January 16, 2014
For our prayer to lead to union with God, it is always necessary for it to be offered in a spirit of contrition. St. John notes: "Even if you have climbed the whole ladder of the virtues, pray still for the forgiveness of sins." If we ever appear in God's presence and think that we belong there, if we ever lose sight of the priority of grace and our need for it at all times, then we have lost prayer. It is for certain that we are not talking to God but only to ourselves or worse yet to Satan who has the capacity of transforming himself into an angel of light. Contrition is the key to being delivered from spiritual delusion. Those who pray in a spirit of repentance are not easily fooled by Satan and his demonic hosts.
Finally, and perhaps most important of all, we must understand that prayer is not something gained simply from the teaching of others. St. John writes: "You cannot learn to see just because someone tells you to do so. For that, you require your own natural power of sight. In the same way, you cannot discover from the teaching of others the beauty of prayer. Prayer has its own special teacher in God. He grants the prayer of him who prays. And He blesses the years of the just."
In Step 29, St. John shows us the heights of spirituality - - the exalted state of dispassion. And when we listen to his descriptions, we have to admit that they are pretty amazing. It is hard for beginners in the spiritual life to imagine being cleansed of all corruption; it is equally as difficult to imagine being beyond all temptation. It is truly hard to comprehend being master of one's senses. We may consider it a "good day" if we have not given in to our senses; if we have restrained them. It is a spiritually successful day if we have held our tongues when provoked by the misbehavior of others. Our whole lives are spent dealing with our passions and trying to restrain them. But what St. John is describing is quite different. He is talking about a spiritual state where the passions no longer exist!
Why does he lay this out before us? For at least two reasons: a) to keep us from spiritual pride and b) to motivate us to spiritual labor. It is easy for us to become complacent in our spiritual life, to be satisfied with what we have achieved and to lose the impetus to pursue more. This, of course, is a Satanic ploy, for the reality is that once we have stopped pursuing God we begin to lose what we have already gained. If we are not going forward in our spiritual lives, we can be certain that we are going backwards. It is equally easy for us to falsely assume that we are at the heights of our spiritual endeavor when we are yet at its beginning.
In this chapter, it is as if St. John is standing before us and proclaiming: "There is more! There is more! Listen to his words: "O my brothers, we should run to enter the bridal chamber of this palace, and if some burden of past habits or the passage of time should impede us, what a disaster for us!" In another place he says: "Brothers, let us commit ourselves to this, for our names are on the lists of the devout. There must be no talk of `a lapse', `there is no time,' or `a burden.' To everyone who has received the Lord in baptism, `He has given the power to become children of God.'"
If we honestly observe ourselves, we will notice a sinful tendency to be satisfied with something less than dispassion. We grow weary of the struggle and we long to "be there" already. In our laziness we then lower the goal. We reduce holiness to a set of external rules; to a repeatable pattern of external behaviors. Once we have lowered the goal, we then don't have to struggle as much. Once we have equated holiness with "external correctness" we can then feel good about ourselves. We can "be holy" and "feel good about ourselves" at the same time. We begin to say to ourselves, "I have not committed any major sins; nor do I place myself in situations of temptation"; "I am disciplined in my spiritual life - I have not broken my fast - I have kept the rule of prayer." Soon we begin to see ourselves as authentic spiritual guides for others. We begin to compare ourselves with others and can even fancy ourselves as reliable judges of their holiness. And so without being aware of it, we have fallen into what is called prelest, or spiritual delusion.
St. John's words in this chapter are a wake-up call. They remind us of how far we are from spiritual perfection. They humble us. They motivate us. They set the goal before us. The goal is high: dispassion leading to illumination. The height of the goal reaffirms the necessity of struggle. Nothing in this life comes easily. The more important it is, the more work it requires. Thus, in our spiritual lives, when we are tempted to despair, to quit, to accept second best, to abandon the struggle, we must remind ourselves of just how wonderful the prize is. St. John says: "Think of dispassion as a kind of celestial palace, a palace of the king of heaven." This is where we must want to dwell. A small hut may be easier to attain, but it is not where those zealous for God and wish to be near him want to live. They have their eyes set on something more. "Blessed dispassion raises the poor mind from the earth to heaven, raises the beggar from the dunghill of passion. And love, all praise to it, makes him sit with princes, that is with holy angels, and with the princes of God's people."