How Gently You Awake
By Mary Jo Loebig, O.C.D.
It was the one book that no one was allowed to read. Often, it was hidden away. Still, as the years went on, these same pages were quietly pulled apart as people found their own life journey described therein. Usually, such findings brought immense relief.
St. John of the Cross was too difficult to read. How could one possibly be called to give up what one does not have? Not only that. Most people spend a good share of their lives trying to become their own person. It seems absurd to go against what one has struggled to gain
Most articles in spiritual journals, like this one, are addressed to readers who are seriously seeking God and who have had experiences of this God in their lives. In view of this, could anyone dare to address the moments when God goes away or, worse still, does not even seem to exist? Would anyone read the article to its end? And still, we know that all of us have had such experiences. Along this line, some years ago, Carmelites were formally challenged to tell the world that God is palpably present in those times specifically when God seems not to be present. These are the moments when faith is born. The paradox is, however, that faith is most needed when there seems to be no faith.
The best way to read St. John of the Cross is to start where he ends, that is, in the arms of God. Thomas Merton puts it this way: "I would not seek you unless I had already found you." John of the Cross describes this going away of God in the Second Night of the Spirit. It is this Night that precedes the Dawn of God, that early morning when we come to know God and ourselves in a way we have never known before, that moment we were created to experience from the beginning. St. John writes of an awakening of God, not our awakening but God's awakening. "How gently and lovingly you awake in my heart."1
What are the signs that God is inviting us into this Night? The following are some indications:
1. We are unable to pray in the manner we once did. Many times people continue trying to pray using their former method, even though nothing works. John of the Cross calls this peeling the orange twice. If the old way is no longer effective, very likely we are hearing the call to something new. The pain comes in not knowing what that new is.
2. Often, the formal times of prayer become wordless and without image. If one is sensitive to what is going on, one may still have the sense that one is present in and before a Presence. A quiet peace may accompany these prayer times. However, at the end of the prayer period, one may feel that one has done nothing
3. Dryness invades not only prayer, but our daily life as well. There is a lack of joy and zest for the things of life that once brought delight. Jessica Powers says it well when she writes that midnight is no time for entertaining guests.2
4. There is a feeling that one has done something wrong and that this is why one is left without the sense of God's presence.
5. We feel powerless to bring God back. In actuality, this affect is a gift, since truly we do not have power over God.
6. We begin to question: "If human beings were created with an openness to God and an ability to make direct contact with God, then why is this not happening?"
7. Since prayer is difficult and painful, there is the temptation to opt out of it. In this, we are in good company. St. Teresa of Avila used to shake the hourglass to make the time go more quickly.
8. And lastly, there is the tendency to remain where one is, even though this may be painful, rather than embrace the meaningful suffering involved with change and getting to know God more deeply.
Return to Top
God’s Action Within
In the classic I Am a Daughter of the Church, Fr. Marie Eugene, O.C.D., dedicates a whole section to the conduct of the soul during the Night. "God's action in the soul during the Night requires the soul's cooperation. What is the cooperation that will allow the divine fire to burn, full flame within?"3
One may ask, "How does one cooperate with the action of God during the Night?" It appears that the following ways might give one some direction:
1. Walk with whatever faith you have at the moment. I know of someone who once shared with her spiritual companion that she had very little faith and that this frightened her. The response was to go with that small amount. In truth, one can do much even when one has faith only the size of a mustard seed. Paradoxically, faith is learned when there seems to be no faith. It is interesting to note that one does not need to believe in order to be embraced by God. God embraces those who have faith, those who have very little faith and those who have no faith at all.
2. Outside the times of prayer, it is good to look for what brings joy and light, even though the joy may be small and the light but a flicker. God delights in being present in the small. These insignificant bits of life can usher in what ends up being something powerfully new and exciting.
3. During times like this, we may be called to do something very different, something we have never done before. This is how God gets us to that other place. In difficult times, creativity always serves us well. It is good to go in the direction of what "feels right".
4. The familiar mantra is often very soothing, and usually brings calm not only during prayer but also throughout one's day. What is that one word the Spirit is praying within me, today? God continues to speak in the still small voice as well as in those intuitive "feelings" which come upon us.
5. When faced with a situation that calls for a decision, do the loving thing, even if it makes no sense and there will be no personal reward. Karl Rahner states that these moments truly are experiences of God.
6. Even though it is very difficult entertaining guests at midnight, often it is helpful to share with a spiritual companion or just a close friend. Doubts, when exposed to the sunlight, soon vanish.
Return to Top
There Is An Easter
The limits of this present article do not allow us to discuss the fruits of the Second Night. These may be treated later. The one thing that we know for sure is that the Night prepares us for what God wants to give us. There is an Easter! In the Night, God reveals God to us in a new way. Up to this point, we would not have been able to bear such revelation and such intimacy. God, indeed, is a "strange lover", as Jessica Powers points out so beautifully. 4
Hosea also speaks of such intimacy. He puts it this way:
When you were a child, Israel, I loved you, and out of (your) Egypt I called you.
- It was I who taught you to stand and walk.
With love, I took you into my arms.
- Still, you did not know that it was I who guided you with reins of kindness, with bands of love. Like one who raises a child against the cheek, I bent down to you and gave you nourishment for your life.
- (Hosea 11:1-4)
1 St. John of the Cross, The Collected Works, Trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., and Otilio Rodriquez, O.C.D., 1979, (Washington, D.C., Institute of Carmelite Studies) p.643.
2 Jessica Powers, Selected Poetry, 1989, (Kansas City, Missouri, Sheed & Ward) p.122.
3 P. Marie-Eugene, O.C.D., I Am a Daughter of the Church, Vol.II, 1955, (Chicago, Illinois, Fides Publishers Assoc.) p.375.
4 Jessica Powers, Selected Poetry, p.16.
Return to Top