Almost exactly a year ago a Carmelite priest from France came to preach a retreat to the nuns shortly before my departure. His entire series of lectures were on John of the Cross’ book (my all time favorite Carmelite saint) Ascent to Mount Carmel. I want to make it quite clear that what I am going to write about is NOT simply for cloistered nuns or any religious for that matter, but for everyone. There was a sentence Father said that I could not help commit to memory; in fact if one were to ask me what I remembered most from that retreat it would be his eye opening words that were summed up in one short thought. Before I reveal that sentence, it is important to explain what this ascent actually is. This brilliant priest explained it in three short ways; in order for a soul to reach perfection it must go through the sunset, the night and the dawn. What does that mean?
I think most of us have heard the phrase “Divine Union” or “Transforming Union” at least a dozen times tossed around in the Catholic faith; for myself I always think of Saints John of the Cross and Teresa of Jesus. They pop into my mind each time I hear those phrases simply because they talk about it non-stop in their books. We also hear “Mystical Marriage” in Teresa’s book of Mansions- The Interior Castle– as the last and final seventh mansion that leads to this glorious end! Some might be upset with me for saying this, but as Teresa is a saint I tenderly call “Our Holy Mother” and who’s life is a constant comfort to me, I have always found her work hard to read, it’s too scattered for me (the novices had to read three pages of her work every day). I have found the definition of John’s (“Our Holy Father”) way of reaching perfection as my own personal road map (literally, as he actually drew a map); I recommend his work to any soul I encounter. But in all honesty, we can rightly ask, what is divine union, is it actually attainable? Think about marriage, we always hear how the couple is no longer two, they are one. This is the exact definition of mystical or “spiritual” marriage- when the soul becomes one with God. You might not think so at first glance, but mystical marriage is actually one hundred times more intimate than sacramental marriage and…it’s eternal! As Sacramental marriage is only until “death do us part”. Quite frankly, that always sounded depressing to me.
Besides discussing Our Lady and Her Heart, I think transforming union is my favorite topic. However, while we read about saints going into ecstasy and having “good feelings” in prayer, that is not all divine union. Becoming one with God, Who IS love itself….means being ready to suffer, that is the true definition of love: a sacrifice. What I want to write about today are the three (while there are MUCH more than three) major obstacles we need to remove from our life if we want to reach this union, where God sits in the very center of your soul. Our problem is we tend to have a hundred other things we have our focus on and those “attachments” and “bad habits” must go. The definition I want you to take away from this blog post when you ask yourself, “what is transforming union?” is this: acting and doing what God would do in any given situation. This is much harder than it sounds, because think of how virtuous Our Lord is, and Our Lady! Virtue comes naturally to Them but for us, it takes our complete cooperation and willingness. It ALL lies in the will! Never forget that phrase either.
The famous vision of Our Lord placing a wedding ring of espousalship on Saint Catherine of Siena’s finger. Apparently nobody but her could see this ring, it was a “secret” union- “it’s secret” as Our Holy Father John says.
But also this, we only ever hear about evil possessions in a soul where a priest is called in to perform an exorcism, imagine being possessed by Jesus and Mary- the complete definition of love and virtue itself- controlling all your actions. Personally, I think THAT is divine union with God. “It is no longer I that live, but Christ Who lives in me” as Saint Paul clearly reached this glorious union and was never able to leave Our Lord’s presence even while preaching. That is something worth pondering and mediating on for hours! It lies all in our will, WE have to make the effort, but here is the secret…if you let Him…God will replace your weakness with His strength. In reality, while He requires only a little cooperation on our part, He does everything else; it’s a grace! I want to come back to Father’s (the Carmelite priest I told you about in the beginning) sentence I started with; you might say “why would that sentence stand out to you?” but it lies in the little things. Father said,
If you are always late to things (this can even be being late in responding to people or finishing your work at a reasonable time) that is a fault, you can’t reach divine union with God even with the smallest fault or bad habit in your life.
Wow; something as small as being late to something is not only a fault but bad manners. Why would that stand in the way of union? Simple, because Our Lord is faultless and has NO bad habits. By being late, you are not the only one to suffer, there is usually someone else or another party involved on the other end that feels the affect of your bad habit; this is something that Our Lord did not struggle with. For we can be assured Our Lord’s manners and behavior were not only superb but that of a King. In Carmel we had a section for “Sunday Fun Books” and a book I providentially picked up was called “Etiquette” written in 1922 by Emily Post; it was one of the most interesting books I had ever stumbled upon. It was all about how manners and being “etiquette” used to play a very important role in society and how good behavior has been lost (if she thought it was bad in her time she would be astonished now). She said it’s not really about the importance of which fork you use at dinner, but being able to react to a situation with empathy, poise and virtue. This can be tested in the smallest of daily tasks, for example: your friend just sent you a birthday gift, did you wait a week to thank them, did you fail to tell them you received it?
I think all of us can say we have had our fair share of disappointments when we buy something we put our heart into for someone and either they never let us know (unless we ourselves reach out) that they received it or even hear a “thank you”. While it should never be our intention “to give to get”, it is just common courtesy on the end of the receiver. I know from experience when I have sent something out and while I am not looking for a compliment of “oh, you’re so great, thank you for the gift etc. etc. etc.”, I truly just wanted to make sure they in fact received what I sent and it wasn’t lost in the mail. Yet, Father’s words never rang more true because while it is simply the decent thing to do to say “thank you” I find myself more astounded and sometimes even insulted when holy Catholics or those of faith fail to be “responsible” or even late in simply replying to an urgent message. Especially priests, I have found a great disappointment when Christ’s own shepherds ignore the herd and take weeks to be there for their sheep.
It would appear that good behavior can also be linked to gratitude, when we are grateful for someone on earth who gives us a gift we tend to remember to thank God for the gift He gives. Should we wait to thank God a month from now when He gives a gift? Certainly not, but we can never be too grateful in thanking Him more than once in the way He deserves. I grew up writing thank you cards for Christmas and birthdays, but have we lost that? When is the last time you received a thank you card in the mail…or wrote one? Our culture is lazy, “I will just text them” or “I’ll call them next week”; “I will thank them when I see them”… Two other obstacles that hinder union with Jesus and Mary I will keep short, but it is worth taking them to heart. They are curiosity and using our imagination in prayer. I think the first one is pretty obvious, but the latter might confuse you. Our Holy Father John of the Cross was adamant on curiosity being one of the biggest barriers to reaching perfection because if we constantly involve ourselves in the business of others (especially gossip) we switch our focus from the God of virtue and focus on something that has absolutely nothing to do with our own union with the Beloved.
For example, in Carmel we were taught to keep our eyes cast down to stay focused on the beauty found in our interior- Christ the King (what can be better?) and not look around at all the other sisters. Not only is curiosity distracting but this is where the devil begins his temptations (this exact temptation began with Eve, wanting to understand the “knowledge” that was not necessary for her union with God, what did that cause for her and for us? Union with God, broken). So many times I was not faithful to this recollection and when I found myself looking at another sister, what did I do? I started comparing myself to her, “she is so much holier than me”, etc. All of that “curiosity” really is our ticket to the train of comparison, which is the “thief of all joy” as a friend just told me. The more we live like it is only ourselves and God in the world, the more we will see ourselves the way He does. We can take great courage in knowing that God doesn’t put two souls side by side and compare them; we do that ourselves….how sad! I also recall how many times I might have seen something I didn’t want to see in Carmel and because I was not faithful to staying out of things that were not my business, I suffered without purpose.
I want to end with the using prayer in imagination because that very same priest sort of confirmed something for me. In Carmel for a solid six to seven months I did nothing but use my imagination in prayer, specifically “Ignatiun Meditation”. I wrote a blog post on this months ago titled “Ignatiun Meditation is not mental prayer”, in fact while it helped me in the beginning of my spiritual life, at one point it started ruining my relationship with God. While I am a HUGE Saint Ignatius fan, I found when I started replacing actual mental prayer with his spiritual exercises, overtime it served its purpose but there reached a point where God was clearly showing me that He is so much bigger than our imaginations.
Father was spot on when he said “if you want to reach union with God, the use of your imagination has to go”, I didn’t realize until later that these were not only his words but John of the Cross’ words. It is easy to say “well, using my imagination is what brings ME closer to God”. But, something else Father said is when we use our imagination it tends to produce “good feelings” and “strong emotions”, the soul tends to go to that method of prayer not for God, but because it makes them “feel” good. This is a great danger, and God often allows the soul (as a beginner) to feel this way so they keep praying and He needs to reel them in. But, just like a child needing milk, there comes a time where that has to be taken away in order to grow.
How does the toddler usually react at first? There comes the withdrawals and even the resentment, and for us- we don’t understand why the thing we love or the thing we are used to has been taken from us. This is exactly the meaning behind the sunset, the night and the dawn. The sunset involves the dimming of the light in our understanding, we can still see a little but the thing we love has been taken and we still do not understand why. The night is the most painful anguish as not only is the thing we love, the thing that “tasted good” gone, but we can’t feel or even see anything; our understanding of why we are in this night makes us doubt all we believe in, even God’s goodness (little do we know in that night, that it is exactly God’s goodness that we are placed in this darkness). Then comes the glorious dawn where the light starts to shine through at the end of the tunnel and the light begins to show us little by little why God took what He did…to give us what He was preparing us for: Himself. Every individual suffers their own night, for me personally my dawn was discovering a vocation to be a Carmelite Hermitess, but my night was not yet knowing what God had waiting for me when the sun was set to rise.
My dear friends, what I want you to remember is when you are in your own personal night we tend to forget the approaching dawn. If you have seen your dawn (of course there is never just one), thank God! But, if you are still in the night, rejoice….as what He has waiting for you at the end of the tunnel is well worth it and better than you could have ever imagined. What He wants you to work on in that darkness are those three things I mentioned- gratitude (good manner), abandoning the imagination and prayer that makes you “feel” good, pray to God even when you feel nothing…that is true love and where perfection lies! And lastly, set aside your curiosity and stop trying to understand what you are not meant to understand; run to God with arms wide open and become the saint you were born to be!
He that shall persevere to the end shall be saved. (Matt 24:13)
I dedicate this post to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on Her Vigil for tomorrow’s feast instituted by Pope Pius XII in 1944. I love You, Mary-always!