I took a fascinating online class on the nature of Mystical Theology in the Church this Spring. What precious time I could carve out from my busy life as a mom six, I spent delving into the works of St. John of the Cross and meeting a new friend, a little Carmelite mystic named Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, often called a “spiritual sister” to St. Therese, the Little Flower. Late at night, huddled on the couch while the household slept, I read about the ascent of Mount Carmel, the famous allegory used by St. John of the Cross to describe the spiritual life, the journey of the soul’s toward union with God.
Our professor asked us to write our final paper on our own journey on this mystical mountain. He challenged us to reflect on how we could embrace the self-renunciation necessary to climb closer to the summit. After a few days of mulling this over mounds of laundry and miles of carpooling, here is what I came up with:
I’ve never been “outdoorsy.” (Does reading in a lawn chair count?) While I live in the “Valley of the Sun,” there are plenty of mountain trails to hike here in Phoenix. My friends and family strap on their packs and hike Camelback or South Mountain, even in the hottest months, and hold up pictures like trophies, proving their prowess. But me? Not too interested. I don’t have much free time, and when I do, sweating on the side of the mountain isn’t my first choice.
But I do love God, and I do want to get closer to Him. So “Mt. Carmel” is one mountain I must try to ascend. I suppose I’m in the foothills, still, but I am making some progress. Allow me to share.
I have long been intrigued by the story of the rich young man in Matthew’s gospel who wanted eternal life, kept the commandments, but went away sad because he was instructed to part with all of his possessions. I identify with this poor man, but I have always pictured myself like this: unable to shed all of my attachments on my own, but still determined to follow Christ, I drag along sacks of clutter and whatnots, huffing and puffing up Carmel, lagging behind Jesus and his holier followers who have the freedom – and breath – to have animated and intimate conversations. Meanwhile I’m too far behind to ever hear what they are saying. But I press on, haltingly, reluctantly shedding a scrap here, a trinket there, trying to lighten my load.
Somewhere along the way, stopping to rub my aching feet, while the saints sail ahead, I notice the boulder in my backpack isn’t even a thing at all – it’s my will. It’s my grasping of not only my own things but my own desires. Hmmm. If I could let go of that, heave it over the edge…I glance at those far ahead.
But it’s just too much to give up all at once. I could go away sad, but in the words of St. Peter, “to whom should we go?” There is nothing for me in the valley below. So I stagger up and press on.
And Jesus knows I’m back there. So He gives me a little help. He breaks the boulder into six littler pieces and asks me to surrender one at a time. And propelled by love, one by one, they have fallen away.
You want to know the fastest way to lighten the load of “self?” The surest way to leave your will behind? Have a baby. And then another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And then suddenly, you’ll be 40, and you’ll look down, and there’s nothing of “you” left. You have “sold” it all, and given it to the poor. The poor in your home, who come into this world with nothing. You will feel like a cup, turned up side down and poured out until the last drop – and the last tiny bit of that boulder – is emptied out. You will wonder if you should take a pottery class or a tango lesson. But then you remember that the “mystics have no hobbies.” And you realize why.
Because, wonder of wonder and miracle of miracles, while you are gone, you are not empty. On the contrary. You are fuller than you have ever been. Christ is sneaky sometimes, and while you were reluctantly shedding yourself, He was stealthily pouring Himself in, little by little. Every sleepless night with a feverish child. Every cold shower, long day at home, longer day in the car. Every hour struggling over Latin verbs or math facts, each burned meal, every early morning with toddlers and late night with teenagers. All of it was a little death. “Quotidie morior” which means “I die daily” as Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity reminds us. But it was the most merciful stripping of the self ever, because it was for those you love most, and each time a piece of the selfish you was left behind, Jesus was giving you a bit more of Himself. Until finally, you realize that you don’t mind losing yourself. As long as it’s in the sea of Him. And you can’t even remember what all that stuff even was that you were hauling around. You’ve lost the taste for it. Everything ends up like cotton candy, just making you more thirsty. Even your ‘spiritual sweet tooth.’ There’s only one bread, one drink that satisfies. It’s the reason you climb, and its what sustains you on the narrow road as you stumble upwards.
I’m still far behind on the ascent, and I still have some things that keep sneaking into my pack. (Too many shoes, and an inordinate attachment to coffee and chocolate, I’m afraid.) But I’m grateful for the Saints, some of whom I’ve met recently, who have scouted out the best way, especially St. John of the Cross, who literally made the map. I really love St. Therese’s elevator when the going seems to tough for me. I love waking up sometimes and realizing that Christ has carried me part of the rockiest way while I was asleep – I suppose that is the passive way of the dark night that St. John speaks of.
Each incident, each event, each suffering, as well as each joy, is a sacrament which God gives to it; so it no longer makes a distinction between these things; it surmounts them, goes beyond them to rest in its Master above all things. It exalts Him high on the ‘mountain of its heart,’ yes, higher than His gifts, His consolation, higher than the sweetness that comes from Him. ~Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity
And when you find that in the darkest nights, your lamp burns with love, then you know you’ll make it someday, God willing, to the top. And I can’t wait to see who’ll be waiting for us there.
St. John of the Cross, Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, ora pro nobis.