All of their time is spent looking for satisfaction and spiritual consolation; they can never read enough spiritual books, and one minute they are meditating on one subject and the next on another, always hunting for some gratification in the things of God. God very rightly and discreetly and lovingly denies this satisfaction to these beginners. If he did not, they would fall into innumerable evils because of their spiritual gluttony and craving for sweetness. This is why it is important for these beginners to enter the dark night and be purged of this childishness. (John of the Cross, The Dark Night I.6)
Am I wrong or does John sound like a spiritual version of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi?
OK, laugh track off. America’s religious life is marked by “spiritual gluttony and craving for sweetness.” Christianity or any other religious system is meant to make one feel good. Prosperity Gospel, spiritual-not-religious and moral therapeutic deism are expressions of this reality. The guiding creedal affirmation is, “It’s what works for me.”
John of the Cross presents the alternative, which is to seek God rather than stop short and wallow in the finite things – even good things – that God creates.
Life’s passing consolations throw a parade on Palm Sunday. Jesus gets a hero’s welcome into Jerusalem. He is praised, waited upon and called upon as the only one who can make things all better. Human affirmations play into our gluttony for consolation, as a friend of mine points out,
The stones (the people of the temple of God) that would go through that dark time, a time of humility and being silenced, would have to contend with persons who would be a Christ to them. When an individual is going through a hard time, he will reach out to anyone around him in the hopes that a consoling will take place… Jesus was saying that in order to grow into a lively stone of the temple of God, one must not lean on every shoulder that comes his way.
And we know that the shoulders of the welcoming Palm Sunday crowd were no place for Jesus to lean.
A few nights after the big parade Jesus has dinner with his unreliable friends. He beckons them (and through them, all of us) into a dark night, without handy consolations, but promising something greater,
Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times. ” (John 13:36-38 ESV)
Jesus posits a path marked by denial and failure that will ultimately bring Peter to share the place of his Teacher and Lord. In another of his writings, John of the Cross described the practice of Spanish mothers who rubbed bitter herbs on their breasts to wean their children. Fullness of life with God – what the Apostle Paul often terms maturity – requires weaning from consolations.
On Friday, Jesus will cry out Scripture’s least consoling passage, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Saturday is the profound darkness of the tomb.