From Attaining Spiritual Maturity for Contemplation
According to St. John of the Cross
By Rev. Venard Poslusney, O. Carm.
Faults of Beginners
Completing the fourth through seventh capital sins.
When beginners are deprived of spiritual consolations they experience a sense of disappointment, vexation and complaint. These feelings are not sinful, but only imperfections, if they are not deliberately indulged. Some are so irritated by the deprivation of consolations that the smallest things upset them, and this reaches such a pass that no one can put up with them. St. John goes on to speak of another form of spiritual anger whereby beginners exercise an unholy zeal towards others, criticising them angrily in their thoughts, and at times in word, and setting themselves up as "masters of virtue." At other times, they are so impatient with themselves over their own imperfections that they would wish to see themselves become saints overnight. They resolve much, and promise a great deal, but as they are not humble and do not sufficiently distrust themselves, they fall much and accomplish little. This is so because they do no have the patience to wait for the necessary help that God will give when He so wishes.
Most beginners are guilty of spiritual gluttony, and very few can be said to be free from this fault. In their spiritual exercises they are drawn more by desire for spiritual sweetness than for detachment and discretion. This leads them to exceed the moderation that should govern the practice of the virtues. So we see them killing themselves or shortening their lives with penances and severe fasts. They fail to act in accordance with obedience, but rather, in some cases, act contrary to obedience. They set bodily penance above the true penance of the will. But, because obedience obliges them to certain exercises of penance, some even lose the desire to perform them, so attached are they to their own will. Yes, sometimes they are convinced that what is for their pleasure and satisfaction must be the satisfaction and will of God. Thus, they use subtle and devious means to obtain what they desire from their spiritual masters.
Others, when they communicate, strive with might and main to produce sensible sweetness and pleasure, and when they fail, think that they have accomplished nothing. This reveals a low concept of God based to a great extent on the senses; they wish to feel and taste God as though "He were comprehensible by them and accessible to them." The same is true of their mental prayer which they think consists in "experiencing sensible pleasure and devotion, and they strive to obtain this by great effort, wearying and fatiguing their faculties and their heads." In the end, they fail to persevere in this most important exercise, for they practice it more from inclination and feeling, than from a desire for real progress in virtue and union with God. Such beginners, attached to consolations and sweetness as they are, are loath to practice mortification and detachment in sober earnestness. For them, St. John of the Cross has this advice, "the perfection and worth of things consist not in the multitude and the pleasantness of one's actions, but in being able to deny oneself in them." The passive trials of sense with its temptations, aridities and other crosses will eventually heal them of these imperfections.
Spiritual Envy and Sloth
As for envy, beginners experience real annoyance when they notice the spiritual progress of others and actually feel grief at being outdone in virtue. This in turn leads them to depreciate others when these latter are praised for their virtue. And when others fail to praise them, they are much disappointed because this is what they seek. With such faults as companions, it is not surprising that they also desire to be preferred above others.
Then, there is spiritual sloth which manifests itself in flight from spiritual practices which do not bring sensible pleasure and sweetness. Thus, they practice prayer with indifference, and are irregular in keeping the time set aside for it, because it frequently fails to bring them the satisfaction they seek. Consequently, they desert the road to perfection which demands that they give up their own will for the good pleasure and will of God. Such people measure God by themselves, and find it repugnant to conform their will to the will of God. Being attached to sweetness and consolation, they are lacking in the fortitude needed to bear the trials of perfection. Instead, "they run fretfully away from everything that is hard and take offense at the Cross, wherein consist the delights of the spirit."
Such is the description of the chief imperfections to be found in "the lives of those that are in this first state of beginners, so that it may be seen how greatly they need God to set them in the state of proficients." No one will deny that these faults and imperfections, described so vividly by St. John of the Cross, belong not only to religious beginning the spiritual life, but to all earnest Christians who faithfully walk on the road of perfection and undertake the serious and persevering practice of mental prayer. In fact, he must have definitely had certain lay people in mind when he, for example, speaks of beginners who like to own a great variety of sacred articles.
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