We are, each one of us, called to love God to the utmost of our ability as created by Him. Each one of us has a level of holiness intended by God from all time. It is our duty to cooperate with God and His graces in order to love Him as much as He wants us to love Him.
Because of the influence of Protestantism, especially in America and in Great Britain, a misunderstanding persists concerning grace. Most people seem to know that serious sin, such as murder and adultery, cause serious sin, which Catholics call mortal. This serious sin, even most Protestants will agree with, kills grace within the soul, although they may not use the term sanctifying grace, as Catholics do.
Therefore, most Christians believe that one is in or out of grace, one’s soul is spiritually alive or dead, depending on whether follows the Ten Commandments or not.
However, something which even Catholic priests forget to mention in sermons, (having hear one sermon on this in my adult life and from an Opus Dei priest who also celebrates the TLM), is the truth that grace can be weakened by venial sin and by imperfections.
Now, as soon as one begins to discuss venial sins and imperfections, one will lose contact with Protestantism as it is practiced today, which totally ignores minor sin and imperfections which stop spiritual growth and stop the movement towards union with God while on earth, as taught by John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Garrigou-Lagrange, and many other saints and writers.
John of the Cross clearly notes in his Ascent of Mount Carmel that one small vice, one small imperfection impedes growth and this journey towards perfection, and union.
The weakening of grace remains something rarely mentioned by priests who continually lower the bar regarding life in the Holy Spirit.
Not referring to those, who John of the Cross states, do not walk with God and are, therefore, not able to perceive what keeps them from God, small sins and even imperfections produce weakness and actually move one away from the life of virtue.
Many sins which are venial remain habitual until one decided to attack these sins. These are sins most likely learned in childhood, such as gluttony (over-eating), lying, not praying regularly, not being obedient in little things as well as big things, vanity, vainglory, and so on.
One does not necessarily give consent to these sins, but these hide imperfections and may be connected to one’s predominant fault.
Appetites may have been encouraged in childhood by parents who did not exercise their proper God-given authority over their children; for example, parents allowing teens not to go to Mass instead of commanding obedience, or allowing children to go places which are dangerous to their spiritual lives.
The voluntary appetites must, must, must be dealt with, writes John of the Cross, through immediate mortification.
Does a person want seconds in food, or only the food they want to eat?
Does a person buy too many clothes, more than what is necessary?
Does someone talk too much?
Does someone forget to be grateful, thanking God for all things received, as no one has anything, gifts, talents, careers, comforts, except what has been received?
Does one fall into spiritual dissipation, becoming too busy, anxious about many things, forgetting what is important, the interior life?
Is one too impetuous about one’s work, one entertainment?
Is one inconstant in one’s spiritual life, prayer, fasting, mortification?
And so on…..
John of the Cross notes that the very first step, and all these points deal with Beginners in the spiritual life, not Proficients, is to conform totally one’s life with the life of Christ, which means, first of all, reading about His life in the Scriptures and praying to become like Christ in the world.
The second step and again, these are for Beginners, is to refuse to follow a line of thought, speaking or doing which brings sensory pleasure. Now, for most contemporary people, this seems absolutely impossible. Denial of good things contradicts not only our natures, but our entire culture in the West, and in the East.
But, if one does not partake in actively entering the dark night of the senses, and if one is not given the passive dark night, in which God takes all things away from a person, one will not on this earth become a saint.
On this day, the feast of St. John of the Cross, let me repeat his famous lines on how to overcome venial sins and imperfections, reminding readers that all of this is done for the love of Christ, and not for gain, status, or the good opinion of others.
Endeavor to be inclined always:
not to the easiest, but the most difficult;
not to the most delightful, but to the most distasteful;
not to the most gratifying, but to the less pleasant;
not to what means rest for you, but to hard work;
not to the consoling, but to the unconsoling;
not to the most, but to the least;
not to the highest and most precious, but to the lowest and most despised;
not to the wanting something, but to wanting nothing;
Do not go about looking for the best of temporal things, but for the worst, and for Christ,
desire to enter into complete nakedness, emptiness, an poverty in everything in the world.
John assures the Beginners that these stages will teach mortification of concupiscence of the flesh, the eyes, and pride of life, which lead to the appetites.
Basically, one has to will the dark night of the senses, either actively or passively. These stages create new habits of the mind, to desire only to be like Christ and to only want to do God the Father’s will, notes John.
This sensory and exterior battle has to be fought before the great dark night of the spirit occurs driving out all that predominant fault. Hard work…all.
In climbing the mountain of perfection which is John’s famous analogy of the spiritual life, one has to start at the bottom.
John gives us additional verses on which to think, especially at the time of year, I might add, when we all are tempted to eat and drink too much,, buy too much, go out too much thus setting aside our discipline of prayer, and pleasing others too much in all ways of triviality.
To reach satisfaction in all
desire satisfaction in nothing.
To come to possess all
desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all
desire to be nothing.
To come to the knowledge of all
desire the knowledge of nothing.
These words describe one’s attitude in the dark night of the senses, and in the dark night of the spirit.
In the dark night of the spirit, one’s mind, imagination and will become purified.
I repeat now what I have written on the old blog many times—everything you watch, see, read, eat, drink, hear, goes into your imagination and memory, and everything becomes either tinder for growth or fuel for sin. Nothing is neutral.
John continues with his notes on the ascent:
To come to enjoy what you have not
you must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not
you must go by a way in which you know not.
/ti cine to the possession you have not
you must go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not
you must go by a way in which you are not.
When you delay in something
you cease to rush towards the all.
For to go from the all to the all
you must deny yourself all in all.
And when you come to the possession of the all
you must posses it without wanting anything.
Because if you desire to have something in all
your treasure in God is not purely your all.
John notes that we become tired and restless when we desire something. If we do not want anything but Christ, the Spirit and the Father, we live in peace and rest.
This Christmas, give these words as gifts to those closest to you, as I give them to you from John of the Cross. Especially now, at this crazy time of rushing about getting presents, and paper, and ribbon, and special foods and drinks, having, perhaps, too many activities lined up, and too many entertainments and parties, it would do us all great good to stop and read and absorb the great need for silence and solitude in this holy time.
Christ came in the middle of the night, when most people and animals were asleep. He came into an extremely small village, into a cave or a stable, the meanest of places, only good enough for beasts of burden.
Christ came in silence, except for the angels who were sent to the lowliest of the low, the Bedouin, the outcasts of even Jewish society, who lay in the cold fields with their sheep.
Only Joseph and Mary witnessed the great moment when the Incarnated One was born into the world, like you and like me, except that He is God, the Second Son, come to make us sons and daughters of the Father.
As I write in solitude and silence, I am so grateful for the few things I have and even more grateful for the many things I do not have. I honestly do not desire to have things, or adulation, or status. Like you, I only want Christ and His glory this Christmas, truly the greatest gift ever given to mankind.
To start at the beginning is a good thing to do. To persevere in following the way to perfection is even better, and to keep focused on Christ and His Kingdom, the process to the goal of final unity with God.
This unity is my prayer for all my readers, for my family, friends, and for myself. To be saints is our call. On this great feast of John of the Cross, let us ask his intercession for all the graces we need, and the strength of will to follow the course. Let us pray that we do nothing to weaken the graces God gives us daily.