November 26, 2020

Lent V: Richard Rohr on the Humility of John of the Cross

Stained Glass by Margaret Edith Rope

Stained glass (detail) by Margaret Edith Rope

Lent V
Richard Rohr on the Humility of John of the Cross

On Sundays in Lent this year I’m sharing some things I’ve been learning from Richard Rohr.

This Sunday’s Gospel text, the story of Mary anointing Jesus in anticipation of his death and burial, portrays the woman as a person of humble devotion. She entered a public space, hair let down (scandalous!), and emptied her expensive jar of perfume on Jesus, wiping his feet with her hair. Jesus took this as an act anticipating his death and burial, and commended her.

In the context of John’s Gospel, Mary serves as a foil both to those who found themselves threatened by Jesus in their self-righteousness and pride and who therefore plotted against him (11:45-47), and the disciples, who had to be shamed by Jesus into washing one another’s feet (13:1-15).

Mary’s humble love and devotion, like the fragrance that filled the room that night, is potent and attractive.

Richard Rohr finds a similar fragrance in St. John of the Cross’s teachings about humility.

John of the Cross understood the true meaning of humility, which is not self-deprecation or low self-esteem, but a simple acknowledgment that I am very small, quickly passing, and insignificant as a separate self. That is just objective truth. Our dignity and sacredness precisely comes from our connection. With this deep and experienced and inherent connection, John was free to rest in a union that could not be taken from him.

Mirabai Starr expresses John’s longing in her own beautiful words:

“In the dark night, says John, the secret essence of the soul that knows the truth is calling out to God: Beloved, you pray, please remind me again and again that I am nothing. Strip me of the consolations of my complacent spirituality. Plunge me into the darkness where I cannot rely on any of my old tricks for maintaining my separation. Let me give up on trying to convince myself that my own spiritual deeds are bound to be pleasing to you. Take all my juicy spiritual feelings, Beloved, and dry them up, and then please light them on fire. Take my lofty spiritual concepts and plunge them into darkness, and then burn them. Let me love only you, Beloved. Let me quietly and with unutterable simplicity just love you.” [1]

In the dark night of the soul, the only thing left to do is to let go of the ego’s need for self-importance and validation and simply turn our attention toward God. There is no need any longer to achieve or manufacture our union with God. Soft piety and sweet feelings are no longer necessary. God is much more trustworthy and solid than feelings. We are henceforth able to give ourselves over to a now natural flow of loving and being loved. What once seemed impossible and “supernatural” is now enjoyed as both total gift and yet totally natural to our deepest being.

To John, humility meant accepting our unquenchable thirst and need for God and acknowledging our emptiness at the same time–they work together! This is why the contemporary “I am special” and “I have dignity” eventually falls apart for lack of foundation. This is hard to say, with so many people today having such low or disguised self-esteem, but that is precisely what the mystics want to address. I want to offer you here, through them, an objective (philosophical, theological, metaphysical) foundation for a positive self-image, which can never be taken from you. It does not come and go; it is you at your deepest core. This is the ecstasy of John and Teresa.


  1. Almost at the threshold of my fifty-seventh year, I’m only beginning to understand, to know, what love is. Ah, better late than never.

    At 5 AM
    the sun hasn’t yet
    poured itself
    into the day

    • Robert, I forget if I’ve told you this already, but I dabble in poetry and recently discovered a poetry form called the Tricube. It’s three stanzas of three lines each, each line containing three syllables. When I first learned of it, it struck me as kind of an extended haiku (27 syllables overall instead of 17). Try it.

      Here’s one of my attempts at it:

      One Thing I’ve Learned
      (R. Rosenkranz, 2016)

      God has taught
      me one thing:
      His grace is

      Also, that
      I’m clueless.

      I guess that’s
      two things, eh?
      God’s funny.

    • I wanna know what love is…

      sing it with me!

      i want you to…


  2. I know many of you here at iMonk bristle at contemporary Chrisitian music, but I love the chorus of “Good Good Father”, where it says, “I’m loved by you, it’s who I am, it’s who I am…”

    If I’m able to continue to take to heart that I’m loved by God the Almighty Father, if at my deepest core I’m “loved by You”…well, surely ecstasy will come more easily.

  3. As much as I tout Richard Rohr as essential to understanding what Spirit is doing today in the church and in the world, as much as I look for others who seek the cutting edge of spiritual growth and advancement, sometimes with Richard I have to say either he or I just don’t get it. Today is one of those days.

    Maybe it’s a choice of words, semantics, connotations, baggage. As I start out another day with every intention of doing my best to stay ahead of the Black Dog following me, I do not find it helpful to have someone waving me in to this gate by the side of the road with a sign reading Dark Night of the Soul. Are you crazy? Are you sick? Do you want me dead? Are you Antichrist? I really don’t need this fifty pound rock you are offering to put in my pack, I need a lift.

    Richard, you quote approvingly, “please remind me again and again that I am nothing.” My earthly father followed by three wives, a daughter, two step-sons, and a large assortment of others have been doing this quite well for most of my life. What I really need is someone to remind me again and again that I am not my ego, I am a child of God, that the Garden of Eden is open again and I can dwell there as much as I can remember to do so, the curtain walling off God Most High is rent in two, and I can find Oneness with God my Father whenever I choose. Thank you, Jesus!

    Please, Richard, take your dark night of the soul, your need for suffering, your worm theology, and put them somewhere the sun don’t shine. I’m trying to stay alive here long enough to get better at the unitive consciousness Jesus prayed my way before I leave the planet. Sometimes you are extremely helpful. Sometimes I think you are too immersed in medieval religion. It’s really not helpful to someone trying to crawl out of the pit to step on their fingers. Sometimes what others describe as a fragrance I catch a whiff of stench. Depression is not helpful to anyone, it is worse than death.

    • Amen. I can relate.

    • Charles,
      I’m quite surprised by your response. The word of God is sharper than any two edged sword. Jesus came not to bring peace but a sword. This is not your standard assault on the congregation that turns everyone into sniveling subjection to the preacher. It is a crisp, clear recognition that it is all or nothing with God. No half measures. We release all individual claims to personal worthiness and ego sufficiency. No need to quote the myriad scriptures that point to this side of the equation. The other half, and aren’t there always the yin and the yang, is the evident love fest that results and how he lifts us higher than we could ever have imagined when we humble ourselves before him. Frankly, I’m always a little surprised when Richard gets to this absolutely necessary point because he usually focuses on the the other half. Not surprised as if he doesn’t know its necessity but just that he doesn’t emphasize it often. The net result of embracing a reality that draws us into communion with God is not depression. Only a misreading will do that and I think something stuck in your craw and you didn’t get his point. The point is release. The point is freedom. The point is union. The point is love.

      • Our leader emptied himself and was raised up. He asks us to do the same. Perhaps that puts it more succincntly.

      • Yeah, gonna disagree strongly with your post. You end well with “the point is love”, but you lose me with all the absolutist nonsense.

        • Which part was the absolutist nonsense? (Real question.)

          • Never mind StuartB. It’s Sunday and I’m drinking a glass of wine and eating a cookie. It’s good wine and a good cookie and that’s all I’m going to manage this evening. No energy to debate. Didn’t mean to be an absolutist bulshitter. Love and etc, etc.!:-)

          • What kind of cookie?

    • Charles, As you know, I don’t subscribe to belief in the falsity of the ego; but I do think it is possible for you to interpret Rohr’s language within the framework that helps you. Rohr is saying that God can help us see the nothingness of the ego, the false self, so that the true Self, “the postive self-image, that can never be taken from you”, may shine through. In fact, I think that is what Rohr means. The “false self” can be gotten out of the way, revealed as the nothingness it is, so that the core self, which “does not come and go”, may be revealed and known. He is seeking exactly the same thing you are, but the language he is using is making this difficult for you to see.

      For my part, I think the ego is a real part of me, although not the whole of me, and that God loves me, ego and all.

      Anyway, God be with you, Charles, as you do the best you can to get through this day and every other.

    • Christiane says

      Hi CHARLES,
      if we have lived long enough and we are honest about it, ALL of us will experience depression and anxiety at some point in our lives . . . some of us more severely than others, and for longer periods of time . . . that seems to be a part of our ‘human condition’ and it is not something to be denied or to feel ashamed about, although in the old days folks tried to keep it hidden, or ‘self-medicate’

      my experience with it was after the birth of my third child as a classic, but very severe, post-partum depression, requiring counseling and a bit of valium . . . but what I remember most was the absolute horror of the dark moments . . . and I agree with you, that during those terrifying moments, depression does seem worse than death. . . what I’m saying is that I think your suffering is real and you need support and help to deal with it

      I do think, though, that the concept of ‘humility’ in the Christian sense is NOT the same as feeling worthless as a human person. It just may be the opposite . . . ‘humility’ in the Christian sense is anything but anxiety and fear. I would suggest instead that a real Christian humility is likely to free us from many earthly burdens and worries, and to offer a view of the world around us not unlike the disciples had when Our Lord commanded the seas and the winds to be calm . . .

      when Henri Nouwen became troubled and overwhelmed as he was experiencing success at the highest levels of theological acceptance in the great universities as an author and a teacher, he left all that recognition behind and he went to work at a facility that cared for severely disabled people . . . it was there, in washing and feeding these helpless people, that Nouwen found peace with God and with himself. . . there is a mystery there, and I think it has to do with the grace that is given to those who embrace Christian humility as it serves with love the ones in our world who suffer

      Charles, I’ll keep you in prayer. God Bless.

    • Me too – afraid Rohr doesn’t do anything for me – after all Jesus died to redeem all of us – so I guess he must think we’re worth something in our imperfect humanity. Jesus brought life that is the light – his life. Willing darkness upon oneself seems contradictory to showing forth the light that Jesus told us we are.

  4. Christiane says

    “And I saw the river over which every soul must pass
    to reach the kingdom of heaven

    and the name of that river was suffering:

    and I saw a boat which carries souls across the river

    and the name of that boat was love.”

    (St. John of the Cross)

  5. I spent several years of my life unsuccessfully trying, through the practice of Zen, to in effect (though we didn’t use this language) arrive at a Self that “does not come and go” and “can never be taken away”. I’m now convinced that this is an illusory goal; that it is a project of the insecure self trying to make itself invincible and impregnable; and that anyone who thinks that they have arrived at this goal is actually in the grip of full blown ego-inflation, and in a place exactly opposite from the place they think they are.

  6. I spent about 60 years of my life self-medicating and flirting with full-blown addiction in the effort to escape what could aptly be described as the dark night of my soul. I don’t find this in any way unique. It seems to me to be the human condition, but I may be more sensitive to the effects than many. Yes, I said yes to Jesus part way thru, and this tipped the balance, it literally saved my life, but it did not magically make everything all right. It did give me the strength to keep on keeping on.

    It was not until I discovered and began practicing centering prayer five or six years ago that I felt like I had gotten to the starting line. Again we are not talking about magic solutions. And I still self-medicate to some extent. But I truly feel like I am over the hump, the rest is just practice and refining and getting better at it in whatever time I have left. I don’t know about Zen but I tried meditation. I’m grateful that I never ran across heroin along the way, thank you angels. All I know is that there are many solutions available, many of which I have tried, but nothing works as well cooperating with the Spirit of Jesus as without it.

    I find myself more and more shedding religion as I go along. but not rejecting in any way Jesus and the Way he gave us to become One with our Father. At this point it seems to me that Jesus had to have been practicing centering prayer when he went out by himself early in the morning. How else could he have gotten thru the rest of the day with multiple tens of miles walked and multiple hundreds and thousands of needy human beings clamoring for his touch and clueless disciples who just didn’t get it? Surely he was not reciting the Our Father a hundred times along with the Hail Mary, but I’ll ask him when I see him.

    I would say that if you aren’t subscribing to Richard Rohr’s daily teachings and meditations, you are bypassing the best the church has to offer. I’m not finding anything as pertinent in the Eastern wing right now, but at the same time the Eastern wing as far as I know is not promoting something from medieval European mentality called the Dark Night of the Soul. Neither did Jesus as far as I can see. Yes, we are not immune from suffering and should not be surprised if it comes out way, but to seek suffering as the way thru seems strangely inconsistent with Good News, and quite frankly to me seems sick, like self-flagellation and kneeling on broken glass. Give me a break.

    This centering prayer works. I attest this from experience, admittedly limited. If I manage to make it thru the next fifteen years, I fully expect to be able to tell you with my dying breath that centering prayer works. Did I tell you that it isn’t magic? It isn’t a sudden breakthru to complete victory over the mountain of our ego. But it is the way thru. The Eastern church has the best grasp of this of any I have studied, but they are mired in many olden ways that have run their course. I’m getting ready to see what Quakers have to offer.

    This is not only a new century but a new millennium. In my view we are also entering a new age. Most people have to stay within their own comfort zone but this place is the best place I know for exploring options without heading off into LaLa Land. Sorry for those who feel comfortable in the Dark Night of the Soul, but I’m gladly leaving that behind and moving on as best I’m able. Still recommend you give serious consideration to Richard Rohr, but keep your salt shaker handy.

    • God bless you in whatever practice “gets you through the night”, the kind of dark night that, as you say, comes with the human condition. This is not exactly the Dark Night that Christian mysticism is speaking of, but it certainly is pervasive and painful, even killing. The language of the Dark Night describes a special experience that Christian mystics have reported down through the ages; I’m skeptical about the validity of that experience. But even if my skepticism is misplaced, the mystics themselves say that the experience of the Dark Night is at the end of a long journey of prayer; that it is a stage only passed through by a few people, not the many, at least not in this life; and that it is not only not necessary for most people on their journey in this life, but to seek it out when one is not ready, and in the absence of close spiritual direction by an experienced director, is dangerous.

      One does not need to be a mystic to practice centering prayer, nor does it lead to mysticism for most, or the Dark Night of the Soul as described by the mystical tradition. I became familiar with it a couple of decades ago, long before I ever heard of Rohr; I’ve practiced it, and found it not to be terribly helpful for me. But I understand that centering prayer has helped many, and could help more if they were exposed to and practiced it. God bless you, Charles, and the others who have found it helpful, and who will find it helpful in the future.

      • Even if the Dark Night of the Soul and the mystic path are exactly as the Christian mystical tradition has described them (which I’m skeptical of), according to that tradition it is dangerous to conflate the language of the Dark Night of the Soul with the language of ordinary human depression and emotional struggle, because it leads people to believe that the latter is somehow good and to be sought out. This is the danger of the popularization of the mystical tradition that has occurred in the last decades.

        • >> . . . it is dangerous to conflate the language of the Dark Night of the Soul with the language of ordinary human depression and emotional struggle, because it leads people to believe that the latter is somehow good and to be sought out.

          Thanks, Robert. Pretty much the point I have been trying to get across in all this. Suffering is not good but it does seem to come with the territory. It is horrible and sick to in any way suggest it should be sought. I have not found anything that remotely comes close to centering prayer in dealing with it, but centering prayer is also a positive on its own for me in the absence of suffering. Sometimes there’s sunshine, sometimes there’s rain, but centering is always available and ideally grows toward praying without ceasing. Hard times do provide motivation and opportunity to practice centering of soul and spirit.

          I do find the modern articulation that we are not our ego, but that we have an ego in the same way that we have a body, to be a necessary step in understanding for these times. I get that you don’t concur, and that’s cool, but this realization is what has helped me make progress in unitive consciousness in a way that the whole previous millennia of mystical teachings were unable to accomplish.

          If it is my ego that is experiencing the suffering and I am able to step outside my ego in a valid identity shift based on truth, I can step outside the suffering even as it may go on. I can even wonder and investigate why my ego seems to somehow get off on suffering and even attract it. Strange pathways. Centering prayer for me simplifies and solves some horribly complicated situations that seem hopeless and probably are. It doesn’t erase situations so much as it changes the channel. As I get better at doing this, and remembering to do it, I can jump out of a crisis and into an oasis of peace in a heartbeat. Good stuff, and not just good stuff to add on, but the core of the teaching of Jesus as I am coming to understand it.