He Weans Them

A Reading from The Dark Night of the Soul (ca. 1577-1579)

It should be understood that when a person comes to the service of God with real determination, God normally nurtures their spirit and warms their heart, like a loving mother with her baby. A mother protects the child at her breast, feeding it with sweet milk and easily digestible food. She carries the child in her arms and hugs him. But as the child grows, so the mother sets him down on the ground to teach him to walk. She does this so that eventually the child can leave behind foolish ways and mature, gradually taking on greater things, more real things.

It is the same with the soul. The loving mother of the grace of God brings each person to rebirth through a warmth and enthusiasm for serving God. And in return, God offers the soul sweet and satisfying food. This is part of the attraction of spirituality.

However, the conduct of beginners in the way of God tends to gravitate toward the love of pleasure and the love of self. God desires to detach them from this way of loving and lead them to a higher degree of divine love. He is concerned to liberate them from unhealthy dependence on the senses and formalized meditation, and instead lead them to the exercise of the spirit, in which they become capable of a communion with God which is both richer and freer. But God can do this only after they have obtained some rudiments in the way of virtue, and persevered in meditation and prayer. It is through this process that they begin to detach themselves from worldly pleasure and gain spiritual strength from God.

It is then that God darkens this light, and closes the door and spring of sweet spiritual water they were used to imbibing as often as they wished. As long as they were weak and tender, no door was ever closed to them, as John remarks in the Apocalypse, but now God leaves them in such darkness that they do not know which way to turn. Previously, they used to know how to responds, but now their senses feel engulfed by night.

God leaves them in this dryness in order that not only show they fail to find satisfaction in their former ways of praying and meditating, but actually abandon them as distasteful. When God sees that they have grown a little, like a mother nursing the infant at her breast, he weans them so that they may grow stronger. He removes their swaddling bans, sets them down on the floor so that they can learn to walk by themselves. Inevitably, they find this new phase in their spiritual journey bewildering, since everything has been turned back-to-front. But God is giving the person the food of the spiritually mature. It is a food, however, that can only be received in dryness and darkness.

St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) was a Spanish Carmelite priest, who assisted Teresa of Avila in reforming the order. His work brought him into conflict with his ecclesiastical superiors, who cast him into prison. His resulting depression prompted much of his most profound poetry and spiritual writing.

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