St. John of the Cross Novena — Day 6

Whoever flees prayer flees all that is good.

Sayings of Light and Love, 169

 

SCRIPTURE

When evil men advance against me
to devour my flesh,
they, my opponents, my enemies,
are the ones who stumble and fall.

When evil men advance against me
to devour my flesh,
they, my opponents, my enemies,
are the ones who stumble and fall.

Though an army pitched camp against me,
my heart would not fear;
though war were waged against me,
my trust would still be firm.

One thing I ask of Yahweh,
one thing I seek:
to live in the house of Yahweh
all the days of my life,
to enjoy the sweetness of Yahweh
and to consult him in his Temple.

For he shelters me under his awning
in times of trouble;
he hides me deep in his tent,
sets me high on a rock.

And now my head is held high
over the enemies who surround me,
in his tent I will offer
exultant sacrifice.

I will sing, I will play for Yahweh!

Yahweh, hear my voice as I cry!
Pity me! Answer me!
My heart has said of you,
“Seek his face.”
Yahweh, I do seek your face;
do not hide your face from me.

Do not repulse your servant in anger;
you are my help.
Never leave me, never desert me,
God, my savior!
If my father and mother desert me,
Yahweh will care for me still.

Yahweh, teach me your way,
lead me in the path of integrity
because of my enemies;
do not abandon me to the will of my foes
false witnesses have risen against me,
and breathe out violence.

This I believe: I shall see the goodness of Yahweh,
in the land of the living.
Put your hope in Yahweh, be strong, let your heart be bold,
put your hope in Yahweh.

Psalm 27

 

MEDITATION

Let’s have a virtual show of hands: who among us has had an experience where God seemed to be hiding or even absent when we pray? Who among us has ever prayed, “God, where are you?” Has anyone ever said, “prayer isn’t working for me, God doesn’t care about me, I give up”? Has anyone ever experienced dryness in prayer, where you can’t feel anything anymore? Or, has someone ever discovered one day that they drifted away from the fervor of the practice of prayer they once had?

If you answered, “yes” to any one or more of these questions, you are in good company. All of us experience difficulties in prayer. In yesterday’s fifth novena meditation, we read one of St. Teresa’s accounts where she experienced difficulties in prayer; she was going through a moment of tribulation and the practice of prayer that usually brought her encouragement and comfort simply didn’t work.

Growing in friendship with God is a lifelong journey along the way of perfection. There will be many moments when we will stumble and fall. Ask any old friend of God and they will testify to this age-old fact of the spiritual life. The most important lesson that those who travel the way of perfection (or the Little Way of St. Thérèse) must learn is that it’s not a matter of how frequently or infrequently we fall, it’s how quickly we get up again and keep moving along the way. Saint Teresa herself says in the Interior Castle’s Second Mansion (IC II), “if you should at times fall don’t become discouraged and stop striving to advance. For even from this fall God will draw out good.” (IC II:9)

“Don’t become discouraged” is advice we read and hear often in Carmelite spirituality. Here’s what St. Elizabeth of the Trinity said to her younger sister a few months before Elizabeth died:

Darling little sister, you must cross out the word “discouragement” from your dictionary of love; the more you feel your weakness, your difficulty in recollecting yourself, and the more hidden the Master seems, the more you must rejoice, for then you are giving to Him, and, when one loves, isn’t it better to give than to receive? God said to Saint Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9), and the great saint understood this so well that he cried out: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). What does it matter what we feel; He, He is the Unchanging One, He who never changes: He loves you today as He loved you yesterday and will love you tomorrow. (Letter 298)

St. Teresa was more blunt when writing about those facing discouragement in prayer, especially beginners in prayer:

Ah, my Lord! Your help is necessary here; without it one can do nothing (cf. Jn 15:5). In Your mercy do not consent to allow this soul to suffer deception and give up what was begun. (IC II:6)

It will seem to you that you are truly determined to undergo exterior trials, provided that God favors you interiorly. His Majesty knows best what is suitable for us. There’s no need for us to be advising Him about what He should give us, for He can rightly tell us that we don’t know what we’re asking for (cf. Mt 20:22). The whole aim of any person who is beginning prayer—and don’t forget this, because it’s very, very important—should be that he work and prepare himself with determination and every possible effort to bring his will into conformity with God’s will. (IC II:8)

We can have all the determination in the world to be devout, faithful, and persistent in our prayer, but our own devotion, fidelity, and persistence alone are not sufficient. We need the Lord’s guidance. Here, St. Teresa refers to acquiring spiritual directors, but her point is more valid than ever: 

Provided that we don’t give up, the Lord will guide everything for our benefit, even though we may not find someone to teach us. There is no other remedy for this evil of giving up prayer than to begin again; otherwise the soul will gradually lose more each day—and please God that it will understand this fact. (IC II:10)

“Provided that we don’t give up,” Teresa writes. “Whoever flees prayer,” St. John of the Cross echoes, “flees all that is good.”

What is this “all that is good” to which John refers?

This time, we will let him answer the question, by sharing an excerpt from his 8 July 1589 letter to Madre Leonor de San Gabriel in Córdoba. A companion of St. Teresa in founding the monasteries of Beas and Sevilla, Mother Leonor was feeling alone in Córdoba without the companionship of Teresa and the sisters she knew and loved the best. St. John of the Cross wrote a letter to encourage her in her new mission as prioress:

Jesus be in your soul, my daughter in Christ.

Thank you for your letter. And I thank God for having desired to use you in this foundation, since His Majesty has done this in order to bring you greater profit. The more he wants to give, the more he makes us desire—even to the point of leaving us empty in order to fill us with goods. You will be repaid for the goods (the love of your sisters) that you leave behind in Sevilla. Since the immense blessings of God can only enter and fit into an empty and solitary heart, the Lord wants you to be alone. For he truly loves you with the desire of being himself all your company. And Your Reverence will have to strive carefully to be content only with his companionship, so you might discover in it every happiness. Even though the soul may be in heaven, it will not be happy if it does not conform its will to this. And we will be unhappy with God, even though he is always present with us, if our heart is not alone, but attached to something else. (Letter 15)

“He loves you today as He loved you yesterday and will love you tomorrow,” St. Elizabeth wrote, echoing the sentiments of St. John of the Cross. But if God is “always present with us”, how can we become present to God, so that our hearts are alone and not “attached to something else”? 

Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection tells us what he did:

Thus, after offering myself entirely to God in atonement for my sins, I renounced for the sake of his love everything other than God, and I began to live as if only he and I existed in the world. Sometimes I considered myself before him as a miserable criminal at his judge’s feet, and at other times I regarded him in my heart as my Father, as my God. I adored him there as often as I could, keeping my mind in his holy presence and recalling him as many times as I was distracted. I had some trouble doing this exercise, but continued in spite of all the difficulties I encountered, without getting disturbed or anxious when I was involuntarily distracted. I was as faithful to this practice during my activities as I was during my periods of mental prayer, for at every moment, all the time, in the most intense periods of my work I banished and rid from my mind everything that was capable of taking the thought of God away from me. (Letter 12)

 

NOVENA PRAYER

O St. John of the Cross
You were endowed by our Lord with the spirit of self-denial
and a love of the cross.
Obtain for us the grace to follow your example
that we may come to the eternal vision of the glory of God.

O Saint of Christ’s redeeming cross
the road of life is dark and long.
Teach us always to be resigned to God’s holy will
in all the circumstances of our lives
and grant us the special favor
which we now ask of you:

mention your request.

Above all, obtain for us the grace of final perseverance,
a holy and happy death and everlasting life with you
and all the saints in heaven.
Amen.

 

Arrest of John of the Cross Carmel de Pontoise Palissy POP 95W00981
The Arrest of St John of the Cross
18th c. French
Oil on canvas, 1772 or 1777
Carmel of Pontoise
© Ministère de la Culture (France), Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine, Diffusion RMN-GP. Used by permission.

 

 

All Scripture references in this novena are found on the Bible Gateway website, with the exception of texts drawn from the 1968 Reader’s Edition of the Jerusalem BibleSelections from the psalter appear in the Liturgy of the Hours.

The novena prayer was composed from approved sources by Professor Michael Ogunu, a member of the Discalced Carmelite Secular Order in Nigeria.

All of the citations from the Sayings of Light and Love are drawn from The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, Revised Edition (1991), translated from the Spanish by Kavanaugh, K and Rodriguez, O with revisions and introductions by Kavanaugh, K, ICS Publications, Washington DC.

 

Elizabeth of the Trinity, S 2003, The Complete Works of Elizabeth of the Trinity volume 2: Letters from Carmel, translated from the French by Nash, A, ICS Publications, Washington DC

 

Lawrence of the Resurrection, B 2015, Writings and Conversations on the Practice of the Presence of God, translated from the French by Sciurba, S, ICS Publications, Washington DC.

 

Teresa of Avila, St. 1985, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, translated from the Spanish by Kavanaugh, K; Rodriguez, O, ICS Publications, Washington DC.

 

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