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A Warning about Wanting Spiritual Pats on the Back from St. John of the Cross

alec vanderboom

Man, St. John of the Cross can be such a downer. I'm all confident I've started to get this Catholicism thing down. Then I work on my Carmel Reading Homework. Whoops! The gate to heaven is pretty narrow. St. John constantly reminds me not to get complacent in my prayer life.

So the king of penance talks about how bad it is for my spirit to get attached to worldly goods, riches or honor. No surprise there. But then St. John talks about getting attached to "moral goods." He warns that "because this harm is spiritual it is particularly ruinous." He says there are seven types of harm that comes from over-esteeming "moral goods" or "good works" --think volunteering for the Church's Soup Kitchen, giving a big tithe at church, or even being a mother to a large number of kids.

Harm One: Pride--We can over esteem our good works and boast about them to God.

Harm Two: "We think the deeds and works of others are not as good as our own."

Harm Three: We look for satisfaction in our works, and usually don't preform them unless we can see some gratification or some praise that will result from them.

Harm Four: We don't look for our reward in God since we wish to find in this life, "joy, comfort, honor or some other thing from the good work."

Harm Five: We fail to advance in the way of perfection since we are "attached to some satisfaction or consolation in our works."

Harm Six: We are mistaken "that the thought that the works that give satisfaction are better then those that do not."

Harm Seven: "We become more incapable of taking counsel and receiving reasonable instructions about the work they out to do." "Such people become very slack in charity towards God and neighbor for the self-love contained in their works makes them grow cold in charity."  (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, pgs 318 to 321.)

Ouch. That criticism struck me uncomfortably in the face. I'm guilty of all of those types of harm.

The remedy is to do good works "solely for the love of God." St. Teresa of Avila said that she would pick a straw up off the floor for the love of God. I think it is virtually impossible to purify my intentions on my own, however, I'm confident that if I pray for this grace of detachment and true generosity of spirit, God will hear my prayer.

In my Carmel group we talked about how hard our churches make it, ironically, to do"hidden things for the love of God." One women said that the first thing we do for volunteers is to have them all stand up in Mass and receive applause for their work. Or we boldly print their names in the church bulletin. It's easy to get a reputation for being a "good Christian" who volunteers often at church.  That can lull us into a false sense of security about our own spiritual progress and lead us into all sorts of pride, sin, and destruction.

I think it's really hard to not care about receiving praise for acts of service, the same way I'm not supposed to care about receiving insults as a result of my Catholic faith. Detachment from both praise and detachment from insults are the two sides of the same coin. Humility and hiddenness seem like such foreign concepts in our modern culture.

I love attending Carmel meetings because I'm always finding a higher peak on spiritual path. St. John of the Cross, pray for me.