Rowan Williams on the Self in Saint John of the Cross
On January 16th 1998, Rowan Williams, then the Bishop of Monmouth, gave a seminar to the Institute for Spiritual Studies at St Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, in Melbourne. The subject was one of his favourite writers, the Carmelite mystic and poet St John of the Cross (1542-1591). Fr Paul Chandler, O.Carm. took notes of the bishop’s paper, which are reproduced here for the first time. Edited by Paul Chandler and Philip Harvey.
Rowan Williams opened by asking, “To meet Jesus do you have to go through a ‘dark night’?” This ‘night’ is especially associated with Saint John of the Cross, who suggests that to come to a mature relationship with God inevitably requires a ‘dark night’, a loss of the sense of God. This idea has led to rather negative perceptions of John, and especially of his works Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night, with their stress on nothingness and abnegation. Williams asked, What then is left to say about the self? Is John really more of a Buddhist than a Christian?
A different side of Saint John of the Cross is revealed in the series of poems called the Romances, about the love affair between God and creation. There is hardly a word about sin: the poems are focussed on God’s will to share the divine joy. We are to be drawn to enjoy all things for enjoyment’s sake. In the trinitarian life, divine life seeks to diffuse itself. The universe is created with the view of extending this communion, and humans are destined for the fullest possible reception of divine peace. (In John’s meditations for Advent, for example, there is the expectation of the one who becomes flesh so that we can “touch him with the hand and walk with him.”) Creation ends with incarnation: all divine joy is given to humans and all human sorrow is taken into God. Creation exists for joy. God wants to live in us as God lives in God.
There is an imago Dei theme here, but it is not the central issue. John prefers rather to speak of the divine indwelling, as he does especially in the Living Flame. The centre of the soul is God. God wants to be in the world what he is in himself. In prayer God humanises us. Though the path seems negative it is the path to our true humanity. God’s love for God is a force that draws us to God. Apart from this we really are nothing. Much of life as lived is alien to this truth.
The real self is what develops in discovering groundless joy. When you are at home with the self, with the truth, with God, and without other cause, you are really yourself. This is like the joy of the Trinity in itself; nothing outside the persons of the Trinity makes them joyful; that is, their joy is in what they are. When we are joyful without cause we are somehow in the divine world.
But there is a problem. We look for grounded joys. We ask, what will make me happy? The Ascent is a diagnosis of ways, wrong ways, in which we try to make ourselves happy. John’s treatment is based in Augustinian psychology, but he does something fresh within the traditional perspectives. For John there are three levels on which the self is seeking for something. First, the memory seeks views of the self that will satisfy it. Second, the intelligence seeks ideas and a worldview that will satisfy it. Thirdly, the will seeks for satisfaction of its desires. In such ways we are drawn away from ourselves and shrink from what we really are. Therefore, part of the deepest self is its incompleteness, its seeking; but this self-image of life is a false picture, i.e. a false memory, a partial understanding, a misdirected longing. And yet to omit the questing restlessness of life would be false to our experience. How do we account for both?
John explores these themes systematically in the Ascent of Mount Carmel by plotting out the effects of the virtues faith, hope and love on the human faculties of memory, understanding, and will. John’s teaching is that each of these faculties must enter into darkness and loss in order to be transformed by the corresponding gift.
Memory, or self-awareness, must become hope. My self-picture then begins to come not from the past but from the future. The hinge is the moment when I don’t know who I am.
Understanding must become faith. A realisation of how little I know produces a growth in truthfulness and a loss of illusion which allows me to move forward. The crisis will be, I don’t know what I know.
Will becomes love. The crisis here is likely to be, I don’t know what I want.
The dark night therefore is a process by which the faculties are transformed by the action of the virtues. The virtues cause emptiness in the faculties. Faith, for example, reveals the emptiness of our understanding, which is always utterly inadequate before the divine transcendence. This dark faith brings certainty rather than clarity, confidence rather than answers. John says we must go through this bottleneck, this narrow pass of the hourglass. He also relates all of this to the central mystery of Christianity, the paschal dynamic of death and resurrection (cf. Ascent 2:7): the Cross is the only way to salvation. John’s ruthless honesty is both compelling and off-putting. In Ascent and Dark Night of the Soul he wants to track down every kind of self-deception and every form of idolatry, even in religious practice, and the difficulty of this task is why these works are so long and gruelling. Rowan Williams stated that, “John of the Cross stands over the operating table saying, ‘It’ll have to come out.”’ But every self-denial is not for its own sake but for the sake of freedom and growth.
He then turned to the mature self in John’s thought. The soul emerges clothed in white, green and purple (faith, hope, love), but clothed in a kind of defencelessness, an openness to God. The soul now desires with God’s desires. The vision of God is a vision of what God is doing, i.e. making the world, creating and maintaining life. In other words, John’s aim is not to see an isolated God from the viewpoint of an isolated soul, but to see that God is the context of our work and love, and indeed of everything that is. Things, therefore, are no longer mere objects, but points of creativity and communion in the context of God’s creation.
Our desire, then, is immersed in God’s desire. Just as God’s love irresistibly overflows, so the soul overflows, even in a body which ‘feels glory’. We become ourselves as and when we receive God’s joy, and the difficult thing is in receiving; our egoism is abraded ruthlessly. We are free to look on creation, even God, as God looks. To see God is to see the acting, creating God, and so to look at the world differently. Therefore, John doesn’t hate or punish the self, but is interested in analysing the ways in which we hate and punish the self. He wants us to be as large as God makes us to be. I must abandon the short circuit of valuing things only insofar as they make me happy.
In The Wound of Knowledge and again here Williams uses the word epectasis from the Greek Fathers: stretching out to what is before. We want the end of desire, to stop our frustrated
wanting. John of the Cross says there is nothing which will achieve this: our hunger can only
be released Godward. The bishop warned that the danger in this language is when I start telling you that you can’t have satisfaction.
What does this mean in today’s culture? Modernity is equated with the revolt against being told what you should want. It says: I must define, and own, my own desires. The Enlightenment rhetoric of liberation, whether political or feminist or in some other form, says I must define what I want. At certain borders this crosses into what John criticises as a rhetoric of ‘I have the right to what makes me happy.’ This begins with a false picture of the self, dominated by demands to be fulfilled. Certain kinds of modern spirituality buy into this, e.g. those based on personality typing (which is a good servant but a bad master), if they consecrate the givenness of personality and underestimate the task of transformation. John says, forget oppositions like self-denial/self-affirmation. Your self doesn’t exist yet, and it grows through a paradoxical conflict with self. The self comes into being in the experience of contradiction: “To arrive at being all, desire to be nothing.” The soul must refuse to be satisfied too easily; if it does that, it can grow in amazing ways.
John thinks intensely about our individualism. He is conscious of the illusions of which we are full, and does not shrink from the harshness involved in undermining them. He is, of course, aware of the formative role of relationships and community, but his insight is that our love must be founded in God’s love, and therefore in a renunciation of the ordinary which takes us beyond manipulation and possessiveness. Love becomes most joyful and fulfilling when it does not seek for itself. What becomes important is the sacramentality of the world around.
John of the Cross encourages a vision of humanity in which the future plays a central role. Rowan Williams signalled that this is not the future in the Marxist sense, not the next government, the next revolution. The future plays a central role poignantly through the huge potential we have in God. Overflowing, creative love of God is at work in each one of us, which is why its oppression is so appalling. Respect for the other brings freedom, not making the other conform to me; there is no obsession with what happens to me. Union with God is not experiences, but living in a way whose centre is God.
John’s writings are a long commentary on ‘Take up your cross’, but also on ‘Now I live, not me, but Christ lives in me.’ This is not negative, though his path can be appallingly difficult. John proposes ‘the way by which we are not’, meaning not a life in the void, but the way of God’s presence, which mysteriously presses us towards a transcending of everything we might choose for ourselves.