Becoming free like the Son
Meditation for the First Sunday of Lent (excerpt)
fr. Jean-Alexandre of the Lamb, O.C.D.
Discalced Carmelite Friars Paris Province
So here we are on our way to approach Mount Carmel and the Spirit leads us to start in the desert with Jesus, an unpleasant stop as it will reveal the obstacles to our progress — not external obstacles, but internal. But at the same time, Saint John of the Cross reveals to us the healthy attitudes which will allow us to get back on our feet and to walk with more caution.
Beware of our inordinate attachments
In the gospel we see that the tempter approaches Jesus at the time of hunger. A void appears and a vital need is expressed, that of satiation. It is the emptiness that creates desire and commands our attention: I am hungry! We can still function, but when hunger gets hold, we only think about this lack.
Regardless of all else, only our satisfaction counts. This impatience is an opportunity for the devil who can serve us an easy reaction typical of our consumer culture, on a platter: help yourself, transform these stones into bread! Besides, isn’t this what Jesus will do in Cana by changing the water into wine? Why resist? Certainly in Cana Jesus’ sign will be presented for the good of all and to develop the faith of the disciples.
But here it would be a whim. Jesus made clear that the most essential for him is not biological life but his union with his Father. The verse from Deuteronomy which he quotes (8:3): “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord,” is all the more valid for himself who will say to the disciples: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me” (Jn 4:34).
Unfortunately, Adam and Eve did not follow this path: they immediately grabbed the fruit. And we do the same when we live as independent beings having forgotten that everything comes to us from God. “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7)
For John of the Cross, the main obstacle to our spiritual growth resides in what he calls our “attachment” (Ascent of Mount Carmel 2.21.12). God keeps giving to us and we receive, thinking that this gift is only for us, or that we get this gift because we deserve it.
Worse, sometimes we serve ourselves, even if it means taking the property of others because we are jealous of it. “Our vain covetousness is such that it clings to everything. It is like the wood borer that gnaws at what is sound and performs its task in both good and bad objects.” (Ascent 3.35.8) We thus bring everything back to ourselves, often unconsciously, because we still think we are the center of the world. And we are surprised that the others do not seem to see it as clearly…
“God keeps giving to us and we receive, thinking that this gift is only for us, or that we get this gift because we deserve it.” ~fr. Jean-Alexandre of the Lamb, OCDTweet
This general observation does not only concern material realities but also spiritual goods. Our attitude of ownership means that we do not take good advantage of God’s gifts and that we waste them.
This leads to “gradually [losing] God’s favors because they receive these favors as something belonging to themselves and do not profit well by them. Taking them as one’s own and failing to profit by them is the same as desiring to receive them. God does not bestow them so that the recipient may desire to receive them” in a selfish way (Ascent 2.11.7).
Instead of gratefully accepting these gifts and taking advantage of them, we often look at them with self-indulgence and fall into the offence of embezzlement.
“Instead of gratefully accepting God’s gifts and taking advantage of them, we often look at them with self-indulgence and fall into the offence of embezzlement.” ~fr Jean-Alexandre of the Lamb, OCDTweet
Detaching … for greater gain
John of the Cross does not tell us to despise the gifts of God, whether natural or spiritual, such as innate talent, material good, or spiritual graces received. But he says that paradoxically, to benefit from it, one must detach from it.
Spiritual persons “obtain more joy and recreation in creatures through the dispossession of them. They cannot rejoice in them if they behold them with possessiveness, for this is a care that, like a trap, holds the spirit to earth and does not allow wideness of heart.” (Ascent 3.20.2)
We know from experience that our attention is drawn to what we value. When we are focused on one thing or another, we no longer see what is going on around us and our interior life remains narrow and selfish.
Those, then, whose joy is unpossessive of things rejoice in them all as though they possessed them all; those others, beholding them with a possessive mind, lose all the delight of them in general. The former, as St. Paul states, though they have nothing in their heart, possess everything with greater liberty [2 Cor. 6:10]; the others, insofar as they possess things with attachment, neither have nor possess anything. Rather, their heart is held by things and they suffer as a captive. As many as are the joys they long to uncover in creatures, so many will necessarily be the straits and afflictions of their attached and possessed hearts.Saint John of the Cross
Cares do not molest the detached, neither in prayer nor outside it, and thus, losing no time, such people easily store up an abundance of spiritual good.
Ascent of Mount Carmel 3.20.3
In this very modern text, John of the Cross gives us a sense to what freedom we are called, that of the children of God: the ability to benefit from everything and not be overwhelmed by our worries. In contrast, one who does not enter into this work of detachment remains a slave to what he is attached to. His heart is possessed and he is suffering terribly. He thinks he’s free and yet he’s just a slave to his passions.
Only attachment to God makes us free and like Jesus. Facing the devil, Jesus shows himself to be a profoundly free man; he affirms his identity by refusing all the traps of the adversary. He can because he is detached from everything except his Father.
“It is essential on the spiritual journey that one becomes an expert on the Scriptures. ‘Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ’, says Saint Jerome. How can we be united with the Lord if we do not know Him?” -fr. Jean-Alexandre of the Lamb, OCDTweet
Rely on Scripture …
It is impressive to see in our Gospel how Jesus responds to the three invitations of the tempter. He speaks only quotations from Scripture! Jesus is fluent in the Holy Scriptures. He can only speak the word received from his Father and the tradition of Israel. Indeed it is he Himself who is the Word, the Word of God.
This is why it is essential on the spiritual journey that one becomes an expert on the Scriptures. Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ, says Saint Jerome. How can we be united with the Lord if we do not know Him?
All the writings of Saint John of the Cross are steeped in scriptural references and it is on the Bible that he bases the authority of his work in The Ascent of Mount Carmel: “In discussing this dark night, (…) I will not neglect whatever possible use I can make of [experience and science], my help in all that, with God’s favor, I shall say, will be Sacred Scripture. Taking Scripture as our guide we do not err, since the Holy Spirit speaks to us through it.” (Ascent, Prol. 2)
So Jesus, led into the wilderness by the Spirit, lets this same Holy Spirit speak in order to silence the devil. Hence the importance for us to memorize certain biblical verses. They will help us to silence inner thoughts that throw us into trouble.
For example, if I am tempted by discouragement, I will say, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Ps. 27). If I am tested by jealousy, I will reaffirm: “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; I have a goodly heritage.” (Ps. 16).
It is up to me to find these passages of Scripture that will help me to fight against the thoughts of death and to find inner peace and communion with God.
… and an understanding of the Faith
However, knowledge of the Scriptures is not enough. Proof of this is that the devil himself is an expert and he faces Jesus on this ground. This is not very surprising: this is what the serpent already did in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1). The evil serpent falsifies the Word of God by making it say something else.
We know this human technique: quoting the words of others out of context to discredit them. So the devil resorts to Psalm 91 evoking divine assistance to push Jesus to suicide. It is then that Christ counters with the verse from Deuteronomy (6:16) to denounce this test.
We cannot therefore rely on an isolated verse from Scripture; the meaning of this verse must always be linked to other passages and to the center of revelation. Thus, Scripture is interpreted within the framework of the tradition received from the Church. It is this connection with the Church that assures us that we ourselves do not falsify the meanings of passages from the Bible.
John of the Cross insists on the role of our intelligence for our spiritual life. Verbe in French and Logos in Greek both mean the Word but also Reason. Our reason is already a gift from God which helps us to properly read Scripture in the Church. It is unnecessary to go looking for extraordinary revelations that could divert us from the Gospel. So let’s not be impressed by any miraculous tale that can be human or evil deception.
There is no necessity for any of this kind of knowledge since one can get sufficient guidance from natural reason and from the law and doctrine of the Gospel. There is no difficulty or necessity that cannot be solved or remedied by these means, which are very pleasing to God and profitable to souls. We should make such use of reason and the law of the Gospel that, even though some supernatural truths are told to us, we accept only what is in harmony with reason and the Gospel law.”Saint John of the Cross
Ascent of Mount Carmel 2.21.4
The Mystical Doctor knows our fascination with the paranormal or the extraordinary. If God can act in a spectacular way, he does so rarely and only if he is left with no choice. This therefore invites us to be very careful and listen to the voice of the Church about everything out of the ordinary: apparitions, signs, miracles, etc. Discernment will happen in due time. We must trust reason but also the spiritual accompaniment in which we can listen to the voice of the Church: “God is so pleased that the rule and direction of humans be through other humans and that a person is governed by natural reason…” (Ascent 2.22.9)
On the path to the freedom of children
We now see better that our voyage to holiness will not be a pleasure trip. Turbulence will not be lacking and neither will be disillusionment. The tempter is able to use our desire for holiness as a trap: like Jesus, he wants to lead us ever higher, to the top of the Temple, then to a very high mountain; but that’s better for a speedier fall.
“We cannot unite with God without radically changing the way we think, speak and act. ~fr. Jean-Alexandre of the Lamb, OCDTweet
Let us not be fooled by the false grandeur of this world. Let’s remember that we cannot be holy by our own strength but, like Jesus, by always depending on our Father. The more we are sons and daughters of God, the more secure we will be. The children of God are free from themselves and this freedom is very different from the freedom of the world that the devil presents to us.
All the sovereignty and freedom of the world compared to the freedom and sovereignty of the Spirit of God is utter slavery, anguish, and captivity. (…) Freedom cannot abide in a heart dominated by desires, in a slave’s heart. It abides in a liberated heart, in a child’s heart.Saint John of the Cross
Ascent of Mount Carmel 1.4.6
We must therefore agree to a profound journey of transformation. We cannot unite with God without radically changing the way we think, speak and act. Pope Francis warns of “worldly Christians, Christians in name (…) a tip here one day, a bribe there another day, and thus corruption comes little by little.” We then become “pagans painted with two coats of Christianity,” sliding gradually into the temptation of “mediocrity.” (Homily at Domus Sanctae Marthae, 2014/11/07).
Let us therefore offer ourselves with confidence to the Holy Spirit who led us to the desert. It is he who will destroy the obstacle in us and make us walk from height to height to the summits of God.
To read more of fr. Jean-Alexandre’s meditation for the First Sunday of Lent, subscribe to the Discalced Carmelite Lent 2020 Online Retreat with St. John of the Cross at www.retreat-online.karmel.at