Spiritual Principles behind the Traditions

St. John of the Cross

A major reason for this digital space is to share the inspiration I find on the daily.  And today’s tasty tid-bit comes from St. John of the Cross, a 16th century figure who was tortured for his sojourn against Catholic authority (please, let this not be just a mark against Catholics, but rather a larger symbol for institutional, religious authority in general).  His cell was so small he couldn’t stand up, and he was forced to sleep in his own excrement.  Here is a sample of what he produced during that time:

She caught me off guard when my soul said to me,
“Have we met?”

So surprised I was to hear her speak like that
I chuckled.

She began to sing a tale: “There was once a hardworking man
who used to worry so much because he could
not feed and clothe his children and
wife the way he wanted.

There was a beautiful little chapel in the village
where the man lived and one day while
he was praying, an angel

The angel said, ‘Follow me.’ And he did out into an ancient forest.
‘Now dig here,’ the angel said.  And the man felt strength in
his limbs he had not known since youth and with just
his bare hands he dug deep and found a
lost treasure, and his relationship
with the world changed.’

Finding our soul’s beauty does that–give us
tremendous freedom
from worry.

“Dig here,” the angel said–
“in your soul,
in your

This poem seems quite obvious; but at the risk of faulty assumptions, let me illustrate it anyway.  The entire “steps” of AA is a little bit of a cleansing out of the soul–doesn’t matter if you even believe in a soul at the outset (in fact, that’s one of the beautiful things about “spiritual truth”, don’t have to believe in much, just got to be willing to try a few things until you have direct experience), which does this through a step by step process of really, in the end, slowly walking you through your fear and pain that clings to deeper parts of you normal consciousness does all it can to ignore.  If, like me, all your attempts to run away from this moment or part of yourself finally meet dead-ends (in my case, one-night stands in jail and court-room appointments), an option begins to open up that, while not appealing, begins to make more sense: take a time out from the running and take a look.

I love rehab.  I used to work at one after I had gone through one.  I love the intensity of the place.  I love the raw emotion and people acting, when stripped of all their bullshit escapes, honestly.  Sure, a lot of people still cling to their old, circuitous thought-patterns and behavior, endlessly spinning lies and half-truths when blaringly caught in them, but it sheds a comical side to the insanity of unconscious behavior and thinking.

And also at these facilities are wrecked lives–swarms of problems, like a cloud of angry hornets, have often chased people to these ends.  It’s not like most people wake up from a daze and in a moment of inspiration decide to go to rehab.  No, more likely fed-up wives have done the pushing through doors, or bosses, or desires to keep wives, or court demands.  Rarely is it an honest desire to “clean up”.  Sure, some people, scared shitless after another unsuccesful attempt to control the use may come in trying to get ‘straight’, but I’m fairly sure in the back of their mind their unspoken truth is that they just need a couple weeks break before going out again–which is to say that they are not thinking of stopping for the rest of their lives.

And here is the point: People come into these places talking about all their problems–all their external problems: their sob-stories, their difficult situations, their unloving wives, husbands, children.  The bullshit cop that illegally searched them, the way everyone else treats them, how they never received enough love as a child, etc. etc. etc.  Sure, some of these are legitimate and need to be processed–the cruel abuse received as a child for example.  Yet it’s always the same: if this person would change, if this situation would change, if I could just get the judge off my back, then I’d be OK.

Which is how most of us begin the journey.  And the angel says, “Dig here.”

Suddenly, often through a gift of desperation of having no where else to turn, we start digging, picking up a pencil on someone’s suggestion and answering silly and stupid questions about our pasts.  Somewhere in the digging, somewhere through the painful look at all of our bullshit–our part of the problem, our lying, our stealing, ourdishonesty, our ugliness normally reserved for explicit removal from consciousness–something begins to happen, and we find our “buried treasure” that has been there, all along, through all the pain we ourselves have inflicted on us.

Often, the circumstances don’t change–we still have ample problems in our lives when the fog of addiction clears.  But suddenly, our approach to them has changed.  If the problems that got us into rehab were to have been magically removed, the real problem would still be there, and they would come scampering back to our teflon personalities.  However, after doing some digging, we were given a gift, and problems were seen as gifts to be overcome, to advance further the treasure we’d found within.

“Dig here,” the angel said–
“in your soul,
in your

But what of St. John of the cross–the writer of such beautiful truth–stuck in his cell, asleep in his own excrement? What happened to this poor sod?  Well, not entirely uncommon for unfortunates locked in solitary confinement, he had a vision.  Holy or insanity, or a little bit of both, I’ll let you decide.  Regardless, its reported that he began to hear a duet–he and God were the singers:

“I am dying of love darling, what should I do?”

And the Beloved responded,

“Then die my sweetheart—just die.  Die to all that is not us;
what could be more beautiful.”

And here comes the really tough (and likewise, deep) spiritual truth to grasp.  We’ve heard this before: Jesus, in the Gospels, talks about those who are willing to die in this life will be given Life, while those who cling to this life will die.  I mean, what exactly does that mean?  For those who haven’t had the direct experience of what Christians would call being “born again”, what are the rest of us to make of those words?

But Jesus wasn’t the only one who said it.  “The Prophet Muhammad once said, ‘Die before you die,’ and a contemporary religious figure, Meher Baba, once said, ‘Being is dying by loving.’ Both are speaking of an important transformative juncture through which we will all pass. ‘My soul is a candle that burned away the veil,’ says St. John, the veil being that which separates us from God.  The veil being the false, the untruths we believe, that we must someday die to, before we are born.”

At the risk of running on, the last line the translator Daniel Ladinsky wrote in the last quoted passage sounds a bit like a familiar passage in the AA text: “These delusions must presently be smashed”–the delusions, of course, that an addict can ever use or drink again like a normal person.  As long as the addict hangs on to the illusion that he can drink or use, the miserable, pathetic cycle of the repeated Rehab attendant plays itself out.  This unfortunate soul has not “died to the untruths” or delusions, still clinging to the delusion that, in fact, he can still use.  By clinging, the person subjects him/herself to untold (and un-necessary) misery.  But what of the person who does die to the untruths”?  Why, that person is born anew, embarking on a new life and new-found freedom where everything becomes fresh and new.  The veil is burned away.

And for those of you readers still uncomfortable with the word God…don’t worry, I’m sure I don’t believe in your conception of Him/It/Her either (please imagine the most devious grin on my face right now).

Joy does not come from the outside.  It always exists within.  Joy is not pleasure.  Dig.

“In solitude, surrounded by the clarity and the beauty of the Andalusian landscape he (St. John) came to know the days of heaven on earth…On December 14, 1591, just before midnight, St. John, lying near death and remarkably weak, wanted to fix his bed as if someone important were coming to visit.  He then asked that the ‘Song of Songs’ be read.  And while he was listening, suddenly he exclaimed: ‘So beautiful are the flowers!’ and died.”


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This entry was posted on February 5, 2012 by in Spirituality Blog and tagged , , , , , .
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