Back in the 16th century, a Reformation was happening. But it’s not the Reformation you’re thinking of. There was, of course, the well-known and dramatic ‘protest’ of Martin Luther which captured the headlines. But over in Spain, a tag-team reform duo was hard at work re-branding monastic life in a way that would draw persecution, expulsion, and even imprisonment. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross were, by all accounts, not-your-typical-mystics. They were reformers and movement leaders who attacked the lax, bureaucratic, and behavior-driven life of the Spanish monastics. In a very different way than Calvin and Luther, theirs was a back-to-the-heart, back-to-grace, and back-to-Jesus reform movement. But their special contribution, particularly for our purposes, is an emphasis on a journey through the wilderness of sin (defined as attachment) to the Promised Land of freedom.
Attachment is the key word for us. Sin tends to indicate a behavioral flaw, but attachment describes a heart ‘nailed’ to something or someone, bound to it, enslaved to it. By using this word, Teresa and John were able to talk about hearts nailed to the objects of their affection in Egypt, and slowly released from their enslavement through the “dark night” of the wilderness. In other words, they described an existential and spiritual process, in great detail and remarkable psychological precision, of growth and maturation. And they began to make sense out of suffering for people who believed that God had abandoned them or was punishing them.
You see, we misunderstand the suffering of the wilderness if we view it as punitive. That leads us in directions that hint at an arbitrary and wrathful God only interested in targeting specific sins. We can pick out episodes in the Bible where God did inflict suffering on “sinful nations,” but God’s furnace was reserved for His chosen, not for the outsiders. John of the Cross calls this furnace an “immense fire of love” which enkindles the heart in order to enliven and free it. It’s a purifying fire, though it feels like hell going through it. And rather than being punitive, this fire is the “living flame of love,” according to John.
In other words, God in His love sends us down into the wilderness because it is in the wilderness where the chains of our slavery are melted.
It is a well-known male initiation rite in many cultures that a father takes his son from his mother at the appropriate age, and casts him into the wilderness. Though devastating to son and mother, the father knows that it is the son’s time to mature beyond the milk of his mother, learning to live out his own story. “But this is cruel,” the son may say. “I need my mother’s milk to survive.” The father, however, knows what it takes for the boy to thrive. And so, God knows that the milk that we became addicted to in Egypt is ultimately life-depriving, a poison that will kill. Life – real life – depends on wilderness sufferings. So God kicks us out of home so that we might find Home.
John of the Cross describes this life-giving process at work, saying:
The soul feels its ardor strengthen and increase and its love become so refined that seemingly there are seas of loving fire within it, reaching to the heights and depths of earthly and heavenly spheres, imbuing all with love.
This is why John the Baptist became a desert-prophet. This is why Jesus was cast into the wilderness. This is why St. Paul was blinded on the road. The wilderness actually awakens us. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” You see, pain peels us away from our survival strategies, our silly ways of coping, our reluctance to risk again. When things are going well, we play it safe. But, when suffering greets us, we find ourselves once again radically dependent on God. In those male initiation rites, fathers sent their sons into the wilderness precisely because they wanted them to experience powerlessness. It was in the midst of powerlessness that they would discover the inner resources needed to thrive. The prodigal son left home, and got the party. The elder brother stayed home, and was too angry to celebrate. Without suffering, we’re joyless. Without leaving, we cannot experience the ecstasy of return.
Now, as I said in the last post, the answer to suffering is lament. Plastering a happy face on an otherwise despairing soul is tragic, but this is what a Christian subculture often expects. Lament, expressed in disappointment and even rage toward God, actually activates that deep, life-giving well of God-planted resources. I’ve often said to people that depression is a symptom of the soul’s reluctance to engage God honestly, leading to the slow death of self-pity. Empty platitudes and pasted-on smiles don’t bring life in the midst of suffering. In the wilderness, we cry out, much like Jesus did in His final sufferings. This was God’s permission to rage.
As we engage suffering, descending down into the wilderness rather than trying to anesthetize it or escape from it, we experience what John of the Cross described so long ago – a sea of loving fire welling up from our soul, a hard-earned joy that is real and not cosmetic, a freedom from the attachments we’ve been nailed to – reputation, predictability, money, appearance, sexual possessiveness, the eternal ‘buzz’, an unrealistic conception of romantic love, a religious high. In losing, we gain much. In dying, we live. In weakness, we become strong.
So, I think it’d be safe to say that John and Teresa would offer this advice to you:
Risk much. Fail often. Lose willingly. Suffer honestly. This is the wisdom of the desert.
And take the low road, down through the wilderness…because real joy awaits on the other side.
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What personal, family, or cultural customs or ideas does this framework for thinking about suffering challenge?
How does it change your understanding of suffering to know that it is not punitive, but restorative and formative and refining?
Think of suffering you’ve experienced and/or are experiencing. What is God pulling you away from? What were you “attached to” that might be loosening?