John_of_the_Cross_crucifixion_sketch

Live only in true and dark faith,” writes St John of the Cross (1542-1591) in one of his letters. What can he mean by dark faith? What is faith, anyway? Why do sixteenth century monks write such scary things? In this theological sandbox post, I will suggest that Steve Jobs’s dictum, “Stay hungry, stay foolish,” offers us a clue into what St John means, and then take a look at the famous verse Hebrews 11:1 from this standpoint.

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A theme common to many mediaeval Christian writings is total self-abnegation, the renunciation of all the desires of the flesh and the pleasures of the world. “Earth’s joys grow dim, her glories pass away,” the hymn puts it. Again, the Christian monastic communities of the Middle Ages often emphasized solitude, contemplation, withdrawing even from much ordinary human company. St John of the Cross was one such monk, a discalced Carmelite to be precise, a mystic, and one of the greatest ever Spanish language poets. One might therefore be inclined to take St John’s enigmatic and intensely emotional writings with a large pinch of salt.

Then again, Pope John Paul II found St John to be a reliable spiritual guide, and in fact learned Spanish just so that he could read St John in the original language. So perhaps we should not give up on the medievals too quickly!

But what does St John mean by “dark faith”?

In another of his letters, St John explains quite clearly what he means. God is altogether transcendent. He therefore remains “dark” to us in two ways, corresponding to the intellect and the volition (or desire).

The gist of St John’s idea is adequately captured by Steve Jobs’s catchy phrase, “Stay hungry, stay foolish.” Notice the two parts of Jobs’s mantra correspond to volition (or desire) and intellect, respectively. Stay hungry, do not let your desires be satisfied in this life; stay foolish, do not presume to take any object of your merely human intellect as the last word.

It has repeatedly been affirmed by Christian thinkers throughout the centuries that God’s essence cannot be grasped by the human intellect. He is just too big for our heads. St John goes further, however. Accepting the broadly Thomistic psychological thesis that anything which is willed (or desired) by a person must first be apprehended by the intellect – at least, any volition or desire which can properly be attributed to a (human) person qua person, bracketing off merely animal impulses – St John deduces that God cannot be the proper object of any merely human volition (or desire), at least in this life. God cannot be reduced to any object of our contemplation, and therefore cannot be reduced to any immediate object of the satisfaction of our will or desire. Though union with God is the chief end of mankind, and the knowledge and the love of God are therefore fervently to be pursued, the transcendence of God remains, and prevents such union from occurring within this life. For this reason, St John holds, we must overcome the double obstacle of resting on our intellectual laurels or contenting ourselves with creaturely comforts and satisfactions. We must not deceive ourselves into thinking we have attained to the true goal of the human life (union with God) before we in fact do. We must not settle for less.

The life of faith, therefore, is fundamentally shaped around longing for more than this life has to offer. Steve Jobs understood that. He wanted perfection for his products, and perfection of any sort is a kind of transcendent goal, forever out of reach. It may or may not be a godly goal to want to produce perfect computer products, but Jobs knew that nothing would be more perilous for his ultimate mission than contenting himself with his current thoughts or current satisfactions. God is to be pursued with that urgency, with that sense of mission.

The magisterial but obscure definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1 concurs with St John’s analysis: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith pertains to intellect and volition (“hope” and “conviction”). And faith is dark, in that the objects of faith are things not seen.

The conviction of things not seen = stay foolish… there is more to the present than meets the eye. Faith believes (intellectually) in the reality and present efficacy of an unseen God that the mind does not altogether apprehend. The things not seen include those facts about the world which are true even now, at the present time, but are “in light inaccessible hid from our eyes”, as the hymn has it (cf. 1 Tim 6:16). In that sense, faith is an intellectual commitment to the invisible power and presence of God, right now, though we do not and cannot understand how He is present and by what means He acts to sustain and uphold the world. We stay foolish, perhaps, by disciplining our eyes and our hearts not to take the visible, sensible, intelligible things as the last word. By the eyes of faith, we look to the unseen, “dark” reality of God in the world, as did the prophet Elisha:

So [the king] sent horses and chariots and a great army [to the city where Elisha was staying], and they came by night and surrounded the city.

When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kgs 6:14-17, ESV)

(Lingering worry: I have to say, as a student of mathematics and philosophy at a rather good school in Boston, all this talk about “staying foolish”, even for God’s sake, makes me shudder a bit. Personally I would much rather be expositing the dictum “Stay clever, stay comfortable,” but nobody seems to find that dictum very helpful.)

Things hoped for = stay hungry… the best is yet to come. Faith also hopes (longs) for things that have been promised, but have not yet come to pass. One day the things which are presently unseen will be made visible. “For now we see as but through a glass darkly, but then face to face” (1 Cor 13:12). Faith eagerly awaits the future completion of God’s present work, the future end of present sorrows, the future unveiling of the glory of Jesus Christ in that great and awful Day when we see Him face to face. In this sense, faith in the substance of things hoped for. By faith we stay hungry, regarding any present experience of satisfaction in God and in the world as (only) a foretaste of the things to come, and steadfastly disallowing our hearts to place any ultimate stock and store in the present, nor even in this lifetime.

I will wrap up these meanderings with T S Eliot’s beautiful and (I think) very helpful reflections on time, eternity, and the hunger and the foolishness that sustains us through these days of faith.

S.G.M.

Men’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation

TS Eliot, The Dry Salvages, V.