There is a vacuum in all of us. A place where the word “nothingness” becomes real and we just feel the dizzying vastness of our need. A place that opens up before us like an infinite desert. In fact, this place is so displeasing to us, it takes a long time for us to identify it – we can’t look it in the face, we just avoid it.
Fr. Iain Matthew, commenting on St. John of the Cross, has great words for us on this matter.
The desert is a place where [John] knows his poverty; a desert of the spirit, where he is not simply in command, where things do not just work for him. That too can be a good place. It spells surrender to God’s plan, not the pushing of his own. John encourages us to go there. The place of poverty within us is the threshold at which Christ stands. Our need is a way of prayer.
That then is a first indication for us from John about prayer: the place within us where not everything is all right, where the wound that is in you aches. John says: go there.
This is a great threshold to cross in prayer. Most of us are totally fine with prayer until it gets to this point. Here we react, “Woah, this is terrible – I must be doing something wrong. This isn’t what prayer is supposed to feel like.” In prayer, we tend to want guidance, insight and the Resurrection – it’s a whole new ballgame when God brings us to the sensitive wound deep in our being.
Go to that place of need, because that is a threshold at which Christ stands; our need is an evidence of God. This is a second lesson of John on prayer.
It is said that physical hunger passes through three phases. You stop eating and you need food and that is hard to cope with. But as time passes, the body settles into a rhythm, feeding on its fat reserves. The point comes, though, when these reserves run out and the body begins to feed on its own substance. Then hunger turns into a desperate craving, all the person’s instinct to preserve their life invested now in the, the body’s cry. In our life of faith, too, there are levels of phases: what once was powerful and compelling has settled down, a steady jog, feeding on reserves. But if one were taken further, to that third level of hunger, what would we find? [St. John’s Spiritual Canticle:]
“Where have you hidden / Beloved, and left me groaning? / You fled like a stag / having wounded me; / I went out in search of you, / and you were gone…”[John] has experienced a wound within him. He calls out from there. Calls out for what? It is as if the removal of many layers of need laid bare a deeper wound, the need which John is: it reveals John as a need for God.
John confirms for us, too, there is a third level of hunger, where our reality, the “substance” of our soul, is crying out for God. To be taken there is an immense blessing. Our need is the measure of our dignity, the reverse image of our greatness.
It is natural to flee from the place where that hunger throbs. Still, John encourages us to go there. It is what beckons the divine. It is the threshold at which Christ stands. We hunger for him because he has touched us; we want him because he wants us. The wound is the print of the pledge upon us, the pledge of the Spirit who holds us from the abyss… Two pointers, then, about prayer from John of the Cross: go to the fragile place: it is Christ is waiting there.
So much of the spiritual life is just learning to be able to sit in that place of need.
John expends his energy encouraging us not to lose our nerve or settle for a cheap alternative. When the wound that is in you begins to ache, or the anesthetic in you starts wearing off, do not grasp for compensation. Stay there. Show yourself you can stand there. Do not be a slave to the fear of not being anesthetized. Risk stepping into that open space where you need God.
This is an appeal that God makes to us. It opens up before us like a dark, intimidating cave, but it is the path toward the Holy of Holies! This is the interior way of the Cross: it is fierce, but it leads us to the Resurrection. There is an immense inheritance here.
Is some of this, perhaps, a bit too intimidating for some of us? That’s okay, we ought to let the Lord start with us where we are. But let’s press ahead to where our prayer is more than simply treading water on the surface. Let’s allow our prayer life to be uncomfortable. And, of course, let’s not do it alone (we need to discern this path with others). Unspeakable blessing wait on the other side!