The Imperfection of Beginners
from "Ascent to Joy: John of the Cross" by Marc Foley p.72-75
God aids "beginners" in their attempts at changing their lives by showering them with sensible consolations for the sake of weaning them away from the things of this world. However, for many souls, these consolations prove to be more of a hindrance than a help on the spiritual path; they "let themselves be encumbered by the very consolations and favors God bestows on them for the sake of their advancing." In chapters two through seven of book one of the Dark Night, using the seven capital sins as his framework, John gives a penetrating analysis of the various ways that the experience of consolation encumbers these souls, but as varied as these ways are, they all stem from two sources, egocentricity and addiction to pleasure.
Consolation does not cause the various manifestations of egocentricity that John describes but rather provides experiences that can easily be interpreted from narcissistic point of view. "Because God is giving me these experiences, I must be special." However, such experiences do not automatically produce such an ego-inflating interpretation, for John tells us that some souls receive God's consolation with humility. John seems to indicate that what determines the effect that consolation has upon a person is his or her degree of narcissism. John describes the predominant traits of a narcissistic personality disorder that are frequently manifested in "beginners": a grandiose sense of self-importance, intolerance to criticism, exhibitionism, the need to be the center of attention, and feeling threatened when someone else vies for the limelight. John says that all these manifestations of egocentricity are purified in the dark night.
Addiction to Pleasure
Like children, "beginners" are ruled by the pleasure principle; they seek to obtain sensual satisfaction and avoid discomfort and try to manufacture feelings by overindulging themselves in spiritual exercises, and conversely, they avoid any spiritual discipline that is distasteful. They are easily bored and become angry and peevish when their attempts to obtain satisfaction are frustrated. "And if they do not get what they want, they become sad and go away like testy children." Children is one of the metaphors that John uses most frequently to describe "beginners" addicted to the pleasure of consolation.
These beginners feel so fervent and diligent in their spiritual exercises and undertakings that a certain kind of secret pride is generated in them that begets a complacency with themselves and their accomplishments...Then they develop a somewhat vain...desire to speak of spiritual things in other's presence, and sometimes even to instruct rather than be instructed; in their hearts they condemn others who do not seem to have the kind of devotion they would like them to have, and sometimes they give expression to this criticism...
Some of the persons become so evil-minded that they do not want anyone except themselves to appear holy; and so by both word and deed they condemn and detract others whenever the occasion arises...
And when at times their spiritual directors, their confessors, or their superiors disapprove their spirit and method of procedure, they feel that these directors do not understand, or perhaps that this failure to approve derives from a lack of holiness, since they want these directors to regard their conduct with esteem and praise. So they quickly search for some other spiritual adviser more to their liking, someone who will congratulate them and be impressed by their deed...Sometimes they want others to recognize their spirit and devotion, and as a result occasionally contrive ceremonies...for others to take notice of these.
Many want to be the favorites of their confessors, and thus they are consumed by a thousand envies and disquietudes. Embarrassment forbids them from relating their sins clearly, lest their reputation diminish in their confessor's eyes. They confess their sins in the most favorable light so as to appear better than they actually are...[and] they confess the evil things they do to a different confessor...
Sometimes they minimize their faults, and at other times they become discouraged by them, since they felt they were already saints, and they become impatient and angry with themselves...
They are often extremely anxious that God remove their faults and imperfections, but their motive is personal peace rather than God. They fail to realize that were God to remove their faults they might well become more proud and presumptuous.