Some Hard Spiritual Truths That Will Set You Free. A Meditation on a Teaching from St. John of the Cross
I have written before on Five Hard Truths That Will Set You Free. In thispost I would like to ponder Some Hard Spiritual truths that will set us free.
In calling them “hard truths,” I mean that they are not the usual cozy bromides that many seek. They speak bluntly about the more irksome and difficult realities we confront. But, if we come to accept them, they have a strange way of bringing serenity by getting us focused on the right things, instead of chasing after false dreams.
For it sometimes happens that a person can spend his whole life being resentful that life isn’t peachy, forgetting all the while that we are in exile, that we are making a hard journey, we pray, to a life where, one day, every sorrow and difficultly is removed, and death and sorrow are no more. But not now.
There is a kind of unexpected serenity in living in the world as it is, rather than resenting the world for not being what we want it to be. For now, the journey is hard and we have to be sober about our obtuse desires and destructive tendencies. And that is why there is a value in calling these insights, “hard truths that will set us free.”
In the very opening section of his Spiritual Canticle, St. John of the Cross lays out a presumed worldview that the spiritually mature ought to have attained. And because he presumes it of his reader, he states it only briefly.
Yet, for us who live in times not known for spiritual maturity, we ought to slow down for a moment and ponder these truths which are not only poorly understood, but even actively resisted today by many who call themselves wise and spiritually mature.
Remember now, these are hard truths, and many today wish to bypass the harder teachings of God. Thus we do well to pay special attention to a Spiritual Master who is deeply immersed in Scripture, as a remedy for the soft excesses of our modern times.
Lets first look at the quote from St. John and then, by way of a list, examine his points. With this preamble of sorts, St. John begins his Spiritual Canticle:
The soul… has grown aware of her obligations and observed that life is short (Job 14:5), the path leading to eternal life constricted (Mt. 7:14), the just one scarcely saved (1 Pet. 4:18), the things of the world vain and deceitful (Eccles. 1:2), that all comes to an end and fails like falling water (2 Sam. 14:14), and that the time is uncertain, the accounting strict, perdition very easy, and salvation very difficult. She knows on the other hand of her immense indebtedness to God for having created her solely for Himself, and that for this she owes Him the service of her whole life; and because He redeemed her solely for Himself she owes Him every response of love. She knows, too, of the thousand other benefits by which she has been obligated to God from before the time of her birth, and that a good part of her life has vanished, that she must render an account of everything – of the beginning of her life as well as the later part – unto the last penny (Mt. 5:25) when God will search Jerusalem with lighted candles (Zeph. 1:12), and that it is already late – and the day far spent (Lk. 24:29) – to remedy so much evil and harm. She feels on the other hand that God is angry and hidden because she desired to forget Him so in the midst of creatures, Touched with dread and interior sorrow of heart over so much loss and danger, renouncing all things, leaving aside all business, and not delaying a day or an hour, with desires and sighs pouring from her heart, wounded now with the love for God, she begins to call her Beloved…
Let us look at these hard but freeing spiritual insights one by one, with commentary by me, in red.
The soul has grown aware of her obligations and observed
1. That life is short (Job 14:5).
More than any other age we entertain the illusion that death can be easily postponed. It cannot be. We are not guaranteed the next beat of our heart, let alone tomorrow! It is true that with advances in medical science, sudden death from lesser causes it not as frequent today. But too easily this leads us to entertain the notion that we can cheat death. We cannot.
Life remains short, and we do not get to choose when we will die. Both my mother, and sister died on a sudden, were swept away in an instant. They never got to say goodbye. You do not know if you will even finish this sentence before or article before death summons you.
This is wisdom. It is a hard truth that gives us an important perspective. Life is short and you don’t have a calendar to know how short.
What are you doing to get ready to meet God? What are you getting worked up about and what are not concerned about? Are your priorities rooted in the truth that life is short? Or are you waging bets in a foolish game where the house (death and this world) always wins on its terms and not yours?
There is a strange serenity and freedom in realizing that life is short. We do not get as worked up about passing things, and we become more invested in lasting things, and the things to come.
2. The path leading to eternal life constricted (Mt. 7:14)
Another illusion we entertain today is that salvation is a cinch, that it is a done deal. The “heresy” of our time is a kind of universal salvation that denies the consistently repeated biblical teach which declares: Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matt 7:13-14 inter al).
In parable after parable, warning after warning, Jesus speaks with sober admonition about the reality of hell and the closing reality of judgment. No one loves you more than Jesus, and no warned you about Hell and Judgment more than Jesus.
Salvation is not easy, it is hard. Jesus said this, not me. This is not because God is mean, it is because we are stubborn, obtuse and prefer the darkness to light. We need to sober up about our stubbornness and our tendencies to prefer “other arrangements” to what God offers and teaches. In the end, God will respect our choice and there comes a day when our choice for or against the Kingdom and its values will be sealed forever.
This is a hard saying, but it sets us free from the awful sin of presumption, a sin against hope and instills in us a proper priority for the work that is necessary to root us in God. Accepting this hard truth will free you from silly and baseless presumption. It will make you more serious about your spiritual life and aware of the need for prayer, sacraments, Scripture and the Church. It will help you have better priorities that are less obsessed with passing worldly things and people, and be more rooted in what it eternal. It will make you more evangelical and urgent to save souls. It will turn you to Jesus and away from Belial and passing pathetic worldly things.
3. That the just one scarcely saved (1 Pet. 4:18)
Here is a further truth that sets aside modern errors about an almost universal salvation. The fuller context of the quote is this: For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (1 Peter 4:17-18)
And yet, despite this and many other quotes and teachings like it, we go one presuming that almost everyone will go to heaven. We set aside God’s Word, for human errors and wishful thinking. We substitute human assurances for God’s warnings. We elevate ourselves over St. Paul who said that we should work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) and spoke of disciplining himself, lest, after preaching to others, he should be lost (1 Cor 9:27). Are we better and more enlightened that Jesus? Than Paul, Than Peter?
Salvation is hard. This is not meant to panic us, but it is meant to sober us to the need for prayer, Sacraments, Scripture and the Church. Without these medicines we don’t stand a chance. And we must persevere to the end.
This hard truth sets us free from illusion and sends us running to the Lord who alone can save us. Smug presumption roots us in the world, Godly fear and sober awareness of our stubborn and unrepentant hearts sends us to Jesus and this frees us.
4. The things of the world vain and deceitful (Eccles. 1:2)
Such a freeing truth. First that the things of this world are vain. That is to say, they are empty, passing, and vapid. We so exult power, popularity, and worldly glories. But they are gone in a moment. Who was Miss America in 1974? Who won the Heisman Trophy in that same year? If you know, do you really care and does it really matter? Empty show, glitter and fools gold, yet we spend billions and watch this stuff forever.
And even though we should fight for justice, for the sake of the kingdom, even here the Scriptures counsel some perspective: I have seen a wicked, ruthless man,spreading himself like a green laurel tree. But he passed away, and behold, he was no more; though I sought him, he could not be found. (Ps 37:35-36).
And how deceitful is this passing world.! The main deceit of this world is to say, “I am what you exist for, I am what matters, I am what satisfies.” Lies and deceptions on all counts. The form of this world is passing away. It cannot supply our infinite desires. Our hearts were made for God, and only being with him one day will satisfy.
Yet so easily do we listen to the world’s seduction and lies. Too often we want to be lied to and prefer to chase illusions, vanity and indulge deceit.
How freeing this truth is, if we can lay hold of it. We learn to make use of what we need, but begin to lose our obsession with vain and passing things, and our insatiable desire for more. Yes, perhaps you can live without that granite counter top.
This is a very freeing truth if we can accept its hard reality. And becoming more free a deeper serenity finds us.
5. That all comes to an end and fails like falling water (2 Sam. 14:14)
The world is passing away. It can’t secure your future. The world cruel lies that it can supply you is on display in every graveyard. So much for the world’s empty promises: “You can have it all!” Yes, and then you die.
Meditate on death often. Indeed, every night the Church bids us to rehearse our death in night prayer by the reciting of the Nunc Dimittis.
Scripture says, For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come(Heb 13:14). Do you have your sights fixed where true joys are? Or are you like Lot’s wife?
Let this truth free you to have proper perspective. Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God (Col 3:1).
6. And that the time is uncertain.
You got plans for tomorrow? Great, so do I. Only problem, tomorrow is not promised or certain. Neither is the next beat of your heart. Another hard, but freeing truth.
7. The accounting strict -
Jesus warns, But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken (Matt 12:36). St. Paul says, He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart (1 Cor 4:5). And adds, So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:9-10). And James chillingly says, So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy (James 2:12-13) What he says is chilling since so many are without mercy today.
If God judges us with the same strict justice we often dish out, we don’t stand a chance. The accounting will be strict, so don’t pile on with unnecessary severity and wrath toward others.
Here is another freeing truth that helps us take heed of the coming judgement.
8. Perdition very easy - I wonder why he might have repeated this? I just wonder….!
9. And salvation very difficult - Hmm… look he repeated this too! I wonder why? Maybe repetition is the mother of studies.
10. [That we are often and strangely ungrateful and unmoved] She knows on the other hand of her immense indebtedness to God for having created her solely for Himself, and that for this she owes Him the service of her whole life; and because He redeemed her solely for Himself she owes Him every response of love. She knows, too, of the thousand other benefits by which she has been obligated to God from before the time of her birth, and that a good part of her life has vanished,
Here is a sober truth that calls us to remember. What does it mean to remember? To remember means to have present in your mind and heart what the Lord has done for you so that you are grateful and different.
And yet we live so many years and hours of the day in ingratitude. We get all worked up resentful about the smallest setbacks, and almost totally ignore the trillions of blessings each day.
In a sense our ingratitude is obnoxiously massive because of the easy manner with which we mindlessly receive and discount incredibly numerous blessings, and magnify every suffering setback or trial. So much of our life passes in the complaint department. And so commonly we are stingy with even a simple “Thank you Lord, for all your obvious and hidden blessings, thank you Lord for creating, sustaining and loving me to the end, and for inviting me to know, Love and serve you.“
11. That she must render an account of everything – of the beginning of her life as well as the later part – unto the last penny (Mt. 5:25) when God will search Jerusalem with lighted candles (Zeph. 1:12) - Did he repeat himself again? Now why do you suppose he does that?! You don’t think he considers us stubborn, do you?
12. and that it is already late – and the day far spent (Lk. 24:29) – to remedy so much evil and harm. Repetitio mater studiorum
13. [That the unrepentant will experience the wrath to come] – She feels on the other hand that God is angry and hidden because she desired to forget Him so in the midst of creatures,
The wrath of God is really in us, not in God. It is our experience of discomfort before the holiness of God. It is like being used to a dark room, and suddenly being brought into the bright afternoon sunlight. We protest and say the light is harsh. But the light is not harsh. We are incapable of tolerating the light due to our preference for and acclamation to the dark. In the same way God is not “mad” He is not moody or harsh. He is God. And God does not change.
Thus St. John teaches here, the hard but freeing truth that God is holy and no one is going to walk into his presence unprepared. If we prefer the world and its creatures to the Creator, we thereby prefer the darkness and cannot tolerate the light. Heaven is simply not possible for those who prefer the darkness. And thus Jesus says, And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil (John 3:19) – That’s right, just three verses after John 3:16
And while the sinful soul may “feel” that God is angry and hiding himself, the problem is in the sinful soul, not God.
The freedom of this hard saying comes in reminding us, and urging us to get ready to meet God. He is not going to change. He can’t change. So we have to change, and by his grace, become the light of his holiness.
14. [We Need to Call on the Savior] - Touched with dread and interior sorrow of heart over so much loss and danger, renouncing all things, leaving aside all business, and not delaying a day or an hour, with desires and sighs pouring from her heart, wounded now with the love for God, she begins to call her Beloved
And yes, here is the real point of all these hard truths: to make us love our savior more, learn to depend on him, and run to him as fast as we can. Only when we know the hard truths are we really going to be all that serious.
After all, who goes to the doctor? One who is convinced he has no cancer (even though he does). Or the one who knows he’s got it bad and that ain’t good? The answer is self evident.
Bad sadly the answer is self-evident enough to this current generation where, even in the Church, there are so many who don’t want to discuss any of the hard and sober truths we need to lay hold of before we get serious.
A steady diet of “God loves you and all is well, no matter what…” has emptied our pews. Why? Well, who goes to the spiritual hospital if all they hear is that nothing is wrong and that their salvation is secure, almost no matter what?
The good news of the gospel has little impact when the bad news is no longer understood. What does salvation mean if there is no sin and nothing to be saved from? Now of course the bad news should not be preached without pointing to the good news. But the point is that both are needed.
Thus, St. John’s hard truths are not meant to discourage. They are meant to sober us and send us running to the doctor.
Now look, you’ve got it bad and that ain’t good. But the Good news is, there is a doctor in the house. Run to him now, he’s calling you!