Part of my Lenten activities this year include reading a book called “A Lenten Journey with Jesus Christ and St. John of the Cross”, by Rev. George Mangiaracina, O.C.D. This book has a reflection for every day in Lent. I have to admit, this hasn’t been easy for me. I am drawn to St. John of the Cross’ spirituality and am so moved by his poetry, but oftentimes the things he says are incredibly challenging. Some days, the reflection and exhortations that he gives are completely contrary to how I live. He writes about suffering and difficulties, while I like things light and joyful.
He must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
One particular reflection that challenged me was on the Thursday after Ash Wednesday (really, I couldn’t get past ONE day of Lent before deciding that this was going to be hard?). The Gospel was Luke 9:22-25, where Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
I have read that verse a million times, but I definitely wasn’t prepared for what John of the Cross was about to say:
A genuine spirit seeks rather the distasteful in God than the delectable, leans more toward suffering than toward consolation, more toward going without everything for God than toward possession, and toward dryness and affliction than toward sweet consolation. The other method is perhaps a seeking of self in God- something entirely contrary to love. Seeking God in oneself entails not only the desire to do without these consolations for God’s sake, but also the inclination to choose for love of Christ all that is most distasteful whether in God or in the world; and this is what loving God means. Ascent of Mount Carmel 2.7.5b
In other words, desire suffering, not pleasure. Love spiritual dryness, not consolation. Choose the more difficult path. Yikes. That phrase, “seeking of self in God”, had me completely confused at first. Through prayer, God showed me that John is saying that we have an inclination to know God as a fulfiller of our pleasures. God is our “fixer”, and we like to ask Him to “fix” things (including ourselves). Yes, God gives us peace and joy and healing and consolation through prayer, but seeking God for the sake of these pleasures is, as John of the Cross says, contrary to love. Love is not about what I can get out of it, but about sacrifice. These things are byproducts of prayer and relationship, not our focus!
Our focus should be God for who He is, not what He can give us.
So what does he mean when he says we should “seek God in oneself?” John isn’t getting all New Age or Eastern religion-y on us. He’s saying that our focus should be God for who He is, and letting that play into our daily lives. If loving God includes suffering and pain, then that’s what we should choose.
This brought to my mind all the times where I have chosen what is easiest. Too often I have asked God to take away a difficult situation instead of finding Him in it and suffering with Him. God wants us to ask Him to help us, but even more He wants us to find joy in the suffering. Choosing love is difficult when there are easier options, and I too often choose the wider path.
So I challenge you to see God’s image in every person. Smile and make eye contact with the person who just insulted you. Happily do a chore for a roommate who never contributes (and then lose your scorecard). In your prayer, ask God to give you strength instead of asking Him to take it away.
Lord, help us love You for Your sake. Whatever that looks like, whatever it sounds like, whatever it feels like, we want to choose Love.