutely “Yes!” Yes, you do have to be purified of EVERY single attachment, no matter how small, if you want to fully enter into the unfathomable joys and fulfillment of divine union. Not a single disordered attachment can remain (note that all attachments to things other than God are disordered). Certainly nothing that is seriously sinful (mortal), nor anything that is only somewhat sinful (venial). But Saint John goes even further. He says that we not only have to overcome our mortal and venial sins, we also have to overcome every spiritual imperfection, no matter how small, if we want to enter into divine union. And in the coming chapters, he will take us even further than that!
Why is it that every single attachment must go? Because divine union means the soul is one with God in every way. It means God has taken complete possession of you. Recall the words of Saint Paul: “(Y)et I live, no longer I,, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). A soul that is completely conformed to Christ is also detached from every sin and imperfection, because conformity to Christ and attachment to sin are not compatible. Even those who live in a state of perfect divine union will still “fall seven times a day” (Proverbs 24:16), meaning that they will still commit a venial sin here or there, but they will do so without those momentary sins becoming habits, or attachments to sin or imperfection.
Attachments AND Desires
Another important insight that Saint John of the Cross offers us is that the purgation of our attachments is not enough. We must also be purified of all voluntary desires for anything other than God and His will. Remember that a voluntary desire is different than a natural one. Voluntary desires create attachments. An attachment means that we have formed a habit that is either sinful or simply imperfect. For example, if you have a habit of entering into gossip, this means that you have chosen to engage in gossip over and over. You are bound to a certain extent to that tendency and experience a certain lack of freedom in choosing this sin. Breaking free of this habit is the same as detaching from that sin. But detachment is not enough. The voluntary desire to gossip must also be purified. This means that if an occasion arises in which you are invited to engage in gossip, but you have already overcome the perpetual habit of doing so, you are free to choose to enter back into gossip or not. If, when presented with the opportunity to gossip, you are tempted but immediately dismiss the temptation, then you are also becoming more and more free of the voluntary desire and will immediately grow stronger in virtue every time you immediately dismiss the temptation. And when the opposite virtue grows strong, you will eventually find gossip repulsive, and future temptations will be more easily dismissed. If, however, you voluntarily consider engaging in the gossip, and take even one step toward doing so, even if you stop, you are still slightly bound by the voluntary desire and it will remain, and perhaps even grow stronger. Though this is not nearly as serious as habitually consenting to a sin, it still must be purified. Therefore, true freedom involves the immediate and complete habitual renunciation of even the voluntary desire for sin or the desire for a voluntary attachment to anything that is not God. Though temptation is not a sin or imperfection (recall that even Jesus was tempted), voluntarily entertaining and considering the temptation keeps you from the perfection of divine union until the habitual desire is eliminated. It’s like that small, thin string tied to the leg of a bird. It may not be that hard to break the string, but until that string is broken, the bird cannot fly free.
Perhaps this sounds like an extreme expectation. Well, it is extreme. But remember that we are describing here that which is necessary to obtain perfection! Perfection means just that: perfection. And though few will obtain it in this life, it is possible, and it is ultimately necessary if we are to enter fully into the Beatific Vision of Heaven.
Furthermore, it must be made clear that there is no way to eliminate natural desires or even sinful temptations. And that is not even the goal we should have. For example, if you like blueberries then it is not necessary that you try to dislike them. We all have natural likes and dislikes. The goal is not to become completely indifferent to everything in life. That would be a denial of natural goods. Rather, the goal is to keep all of your natural likes and dislikes in check, in a balanced and temperate way. So, if you like to go fishing, or like to sew, or like to eat steak, that’s fine. Enjoy them at times and let them be a source of refreshment. But make sure that these likes and dislikes do not take possession of you and do not so consume you that you begin to engage in them in an indulgent manner. When this happens, you will find your desires torn between those attachments and God. And when your desires are divided, they cannot be fully centered on God and His holy will.
And in regard to temptations, you cannot eliminate them. The devil, the flesh and the world will continually tempt you in numerous ways. God permits these temptations so that you can make the right choice and, thus, grow in virtue. You must learn to habitually turn away from temptations, thus eliminating even the desire for them. When this happens, temptations will be like a rubber ball bouncing off an iron wall. The ball still hits the wall, but the ball has no effect.
A Proper Ordering of Your Voluntary Desires
It may be helpful to clarify further this radical teaching about the purgation of one’s voluntary desires by considering a practical example of how a well-ordered soul will deal with its natural inclinations, likes and dislikes, and not allow them to turn into habitual, excessive and unhealthy attachments.
Let’s say that you are blessed with a lovely home and enjoy its contents very much. However, by God’s grace you are not overly attached to it even though you enjoy it. You have many nice things, but God helps you keep your interior attachment to your home under control. What would happen if some unfortunate situation occurred, such as a house fire, and many of your belongings were lost?
Most likely, your initial reaction would understandably be disappointment. That’s just a natural reaction. However, if your interior desires are well ordered by God, then you would quickly remind yourself that it’s not the end of the world. In fact, it’s no big deal. You would begin to realize that you have been given the wonderful opportunity to manifestly practice your faith by embracing the virtues of poverty of spirit and interior detachment. Thus, rather than becoming angry and depressed, you would see the spiritual blessings God brings from this experience, and you would rejoice even though there is a very real temptation to be upset.
This level of interior detachment is difficult to achieve, but it is necessary if you are going to obtain divine union. God calls some people to literally give up everything and follow Him as a religious monk or nun. But to everyone else, He requires that they live within the world with a spirit of interior detachment and poverty of spirit toward all things. The things of this world are not bad, in and of themselves, and many of the things of the world can give enjoyment. But it is only true enjoyment when we remain interiorly detached from everything, seeing all we have as a gift, not as a self-satisfying possession.
The same could be applied to any natural desire, like or dislike. In the end, as long as that which you like is not sinful, and as long as you could easily give it up if you had to or if it were taken away, then you are in a great position to actually enjoy those simple delights of life. The food you eat will become even more delicious, the hobbies you engage in will become even more enjoyable and refreshing, and the relationships you have will be even more fruitful. And those delights will then become a habitual source of gratitude, and they will foster your deeper love of God and of all good things in and through God.
Another way to illustrate this spiritual principle is to consider your relationship with another person. Perhaps it is your spouse, a child, parent or friend. Friendships have the potential of being sources of great joy when they are entered into with freedom and detachment. But when they are experienced as clingy, needy, obsessive or possessive, they are a burden—and not a true friendship. Interestingly, the only way to give and receive love between persons is to be detached from that person in your selfish appetites and affections. Perhaps that sounds strange, but it’s true. Even spouses must live in selfless detachment to each other if they wish to give and receive love freely. When someone clings to you and demands your attention and affection, they are not able to truly love you or be loved by you. All they can experience is the fleeting satisfaction of their demands for affection being fulfilled. But that’s not love, that’s a disordered affection. When you are detached from another and they are detached from you, and subsequently they freely offer their love to you and you freely offer your love to them, then the joy experienced by that freely given friendship is far more than any selfish affection can achieve.
To illustrate how we are to love in a detached way, consider this true story of two loving parents. One day, their daughter became quite ill. She was taken to the doctor’s office for an exam and while there she fainted. The doctor could not revive her and an ambulance was immediately called. The parents watched as paramedics frantically worked on resuscitating their daughter, and they sensed the seriousness of this situation. The parents were aware that their daughter may not survive.
As their daughter was placed in the ambulance, the loving parents followed behind to the emergency room. However, while following the ambulance, instead of giving in to despair, anger or fear, they immediately began praying in the following way:
“Dear Lord, we thank You for the life of our daughter Ann. You gave her to our care and now in this moment we surrender her to You alone. If it be Your will that she survives this illness, so be it. If it be Your will that Ann is taken from us and from this world, then so be it. Dear Lord, Ann is Your daughter and we entrust her to Your perfect love. Amen.”
Such a prayer would be difficult for many parents to pray. Instead, many would understandably be filled with fear and be crying out a prayer more like this:
“Please, God, heal her! Don’t take her from us! Please, we beg You! We love our daughter and hope for a long life with her. Please, Jesus, heal her! We need You!”
Try to carefully consider the difference between these two prayers. The second form of prayer is quite understandable and flows from a certain level of love. However, this love is more based on fear and a sense of ownership, and actually hinders the purest form of love for their daughter. The focus is more upon the parents’ fear of losing their daughter and all the hopes they have for her. Again, this prayer is very understandable given the circumstances. However, the first prayer is far more perfect because of the detachment from all selfishness in the parents’ relationship with their daughter. There is also a profound trust in God’s love for her. In the first prayer, the trust and total surrender of their daughter to God is what opens the door for these parents to manifest a genuinely pure love for their daughter. They do not love her because they “need” her and fear losing her. Rather, their loving detachment from her actually has the effect of them being able to love her in freedom and to be more fully united to her in accord with the perfect will of God.
As you ponder the detachment and purgation of your desires, be it to persons, food, clothing, material items, or something that is immaterial (such as the admiration of another), keep in the forefront of your mind that total detachment is the only way to enjoy those persons or things from which you detach. That’s one reason why total detachment is so good. Not only does it free you to love God with your whole heart, mind, soul and strength, it also enables you to love others and be loved by others and to experience the joys of these loves.
The Primary Reason for Purgation
Though there are numerous blessings of pleasure and joy you can receive when you are detached, the primary reason to seek total detachment from all inordinate affections and desires is to dispose yourself for union with God, the ultimate source of fulfillment in life. The effects of union with God are numerous and, in fact, infinite. Union with God makes everything in life better. But the primary reason for union with God is not just to make everything in life better. It’s first and foremost for the simple reason of being in union with God! Love of God is what we are made for and He must become the single center of our lives. Only when this happens will every other aspect of our lives be ordered toward the single goal of divine union. Furthermore, when this happens, God and God alone becomes the source of our delight and fulfillment. Delighting in God with every fiber of your being is infinitely superior to sharing your desires with other lesser or disordered satisfactions.
For example, it is not a contradiction to say that you must love God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul and with all your strength and to then say you also love your spouse, family, certain hobbies, etc. This is a great mystery in that the only way to true love of others is to give yourself 100% to God. All means all. Think about that. Normal human logic may lead you to think that you should love God with most of your heart, but that there are many other things to love in life. Therefore, as long as you love God more than other things, you are doing well. Right? Wrong. God wants all of you, completely, without reserve. He is to be the exclusive focus of your human love. But the good news is that, because God is Omnipotent, He is able to then take the human love you offer Him and transform it into the superabundance of His divine love, so that He overflows in your life and He loves others in and through you. God does the loving; you are the instrument. But the blessing, when God is the exclusive focus of your human love, is that you are able to share in the divine blessings of love that are offered to others, through you, by God, in exchange for the human love you offer God. Thus, the love you have for your spouse, since it overflows from the divine love of God in your heart to your spouse, is in fact divine love. And the joy that comes from that love, offered by God through your human heart, is in fact divine joy. Why settle for merely human joys when you can experience divine joys every day?
Does Purgation Hurt?
Yes, but sin hurts worse. The purgation of your senses, either in an active or passive way, will be painful. Severing the chains, cords or even the tiny strings that bind you to your appetites, attachments and desires will produce pain in your sensory appetites.
So as to prepare you for the experience of being purified, Saint John of the Cross spends much time talking about the experience of purgation being like a dark night. He explains that as a person is fully purified of each disordered attachment and desire, there will be a feeling of loss, emptiness, nakedness and nothingness. Their soul is now “all stilled.” But in that stillness, until the soul replaces its former attachments with God, the feeling of interior loss can be quite painful. Initially, the passions and appetites will feel as if they are lost and empty. They will miss their former attachments and will be restless. Recall Saint Augustine’s famous line, “Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in You.” In other words, when attachments and desires are severed, there is a restlessness that can only be calmed and satiated by God Himself. This restlessness leaves the soul in a sort of darkness.
But that’s OK, and, in fact, it’s good! The key is to identify the darkness that is felt as the first step toward freedom. The soul must remain still and at peace in this state until God enters in and takes the place of all former delights. So if you are “addicted” to chocolate in an excessive way and you work to break that inordinate attachment, you can expect to feel the loss of that satisfaction on a sensory level. It hurts not to be able to satiate your craving for chocolate. But as time goes on, the soul that breaks attachments to things of this world out of love for God will have their former “cravings” satiated by their love of God alone. And they may eventually even be able to enjoy the pleasure of chocolate in a purified and elevated way, once their unhealthy attachment is broken.
If you are uneasy with the idea of experiencing painful purgations, then consider the following as a good motivation. Regarding pain, Saint John explains that disordered attachments and imperfections actually cause far more interior suffering than the purgation of the senses causes. So, while it is true that going through a purgation is painful, what is far more painful is to perpetually remain unpurified, attached to sin, and attached to our disordered desires.
First, disordered attachments deprive us of the fullness or the Spirit of God, that is, they deprive us of full union with God. And that absence in our lives is painful. We may think that the agony we experience here or there is the fault of our circumstances or perhaps what someone else did to us, but it’s not true. Most of our interior suffering is caused by not being in full union with God. By analogy, would a fish suffer if it jumped out of water for a while? Indeed! A fish is made for water and when removed it will suffer and ultimately die. So it is with us. We are made for God. And when we lack perfect union with Him, we feel the effects. We suffer. And if we do not eventually enter into union with Him, we will also die.
Secondly, the sins and disordered desires themselves bring sufferings and afflictions to the soul. Saint John offers five forms of suffering that afflict us on account of attachment to sin. He says that these disordered desires cause the soul to be weary, tormented, darkened, defiled and weakened. So, while it is true that going through a purgation is painful, what is far more painful is to perpetually remain unpurified, attached to sin, and attached to our disordered desires. Let’s look at each of these briefly:
Weary: Attachments and desires do not refresh the soul, even when they are satiated. In fact, the opposite happens. When an appetite is fed, or a desire given in to, the soul becomes tired, weakened and wearied.
Tormented: Attachments inflict turmoil and interior suffering on a soul. When an attachment is strong, the torment is stronger. The more the appetite is fed, the more the restlessness.
Darkened: Attachments confuse a soul and cloud its intellect. It is no longer able to see the Truth of God clearly. The soul’s experience is like looking for the sun on a very foggy day.
Defiled: Attachments rob the soul of its beauty. The soul begins feeling filthy and dirty, like a beautiful gold chalice being covered in tar.
Weakened: The greater the attachment, the weaker the soul becomes. And the weaker the soul becomes, the more it gives in to sin and, thus, becomes even weaker in its fight against sin.
“Kindled in Love with Yearnings…”
Hopefully, the spiritual insights of this chapter have helped you to understand the importance of trying to actively purify and free yourself of every inordinate attachment and desire. If you felt quite challenged, hopefully you can humbly and honestly look at your attachments and make a plan to begin letting go of them. Here is a summary of what you must seek to be detached from:
- The commission of every mortal sin
- Habitual venial sins
- Habitual spiritual imperfections
- Every voluntary habitual desire that leads you to form an attachment within your appetites to anything other than God
Be assured that you cannot do this on your own. But you must begin the arduous process. If you do not begin, God cannot complete it in you. And if God does not complete this purgation in you, then Purgatory will be required of you after death. But as has been mentioned, it is irrational to wait until Purgatory. There are too many wonderful reasons to seek this purgation now. In fact, Saint John says very clearly that those who are purified in Purgatory do not grow in merit and glory, only purgation. But those who grow in perfection here and now also gain much merit in Heaven and obtain a much greater eternal glory.
At the end of Book I of the Ascent of Mount Carmel, the book in which Saint John of the Cross presents his theology on the active night of the senses, he explains that the only way to become fully purified of every sensory attachment is by a special grace from God. This grace will “kindle” the soul with “yearnings” for God. These desires for God will become so strong that they will ultimately eliminate every single attachment the soul has formed.