I first learned to read the works of St John of the Cross using commentaries by the Carmelite religious Ruth Burrows. Here she is writing in America on the paradoxes of prayer:
In Ascent of Mount Carmel, St. John of the Cross wrote: “Oh that someone might show us how to understand, practice and experience what this counsel is which our Saviour here gives us concerning the denial of ourselves, so that spiritual persons might see in how different a way they should conduct themselves upon this road than that which many of them think proper…. Oh that someone would tell us how far Our Lord desires this self-denial to be carried!” This lament is addressed to us “spiritual persons,” who claim to be Christ’s friends.
What Jesus asks is always possible. The stern, uncompromising injunction to “deny thyself” is not a call to strip ourselves of earthly goods, to take on a life of rigid austerity—the ego could grow fat on that sort of thing. It is not things but self that has to be denied. Our Lord addresses each one of us in our particularity. There can be no pattern. We must want to follow him, want what he wants for us and died to give us. Enlightenment is progressive. Once we really give our attention to the matter, we see more and more how powerful, how tenacious is our selfishness. Every day offers small occasions for surrendering self-interest, our own convenience and wishes for the sake of others; for accepting without fuss the disappointments, annoyances, setbacks, humiliations that frequently come our way. The battle is largely fought out in relations with other people. “By this we know love, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 Jn 3:16).
Although Jesus’ word is addressed to all, historically his words often were addressed to those who were chosen to hold authority in the community he was creating, preoccupied as they were with precedence. There is nothing more contemptible than arrogant abuse of spiritual authority, and surely it is sacrilegious to use what has been given for the service of others to further self-interest. A careful, heart-searching reading of the Gospels and the New Testament letters is indispensable. Be servants of one another, we are told. Consider other people’s welfare rather than your own. Think of yourself as unimportant and other people and the reign of God all-important. Get rid of all anger and bitterness. Watch! Pay attention to thoughts, words, behavior. We soon realize how difficult it is to get rid of our innate self-centeredness. We find our ego lurking behind even our most generous efforts.
Paradoxically, to accept humbly and trustfully the impurity of our motives, seeing ourselves far from the loving selfless person we would like to be, is choosing to be little, admitting our helplessness and unimportance—provided, of course, that we are doing our utmost. Childlike, we surrender our autonomy to our Lord who, we now see, must do everything for us, and we find a happy freedom in the knowledge that he is everything we are not and he is all for us. When we no longer insist on being god to ourselves, every one of our doors is thrown open to the king of glory. Our sustained, earnest effort is important, but what God does is infinitely more important and decisive.
Genuine prayer—how poor and unsatisfactory it can seem!—never inflates the ego but always induces humility, revealing as it does our spiritual helplessness and dependence on grace. Patience, meekness, a lowly opinion of self and deep respect for others must always characterize the people God has chosen for his own. The Gospel of John shows us the inner reality of the Father’s perfect child. “The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees his Father doing” (5:19). Jesus joyfully accepts to be powerless so that his Father can be all in him, and thus he is the perfect human expression of the Father. Through Jesus’ surrender the Father can achieve his loving purpose for humankind: “I do always the things that please him” (8:29).