Posts Tagged ‘Teresa of Avila’
“Nevertheless I tell you the truth: It is to your advantage that I go away… But if I go, I will send him [Holy Spirit] to you.” Jesus (John 16:7, 32-33)
I don’t like writing about the Dark Night. First of all, I feel very uncomfortable equating my experiences with those who have experienced a true absence of God’s presence and extended season of desolation, especially when it is accompanied by persecution, oppression, and other tragic or “dark” encounters during the course of their Christian journey. I often feel like a novice as I read the journals and memoirs of those great saints who have traveled the road of faith before me. I do not feel qualified to talk at length about some of my experiences and when I do, I feel as though they sometimes seem trivial and fall short of a reputable example for the subject that I might be speaking about.
On the other hand, I process my thoughts better when I write and talk about them. It puts me in a vulnerable spot, but I suppose that is the risk and trade-off for trying to figure out my spiritual journey. The end result is that I might not know what I’m talking about at all, but I’m willing to take the chance for the hopeful promise that I might make a step or two forward in my understanding of who God is, who I am, and who we are together. Sometimes the risk is in proportion to the reward, so I write…and I talk…and I think, out loud.
The past few years I have met seasons of loneliness, times when God felt distant, feelings of being misunderstood, times of discontent, days of melancholy, stretches of spiritual grief, attitudes of apathy, and bouts with depression. There are probably a few other “attitudes” I have encountered, but these are some I have most commonly identified. These times are always troublesome for me. I think it goes without saying that one reason would be the overall discomfort they bring. Another reason is the doubt that invariably comes as part of the package. I do not like to feel bad…ever, and I certainly do not like feeling bad within the context of my own spirituality. Moreover, I have an especially strong distaste for these things when they are accompanied with self-doubt.
What goes on during these seasons of the soul? What is it that makes us feel so lonely and lost? Why is it, try as we might, that we cannot seem to go back to a “healthier” time in our walk with Jesus? I do not think I can speak definitively to all these questions, at least in a way that is sufficient to answer the questions for every person who may ask them, but I feel confident in sharing my own experiences and some of what I’ve learned through the process.
Studying and learning from the great spiritual masters has benefited me greatly; in particular to this writing, the journals from St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila have been most helpful. Also, there have been several contemporary sources that have helped my understanding as well: Dr. Gerald May, Dr. Bruce Demarest, Dr. David Benner, and a few others. So, what is it that I have learned or perhaps better asked, what is that I am learning?
God loves me. I love God. These are two guiding principles for my existence. These principles are challenged by issues in remediation. God wants my love to be perfected and is active in leading me in the ways of perfection. I am damaged goods on the path of restoration. While there are a number of issues that challenge me in my Christian journey, there are a few that manifest themselves as “root” causes for most of those challenges. I believe I could narrow them down to pride, independence, and idolatry.
Pride is a serious challenge. I believe the fact that on any particular day I can wake up and feel as though it has been conquered serves me as evidence that it has not… been conquered at all. Pride is a most subversive agent; it often hides in plain sight. It was pride that served as the seed of humankind’s fall; its root runs deep and its fruit is plenty.
Independence is another great challenge. Not only are we hampered by pride in overcoming independence, but we also face the challenge of the great American culture that teaches individualism and independence as virtues for which everyone is to aspire. Independence is antithetical to the very nature of our communing Triune God who is a community Himself. It was God, who when creating humanity, said that it was not good for man to be alone.
Idolatry might be the greatest challenge of them all. I recall a quote by John Calvin, who said; “The human heart is a factory of idols…Every one of us is, from his mother’s womb, expert in inventing idols.” I am unsure if idolatry gives birth to pride and independence or if it is the other way around. These issues are so closely interrelated it is difficult to determine where the beginning point is.
How do these character challenges affect the “Dark Night” or a sense of God’s absence? What do they have to do with God’s apparent silence?
I believe the Bible teaches us that God desires each of his children (me and you and every other created soul) to be wholly complete, as He first imagined us. This, I believe, is part of the order in God’s plan of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration. Therefore, God has enacted a means of being reconciled to Him through the atoning work of Jesus Christ, but that redemptive act is just the threshold—a wonderful and mysterious threshold, but a starting point nonetheless.
As we journey with God on the way of restoration and wholeness, being transformed in the image and likeness of Jesus Christ, we encounter the challenges and their myriad manifestations I mentioned earlier. I could write and talk at length about so many of these challenges, but I would like to address the connection of “Dark Night” and absence/silence of God with wholeness and restoration.
“Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)
I don’t like the idea that I am an idol factory or idolater. However, if I am honest and objective, I am an idol maker…and will likely be until Christ’s return or my life ends on this side of eternity. Perhaps a bit of clarification is in order. While God allows us to know Him, our knowledge is imperfect, although as we seek God with pure hearts in spirit and in truth, He reveals more and more of himself to us. Still, this revelation and knowledge is imperfect and incomplete. This imperfect and incomplete knowledge of God introduces a problem to us; many of us are not satisfied with incomplete pictures/images. The remedy for this problem of incomplete image is to complete it and I believe this is what many people try to do…complete the image of incomplete knowledge. This is a form of idolatry.
No matter how pure my intent and no matter how mature my spirituality is, I form an image of God in my mind and heart based on what I know of Him. I do not necessarily believe this is blatantly wicked, nor do I believe that in itself is separating from God, but it can and does create strain on our relationship with Him which has potential to lead us away from Him.
How it Works…
As I avail myself to God’s Self revealing through His Word, prayer, interacting with other believers, indwelling guidance from Holy Spirit, and many other means of revelation, I am able to form an understanding of who God is…I form an image of God. Now, some of this image may be true, but being incomplete, the best I can do is to create a “wire-frame” image of God. There are elements missing, dots remain unconnected. I have two choices at this juncture; I can continue my journey with a limited and incomplete God based upon my partial image of Him or I can complete the construction of my wire-frame with my own embellishments. Both of these options are not always done intentionally, but the process of completion often takes place nonetheless even despite our best efforts to prevent it. The end result is a god of our making whom we will often project on to others through teaching, witness, or other lifestyle actions.
God’s best is for us to know Him in Spirit and in Truth. The evidence of Scripture and the reality of the Incarnation teach us that God wants human beings to know Him. I think it stands to reason that God desires our knowledge should be true and not manufactured by us, so as we journey with Him along the way of restoration, He leads us into places of wilderness, Gethsemane gardens, and hills of Golgotha. Each of these places are defining moments for us and can be places of barrenness, loneliness, anxiety, doubt, fear, the sense of God’s absence, and places of extreme silence. It is in these places where the student is tested… the Potter beats, moulds, and shapes… the Metal smith fires, forges, hammers, and sharpens… It is in this place where false images are erased and idols are crushed.
It is important to know this defining place is not a place of punishment, but a process of refinement. It is my experience too that it is not a “one and done” visit. It seems with each visit and increasing awareness of God’s character, there is an eventual follow-up encounter for pride smashing and idol crushing. I think the process will continue until… I also believe this is a natural spiritual order.
What has been my greatest understanding as I’ve encountered these seasons of absence and breaking? Probably among the most important things I’ve come to realize is that God loves me so much that He will not leave me with a false image of Himself as long as my heart is pursuing Him. True knowledge of God is conditional; we have to be pursuing Him with humble heart and pure intent. Otherwise, even what we think we know of Him will be taken away and will lead us to our own destruction (Luke 8:18 NLT).
“God who is everywhere never leaves us…Yet he may be more present to us when he is absent than when he is present.” -Thomas Merton
I am also learning that God never, ever, truly departs or is absent from us—what leaves or betrays us is not God, but our [false] images, concepts, and sensations of God. It is here in God’s “silence” or “absence” where He can usually be found speaking His loudest. Here is the time where it behooves us to exercise our best listening skills, here in the quiet of God. In the times where we feel that God is absent, it is the time and place where we often find even greater intimacy with Him. Do not despair in the moments of desolation and loneliness…for it is here that God’s presence is even more manifest.
Jesus cried out with a loud voice: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)
In the ancient Palestinian wilderness, in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Golgotha’s Hill—God spoke with non-words and was present in His absence. As paradoxical as it may seem, I believe there are times when God is even more present in His absence than He is present in His presence.
God is specially present in the hearts of his people by his Holy Spirit. Indeed the hearts of holy men are truly his temples. In type and foreshadow, they are heaven itself. For God reigns in the hearts of his servants. There is his kingdom.” -Jeremy Taylor
At the beginning of the spiritual life a common temptation is for us to want everyone else to be extremely spiritual. It is not wrong to want this, but it may not be right to try to make it happen. If we do, it is essential that we exercise discretion and give no impression that we are setting ourselves up as a great teacher.
I discovered this for myself. When I attempted to induce others to pray, they would listen to what I had to say. When they then observed that I, the great practioner of prayer, lacked certain virtues, they would be led astray. My actions were not compatible with my words. A trifling evil can be devastating in a religious community. Across many years only three individuals have gained anything of value from what I have said to them.
We are also tempted to be distressed by the sins and failings of others. We try to fix things. This excites us so much that it keeps us from praying. Worst of all, we trick ourselves into believing we are doing the Lords’ work! Good intentions have led to terrible mistakes. Spiritual security comes when we stop being anxious about others and begin to watch after ourselves.
Try to focus on the best in others and the worst in ourselves. This will blind us to their defects. Eventually, we may even think of them as better than ourselves. -Teresa of Avila
My Bible reading along with a few other excerpted readings from other sources took an unexpected turn this morning coming together to bring home and highlight the thought of single-minded devotion to God. This isn’t a new thought for me…or others for that matter, but it needs reminded in me from time-to-time. It seems no matter how “devoted” I think I am to God and/or how intimately in communion with Him I believe that I am, I lose focus…I get distracted and my affections begin to wander. I would rather that never happen in me and I would like to believe that I have singleness of heart, but time and time again I am reminded that I am not faultless in my single-minded devotion to my Lord.
I am reading through for a second time a book by Ronald Rohlheiser titled The Restless Heart. I read this book the first time while I was spending a month at the Pecos Monastery in New Mexico. I haven’t blogged or posted a review on this book yet because I’m still processing and “stewing” in it. Rohlheiser writes the following:
We are more busy than bad, more distracted than nonspiritual and more interested in the movie theatre, the sports stadium, and the shopping mall and fantasy life they produce in us than we are in church. Pathological busyness, distraction and restlessness are major blocks today within our spiritual lives. -Ronald Rohlheiser
Even when I am intentional about not busying my life, I still busy my life. I think it is a subconscious reality that while we are on this side of eternity we will forever be battling “busy” distractions; this is one of the unforeseen results of Adam’s choice of self over God. The subsequent consequence for us from this is the struggle to remain focused on relationship with our God as we meander through the daily business of life. Such is the price of original broken fellowship between me and my Creator God. And so I pray: “O Lord, purify my heart to long for the one true thing and be distracted by nothing as I seek to know You with unbroken fellowship, undistracted devotion, and complete purity of heart. Amen.”
Remember that you have only one soul; that you have only one death to die; that you have only one life, which is short and has to be lived by you alone; and that there is only one glory, which is eternal. If you do this, there will be many things about which you care nothing. -Teresa of Avila
According to St. Teresa, if we are to will one thing and seek undistracted devotion, it will mean purposeful separation from “many things.” In other words, in order to say “yes” to God, it will be necessary to say “no” to many things. I think this is made clear in some of the words of Ronald Rohlheiser as he describes our busy distractions coming from temporal, fantasy-fueled, indulgences that feed our restlessness…these are some of the things we must say “no” to in order to find our way back to the path of time spent with the One who is (or should be) the real object of our devotion.
I was reading about Jacob this morning from Genesis and was caught up in mid-sentence with these words out of chapter thirty-two; “…and Jacob was left alone, then someone came and wrestled with him through the night” (Genesis 32:24). It says; …and Jacob was left alone. The context is Jacob’s return to his homeland. He is fearful of his brother Esau and sends ahead of himself all his family and all his estate. Forget whether or not Jacob is acting out of cowardice or self-preservation or any other motive. The point here is that he is alone; all alone. It is in this alone place and vulnerable place, this isolated place…that Someone comes and wrestles with him through the night. This is a moment of crisis and a pivotal point in the life of Jacob. His attitude, his nature, his physical state, and his name are all changed (this might be a metaphor for all of his soul, all of his mind, all of his heart, all of his strength). He is now, Israel, the one who has wrestled with God face-to-face. He is the man who is forever changed because he was alone with God.
“Happy are the people whose strength is in you! whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.” (Psalm 84:4)
I’m glad to be reminded of the cost of single-minded devotion and the reason for it. I am easily distracted. Setting aside intentional moments, literally scheduling alone times with God, are the ways and the means to remain focused on the will of one thing. Yes, it will mean saying “no” to many things. It will also mean a lessening of affections toward many things that used to captivate my attention, but I know this is good… replacing the ravenous restless hungers of my flesh with the soul satisfying presence of God is what my heart truly longs for. I am encouraged by the words of Jeremiah from Lamentations.
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The faithful love of the LORD never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, “The LORD is my inheritance; therefore I will hope in him!” The LORD is good to those who depend on him, to those who search for him. So it is good to wait quietly for salvation from the LORD. And it is good for people to submit at an early age to the yoke of his discipline. Let them sit alone in silence beneath the LORD’s demands. (Lamentations 3:21-28)
“…and Jacob was left alone, then someone came and wrestled with him through the night”
“O Lord, purify my heart to long for the one true thing and be distracted by nothing as I seek to know You with unbroken fellowship, undistracted devotion, and complete purity of heart. Amen.”