Climbing the Ladder of Sanctity…Entering the Dark Night!

Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane

So here we have come at last!  After spending time looking at the purgative and illuminative ways, we have come to see how the Lord is forming us to grow more in union with Himself.  We spoke in our last blog about the development and growth in our prayer life…now we are entering into the topic of the Dark Night.

Now when I say Dark Night…I do not want you to think of Halloween, or monsters in the closet, or even Batman!  I want you to look at the Dark Night as a necessary step on the ladder of sanctity.  It is not something to be afraid of, or even to despair about, rather the Dark Night is something to really be grateful for!  In a sense, Jesus also underwent His dark night when He went through His Passion and Death.  We read in the Scriptures how our Lord suffered: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me, nevertheless not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22:42).  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)   Jesus knows suffering!  He knows the Dark Night…but Jesus also gives the example of how one is to go through it: with surrender and trust in the help of God.

I was taking a course a few summers ago on Christian Asceticism in St. John of the Cross.  Most of the information that I will be giving you is from my notes of the course, and it has helped me so much, so I want to share it with all of you!  The professor there gave probably one of the most heart-moving definitions of the Dark Night that I have ever heard.  He said, “The Dark Night is an inflow of God into the soul who teaches the soul secretly and instructs it in perfection of love…it is a moving towards greater and greater love.”

So we begin in the soul.  The soul has certain faculties and powers…the ultimate object being God Himself.  When we deny ourselves and offer ourselves, our prayers, works, actions etc…it is possible at times, to experience a sort of darkness.  We can think of St. Mother Teresa who completely poured herself out for other especially the poor, but she herself was living in what she describes as a type of darkness.  Yet, she continued to pour herself out, no matter how she felt.

The path of faith is the road which the soul travels to God.  Faith is a dark night!  If we take a certain dogmatic teaching such as the Holy Trinity (one God, three persons) it is not possible to fully understand that teaching…we can say that our intellect is in darkness.  The Goal of the Dark Night is to put us in union with God who is, as St. John of the Cross puts it, an “unapproachable light.”  Love is what leads us…it draws us like a magnet to the object, and you become what you love.  As our love grows, our intellect becomes swept by our intimate union with God.  Our intellect may be in darkness, but our love for God confirms that the dogmatic truths professed by the Church are true…because God is truth.

There are different levels of purgation which we will take some time to go through in detail in the upcoming weeks.  But today, we will go through the ways in which the purgation comes which we call modalities and the levels of purgation briefly.  The first modality is an active purgation: what the soul can do by working on itself with God’s grace.  For example, someone can work on having more self-control…God supports the person in this resolution, but the person is very much involved in cutting away certain attachments that they have had before whether it be people, addictions and obsessions. In this type of purgation, the soul can also strive to root out certain vices that have been holding them imprisoned, for example making acts of courage when they feel fear…trying to be more patient when they are tempted to impatience and the list can go on.

There is also the passive purgation which involves God’s work…what God does to the soul through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  This can be done through mystical activity where God is working directly on the soul.  God is cleaning the house, purging it out, and taking the roots of our faults and purging it out of us!  I don’t know if you have ever done spring cleaning…I have… and sometimes you find things hiding around the house that you did not even know were there!  That is what is happening in a sense with the passive purgation…God is removing those hidden attachments that are in us.  This can be painful…but necessary for our union with God.

My professor also said, again using the Dark Night by St. John of the Cross, that there are certain phases or levels that the soul can go through when experiencing the dark night.  There is the sense level which involves a purification of the senses through the internal senses and the appetites.  Then you have the phase of the spirit where intellect, memory and will are all purified.

There are four divisions of the purgation:

Active night of the senses: We are at work with God, cooperating with Him.  This is the stage where we are attentive to His Word, and where we are captivated by His Beauty and Majesty.  We are learning to mortify our passions, emotions, memory in order to be more conformed to God.  We are trying to root out vices and start practicing virtues such as self-control and patience as described earlier…

Active night of the spirit:  We are at work with God through mortification of our intellect and will.  We strive to mortify ourselves, with the help of God through curbing our curiosity and by learning to submit to the will of another person.  Hard to do!!

Passive night of the senses: God is very much at work…and now He must complete the good work that has begun!  Wishing you to move forward and in a more intense love for Him, you do not feel with your senses the presence of God.  This is to ensure that your relationship with God is centered on God and not on yourself.  You may begin to lose the capability to meditate, aridity in prayer becomes a norm.  You may lose the wish to work in service to others, but you do it anyway for the sake of loving God.

Passive night of the spirit: Again, God is very much involved!  As a lover who is in pursuit of the one He loves, God is like a mad lover looking for union with us.  He is so close to us at this stage!  This is the stage where God is strengthening us, and so he permits us to have doubts against faith, feeling abandoned by Him.  At this stage most especially, receiving the Sacraments frequently is so important as well as finding a good and wise spiritual director.  This is the time to strengthen our love for God!  God is permitting it to strengthen our love for Him, and to allow us to enter the transforming union with Him!

Okay talk about brain overload!!  I hope this is making sense.  We are next going to go through why the dark night is necessary, what are some signs that you could be going through the dark night, and then we will discuss some other key important factors in the dark night such as the purgation of the seven deadly sins!


Surge of the Heart…

airplane picture

I don’t know if you have ever had the experience of sky-diving.  If you have God bless you!!  If not…  neither have I…but I think that would be a really extraordinary experience…to have the experience of flying!  There is something really thrilling about seeing the world from above!  I remember going on an airplane for the first time not too long ago.  I am a small town country girl and so growing up, I hardly ever saw an airplane up close before!  I was heading to university…and I was so thrilled that I would be travelling on a plane!!  I wanted the window seat for sure!  It was amazing to see the world from above!

I suppose growing in our prayer life feels something like sky-diving, or even flying in an airplane.  We are beginning to believe that with God all things are possible, and we are beginning to see that no matter what we have done, or what we have failed to do, we are infinitely loved by God!  God begins to take over our prayer life as we enter more deeply into contemplation with Him.  We just need to throw ourselves into the arms of God, like a little child.  I am sure our ancestors years and years ago would not have even dreamed that one day, there would be airplanes that could take people all over the world.  For sure our ancestors would have never thought that we would have a chance to sky-dive!  We are beginning to see the world with new eyes…in a sense we are being transformed into Christ.  In our prayer, we are able to trust that with God all things are possible!

Do I have trust that with God all things are possible?  Is there someone in my life who really needs my prayers?  Do I really believe that God is going to help them?

Are there areas of my life that I need conversion and healing?  Do I believe that God is going to supply me with everything I need to help me in the healing process?

Do I trust in the power of the Sacraments?  How much do I trust the Sacraments to bring about healing in my life?

St Teresa of Avila is awesome!  If you ever get a chance to read what she has written, you will not be disappointed!  In her discussions on the various mansions in the spiritual life, she speaks about how in the beginning of our spiritual lives, it feels as though we are doing most of the work in our prayer life; however, as we grow, we will begin to see that it is God working in us.  St. Teresa of Avila also speaks about the quieting of the soul in prayer, where we can be totally absorbed in God.     

Prayer is very special.  St. Therese says, “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”  There is so much to be said about prayer, and eventually we will have more blog posts on prayer.  But here we will indicate some very simple thoughts on what growth in prayer looks like.

In order for us to obtain the true conversion of heart that we are all seeking after, we must pray!  It is important to allow ourselves to become recollected.  In his book, The Fulfillment of All Desire, Ralph Martin explains that there are two types of recollection: acquired and contemplative.  Acquired recollection involves our own effort to still our souls through Scripture, music, spiritual reading etc…  Contemplation on the other hand, he describes as the “touch of God” in the soul.  It is like a spiritual communication that manifests truth as St. Bernard says, “When the Word therefore tells the soul, “You are beautiful,” and calls it friend, he infuses into it the power to love, and to know it is loved in return…the soul’s response is wonder and thanksgiving.”  The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines contemplation as follows: “A form of wordless prayer in which the mind and heart focus on God’s greatness and goodness in affective, loving adoration; to look on Jesus and the mysteries of his life with faith and love” (CCC 2626, 2715).

As we dive more into the spiritual life, we begin to desire periods of silence and recollection more and more.  I don’t know if you have ever seen the movie “Up” where you see glimpses of the life of Mr. Fredrickson and his wife.  You see that they do not even have to say anything to each other…they are just happy to be together.  I believe that the prayer of quiet is very similar to this.  Teresa of Avila explains that this is a “foretaste of what will be given to those He brings to His Kingdom.”  The soul is just happy and content to be in the presence of God.

The prayer of union is being “captured” by the Lord in deep absorption and prayer.  Ralph Martin says in his book that the memory, imagination and intellect are totally absorbed in God.  It can be so intense that the person is not even aware of his surroundings!  They are just aware of the Lord’s presence and are completely absorbed in Him!  St. Teresa of Avila says, “God so places Himself in the interior of the soul that when it returns to itself it can in no way doubt that it was in God and God was in it.”

So what is the point of growing in these different stages?  The point is simply, to help us be more united to the Lord which is what we are called to do, and to do His will.  Prayer is not about having certain experiences, rather it is about growing in a relationship with Christ and learning to soar with Him.  St Bernard as well as St. Teresa of Avila and even St. Therese of Lisieux all speak about the importance of opening ourselves to the mercy of God in our prayer life.  Confidence in the infinite mercy of God will help us soar and fly in the spiritual life!

However, we must keep in mind that in order to grow in love for someone sometimes entails suffering.  Suffering can be a real test of love…and a growth in love.  God will permit us, at some point in our lives to pass through a dark night.  This will look different for all of us, but the dark night is necessary and essential for our growth in holiness…this is something we will speak about in our next post!



My Love…His Love


Mary Magdalene at the foot of the Cross

I once learned in a Human Embryology class all about the heart!  It is amazing that the job of the heart is to pump blood and distribute oxygen throughout the whole body!  To me that is so amazing, that one organ the size of a fist has such an important job!  When we think of hearts we think of love.  How many songs talk about broken hearts, mending hearts, or capturing hearts.  Even the Scriptures speak about the heart in the context of love: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36: 26)  To St. Margaret Mary, Jesus revealed His heart and said, “Behold this heart which has so loved men and is so unloved in return.”

So at this stage of our spiritual journey we are hoping and praying that God will expand our hearts to a greater love.  Of course Jesus challenges us in the Gospels: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13-15).  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5: 43).  Jesus produces for us a challenge: to have a love that goes beyond the natural human love.  Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical entitled: “Deus Caritas Est” says “Love looks to the eternal…[it] is an ongoing exodus out of the closed, inward-looking self toward its liberation through self-giving, and thus toward authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God.” (Deus Caritas Est par.6)

Pope Benedict XVI is basically saying that if love is to be real and true, it must look beyond the natural, then we will really come to know ourselves and are able to give ourselves.  We have a tendency to only love others if we get something from them, or if they love us in return.  However, Jesus challenges us to a new type of love…a love that can only deepen with the help of grace.

In his book entitled: “The Fulfillment of all Desire,” Ralph Martin indicates the three stages of growth in love spoken about by St. Catharine of Sienna.  Using imagery of Jesus on the Cross, St. Catherine is able to draw out some observations.  The first stage, which is the purgative stage, we can picture ourselves hanging onto the feet of Jesus.  This is where our love may still be quite self-centered.  Our love may be based on a fear of not going to hell, and of trying to avoid the pain in this life of committing sin (Martin, 253).  This is a good place to start…of course we want to be brought to eternal life!  Yet there is still room for growth!

The second stage that St. Catharine speaks about can be identified with the wound of Christ.  This is where we grasp more of Christ’s love and are more open to hearing the truths about Christ.  At this stage, we are like servants for we love Christ, and are willing to serve Him, but we expect something in return.  St. Bernard says, “Fear is the lot of a slave, unless he is freed by love” (Martin, 254).  We are trying to reach the third stage of union, symbolized by a “kiss of the mouth” as St. Bernard puts it.  This is the stage where abiding union with Christ occurs just like when two spouses kiss as an expression of their union.  Love has grown, been purified and no longer looks at what we are receiving in the relationship, but on what we can give, by way of love.

Do you ever become distressed when it seems as though those you really love are not returning love to you?  Do you love them anyways?  Do you pray for them?

Does it distress you never to hear the words I love you?  Do you realize how much God loves you?

Do you pray to have a greater love for others, even if they do not return love to you?

Indeed, we must not let ourselves be overwhelmed if someone does not express love in the way that we wish them too.  Sometimes people really do love…deeply…but they do not know how to express it.  Many times they want to say “I love you” and they want to show it, but they are not sure how.  This is a wonderful thing to bring to prayer: “Lord, I am glad that you have brought this person in my life.  Thank you!  They are a wonderful gift to me!  Even though I may never hear the words, I am so happy that they are in my life.  May they learn to love you Lord, that is what matters the most to me.  Help them to grow in love for you Lord…that is what matters the most to me!”  Making a prayer like this is bringing your relationship with this person to a different level then just the natural. You are beginning to want the good for the other person, without needing anything in return.  This is a special love!

I am learning more as time goes on that love knows how to suffer and maintain peace in the Cross.  The more attuned we are to the gaze of the face of Christ, the more aware we are that we are loved beyond imagining.  Then the Fruits of the Spirit are more active in us: we have more joy which proceeds from love, peace where we rest in our Beloved, patient endurance especially at the end of our lives, generosity where we give more without measuring, kindness which allows us to image Christ and His Blessed Mother, faith where our love grows until the end, self-control and chastity where we can love appropriately with our bodies seeing ourselves as true Temples of the Holy Spirit.

Overall, to learn how to love takes conversion on our part.  We need to pray that God will break our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh.  True Love became man…He gave everything for us.  I once heard a wise priest say, “We mean everything to God, even the Blood of His own Son.”

When I made final vows, not too long ago, I chose to put on the back of my Final Vows card the passage from 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 and 13.  It is to remind me of what love is, and the type of love that I desire to have as a Bride of Christ.  I will leave it with you now:

“Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude.  Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things…So faith, hope, love abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.”


Messy…But Priceless


You are irreplaceable!  No one can take your place.  God made us unique…there is no one exactly like you.  God loves us…even when we get into messes… God loves us!  I really love going through old photo albums and I remember seeing so many pictures of babies with chocolate cake all over their faces…painting all over the kitchen floor and walls…playing in the sandbox!  Messy…but priceless!

When we were kids, we got into many messes!  At the time, we needed help cleaning ourselves up!  God, like a loving Father wants to help us clean our spiritual messes (sins, imperfections, temptations etc…).  He gives us everything we need, especially the love of His own Son!

So, we have already talked about the purgative way which is basically the stage of cleaning house and looking at those areas of our lives that need to change.  St. John of the Cross speaks about the next stage of the spiritual journey called the illuminative way.  We will continue looking at this spiritual journey by sharing some thoughts of St. John of the Cross, a little more from Ralph Martin’s book The Fulfillment of All Desire, and some reflections of the saints to help us out!

So the illuminative way…just saying “illuminative” makes me think of light.  We have come to this awareness of ourselves and we are working with the help of grace on resisting temptations, enduring trials, and centering our life on prayer.  This means we are developing a greater self-knowledge.  This means that there are certain parts of us that need healing and purification that perhaps we have not seen before.  Picture this: when you walk into a dark room, you might conclude that the room looks very clean.  However, when you open the curtains you are now able to see the dust and cobwebs in the room.  It is only when light enters the room are you able to see the dirt and dust.  The illuminative way simply means that God’s light shines through, brighter then it ever has, and we are able to see ourselves and others more as God sees.

I once took a course on John of the Cross and there are a few key aspects that the professor drew when considering the illuminative stage.  He said that this is a stage where prayer and contemplation help us to rest in God’s love and truth.  This is also a stage where virtues become stronger and where God strengthens these virtues through the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.  He also indicated that this is the stage where there is a deepening of love of neighbour.  This is the stage where we can see Christ in others more beautifully.  There is also a greater moral stability in individuals who are in the illuminative way.  Since souls are striving to gain more self-control over their passions, they are more attune to obeying the laws of God.  This means that their souls are strengthened by the power of the Cross.  They are able to see that in carrying the Cross there are tremendous graces, and through it all they are able to surrender themselves completely to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  In this stage, the professor said that there is a greater detachment from all that is not sin.  This means becoming detached from creatures and transformed so that there is a greater desire for union with God.

Having more self-knowledge also helps us to have a greater stability and a greater freedom.  St. John of the Cross says that at this stage, someone is able to occupy themselves with thoughts of God and their joy is more interior and more abundant then before.  Even though the purification of the senses is not yet complete, St. John of the Cross says there will be temptations against the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.  He warns that there will be times where God will permit natural causes to afflict the soul such as the persecutions of men and the ingratitude of friends.  What is called for in this state is what St. John of the Cross calls “patient suffering.”  Don’t let these things worry you!  These trials are really meant to help us grow.  If we did not have trials and struggles, would we grow in our love for God?  If the road was not difficult sometimes, would we see our need for God?  God permits these things to help us become more whole, and even though they are hard at the time, the end result is worth it!  We become transformed into Christ who was also persecuted, betrayed, abandoned, yet HE LOVES!!!

We know that God is love and mercy.  St. Bernard explains what true self-knowledge should look like:

“As for me, as long as I look at myself, my eye is filled with bitterness (Job 17:2).  But if I look up and fix my eyes on the aid of the divine mercy, this happy vision of God soon tempers the bitter vision of myself.”

In saying this, Bernard is expressing that the more we acknowledge the mercy of God, the more we look at ourselves with more mercy.  His mercy takes away some of the heartache that we have for ourselves of our own misery and messiness.  It is easy to be really down on ourselves, but when we consider the mercy of God we have hope that even in our sinful, messy state, God loves us unconditionally.

As we make our way throughout the illuminative way we discover that in this stage, there is growth in self-knowledge and there is a deeper awareness of the mercy and love God.  We know that God loves us in our messiness.  We are priceless…messy but priceless!

I mentioned earlier about sense purifications.  These we will speak about in the weeks to come….