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Lately I came across an interesting theological intersection between Abraham Heschel and John of the Cross. John, advising would-be contemplatives, writes about how the imagination can be helpful to us when we’re beginning to meditate and pray, but can become an obstacle to progressing in prayer, because anything we construct in our imaginations can never correspond to the reality of God.
Heschel, in his wonderful little book on the Sabbath, writes about how the Sabbath returns our attention from the arena of space towards the arena of time. Heschel argues that our imaginations have to do with space—the way we conquer and move in the world of space. In that view, images of God necessarily depict God as existing in space, losing the dimension of God’s existence in time. However, for Israel, the Sabbath functioned as a temple in time, reminding Israel that God existed and worked in the sphere of time.
I was reading John and Heschel together, and it led me to think about how this all gets played out in the Hebrew canon, and the implications for a narrative theology. If we think about the two sides in the analogy framework, we get something like this:
Image : Space :: Story : Time
Image is to space what story is to time—Image and story are depictions of existence in the respective spheres of space and time. Interestingly, in the canonical faith of Israel, the God of Israel is freely depicted as through stories. God is depicted in time through the use of story, while the canonical tradition explicitly rejected the depiction of God in space through image. Perhaps that is just because of the nature of the written canon, but it seems also to be an affirmation of something essential about the nature of God. God is in pursuit of goals, on a mission. God works through time, across time—not cyclical, repetitive time, mind you, but historical time, in which there is progression and fluidity.
The canonical God is a storied God, because God is a personal being, expressed in story better than in a space/image, as if he were material. For Heschel, this is a reminder that we, too, exist not just as matter in the sphere of space, but also in the sphere of time, and that this is what really matters. Being a person is about existing through time.
In the prayer theology of John of the Cross, the problem with the use of too much imagination in prayer is that it prevents progression—God becomes fixed, static. The imagined God may be dependable, but it can never fully express God—God as eternal person is beyond full expression through image. When the imagination is allowed to play too heavy of a role in prayer, the prayer is prevented from developing a faith in God that can exist beyond what can be imagined.
However, the situation is different in a narrative theology that understands God as having been at work, which depicts that work through story, and understands the story to be somewhat open-ended, and continuing through the present. In that theological framework, there is a place for hopeful prayer in the midst of darkness, while God is hidden and unseen. Indeed, such time is healthy, because it keeps us from restricting and limiting God to our image. God may be at work in new ways throughout time. Thus, waiting, praying, and living in faith (not by sight) is an affirmation of definitive hope, and yet also an exercise in provisional discernment. We live in the story we know, knowing that we don’t yet know the whole story.
I read this passage from The Ascent of Mount Carmel by John of the Cross this morning:
The ignorance of some is extremely lamentable; they burden themselves with extraordinary penances and many other exercises, thinking these are sufficient to attain union with divine Wisdom. But such practices are insufficient if these souls do not diligently strive to deny their appetites. If they would attempt to devote only half of that energy to the renunciation of their desires, they would profit more in a month than in years with all these other exercises. As the tilling of soil is necessary for its fruitfulness—untilled soil produces only weeds—,prettification of the appetites is necessary for one’s spiritual fruitfulness. I venture to say that without this mortification all that is done for the sake of advancement in perfection and in knowledge of God and of oneself is no more profitable than seed sown on uncultivated ground. Accordingly, darkness and coarseness will always be with a soul until its appetites are extinguished. The appetites are like a cataract on the eye or specks of dust in it; until removed they obstruct vision. (I.8.4)
It almost struck me as ironic: after all, reading John is for me now, a spiritual exercise! But he himself calls me to think about the things within me that actually need changing, particularly the restrain of my physical appetites. My devotional life should be connected to the rest of my life; my prayer should grow from and flow back into the actual living of my life, in the awareness of how the Lord is changing me, growing and purifying my heart, words, thoughts, and actions. Prayer cannot be only an isolated spiritual exercise, but must be accompanied by a willingness to be thoroughly changed by the Lord.
It is easy to imagine that when we pray, we turn away from those dark parts of our self that are sinful and marked by evil. John of the Cross’s masterpiece, The Dark Night of the Soul, attacks that naiveté, and begins by working through each of the seven deadly sins in turn, describing how each of them enters with us into our devotional lives. Pride, Greed and their ilk actively keep us from prayer, but they also deeply affect the ways that we enter into and experience prayer.
For instance, spiritual gluttony affects our prayers by encouraging within us the desire to greedily costume the joys of prayers for our own sake, to enter into the spiritual disciplines without moderation. We consume the “sweet” experience of God’s presence, and can so crave that experience that we lose the importance of prayer that exists even when that experience eludes us. John writes,
“So much are they given to this that they think when they derive no spiritual sweetness, they have done nothing, so meanly do they think of God…But these persons will feel and taste God, as if he were palpable and accessible to them, not only in communion but in all other acts of devotion…This effort after sweetness destroys true devotion and spirituality, which consists in perseverance in prayer with patience and humility, mistrusting self, solely to please God.”
And so the early chapters of the book go, working through each of the capitol sins in turn, showing how they become barriers to the practice of prayer, in turn working against our faith in its value and distorting our experience of prayer.
Through this, John drives towards a very theocentric idea of prayer—prayer is a place of God’s action, not something that we can simply manipulate and force into giving us the experience we desire. He calls us to be humble and perseverant in prayer, in faith that because of God’s grace, prayer is valuable even when it feels empty and useless.
This is helpful to me.
I have lately realized my deep need to learn how to pray again. It snuck up on me. I didn’t feel spiritually anemic, and feel as though I have been growing in virtue and in my appreciation for God’s will and grace. I even feel like a full participant in worship.
The only problem is that I really haven’t been praying very much.
At least, not by myself. I’ve still been praying with my family, with people from the church, with my small group, etc, but my own time of private devotion has become sparse. Even as I’ve increased my habit of taking in the word, and meditating on it (even prayerfully), I have felt my capacity for simple prayer to be diminished. Even after a moment or two or prayer, I have found my mind sliding to the next task to be done, or to some easily accessible distraction—the phone, social media, and the general internet are ready culprits. It has just become too easy not to pray, not to immerse myself in the presence of God.
I found a similar note in Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor, in which he speaks about the difficulty he had growing in prayer, even as he was neck deep in ministry and the Word. Peterson mentions finding help along the way in two spanish mystics, Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Thanks for the tip, Eugene!
I’ve known about the two for a while. We used to take youth group kids to a monastery outside Little Rock, and it happened to be of the Discalced variety of Carmelites that descend from the movement born by Theresa and John. And while I’ve never really gotten into Theresa’s writing (perhaps it is just not time for that yet), John’s image of the Dark Night has been in the back of my head for a long time, and his book buried on my shelf.
Every once in a while, I find that a renowned book by one of the spiritual masters just won’t work for me. I remember, for instance, my first time trying to read Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. It just didn’t work for me—I had a hard time getting through even the first couple of chapters without glazing over. After a couple of years, I picked it back up, and it was totally different. It just absolutely spoke to me, blowing my mind and pulling me deeply into conversation with Bonhoeffer’s important ideas of community. The book was of course the same, but whatever had happened in between those readings had changed me, preparing me to receive what was there. The book would become critical to my thinking, but the first time through, I just wasn’t ready for it.
The Dark Night of the Soul is working on me like that right now. Just like I had to be prepared to learn from Bonhoeffer on community, I think I needed a period of latency before I could really absorb the teachings of John of the Cross on prayer. I’ve tried a couple of times before—six and perhaps ten or twelve years ago. Then, I couldn’t really get into the book. It seemed foreign and stiff. Now, it seems vivid and crucial to where I am spiritually. I’m finding it to be just the conversation partner I needed to rediscover prayer.