|Young Nun at Prayer by Sergio Gribkov|
What is self-love but a strong or subtle preference for self over God and others, right? When we consider it, all sin has self-love as its root. One of the reasons for the passive nights of sense and spirit is the putting to death (or the purification) of the self-love that pervades many of our thoughts and acts. Without these passive purifications, there is no union with God. We think we do things for God alone but when God unmasks our true motivations, we find that self-love is secretly at work in us. Even the road to "perfection" is tainted with this love of self. It's difficult when God brings this to light and we may find that we become filled with disgust for ourselves, but this disgust is also a hidden mark of self-love. However, better a hearty distrust and disgust at the crafty workings of self-love than not recognizing that it is at work in us at all.
St. John of the Cross unmasks this secret preference for one's self in The Dark Night of the Soul. In both the night of sense and the night of the spirit, God slowly reveals to us these sly manifestations of self-love. And I use the word "sly" because they often fool us in their subtlety. We may think we are doing things for the love of God alone, only to be shocked when God reveals that often vainglory is the driver. We prefer to be seen by others as "good" rather than the sinners that we really are. We have a secret preoccupation with ourselves, whether it's our sufferings, our needs and wants, or even our "spiritual perfection". To prove this secret preference for self, we can ask ourselves a simple question: If God chose to bring us to holiness through the path of ignominy instead of as an "upright, holy example" to others, would it disappoint us? Many of us would probably say yes. And yet, to save us, Jesus suffered the painful humiliation of the Cross, was despised and spat upon, mocked, and even his clothes were divided among his persecutors. The ways of the world are not God's ways.
One of the more secret manifestations of self-love comes through our spiritual pride. The letters of Archbishop Francois Fenelon contain piercing insights into the nature of this self-love and the need for its crucifixion: "There is something very hidden and very deceptive in your suffering. For while you seem to yourself to be wholly occupied with the glory of God, in your inmost soul it is self alone that is the cause of all your trouble. You are, indeed, desirous that God would be glorified. However, you want Him to be glorified by means of your perfection. In reality, you cherish the sentiments of self-love. It is simply a refined pretext for dwelling on self."
It is predominantly during the dark night of the senses, and later, during the dark night of the spirit, that these more "refined pretexts" are exposed and this exposure often causes us great suffering when it really should not surprise us at all, if we take St. John and numerous other saints at their word. They have stated these truths over and over and it is merely wishful thinking on our part to believe that we are not affected by spiritual pride, vanity, spiritual gluttony, and the like. Think of our love for consolations and our preference for them over aridity, for example. Think of our focus on the flowery and exciting aspects of the mystical life rather than the heart of it, which is the painful death of self-love and growth in true holiness and the love of God. Self-love does not die easily and usually moans and groans every step of the way. It's one of the reasons why we suffer from desolation so much. What is desolation anyway but the dying of self-love in us? The humble deal with periods of desolation much more easily than the proud. Unfortunately, I am one of the proud, and have had a hard time accepting this sword that slices "even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow" as it discerns "reflections and thoughts of the heart". I come up short more often than not.
If there is any true consolation underlining all our sufferings on this path to holiness it is this: the understanding that God is the source of all goodness and that this "perfection" is His perfection and ours is but a share in the holiness that is innate to His very nature. It is this understanding of God's perfect love that allows us to willingly abandon ourselves into His hands, trusting in His goodness rather than listening to the constant clamoring of self-love that insists that holiness is our doing. When we begin to grasp this, it becomes easier and easier to trust in the wisdom of God rather than the musings of the self-love that lead us astray and away from the cross.
You cannot escape it, wherever you run. For wherever you go you carry yourself with you, and will always find yourself. Turn upwards or turn downwards, turn inwards or turn outwards: everywhere you will find the cross. Thomas A Kempis