As I walked along the Tiber this autumn morning, watching the maples shed their leaves, I was deeply struck by what St John of the Cross writes in the first book of the Ascent of Mount Carmel when he speaks of 'destroying all gods, purifying ourselves and changing our clothes'. John is so radical in his demands that he has been sometimes called 'the unlovable mystic'. But all these negations and privations that he so stringently stipulates, far from en-slaving us, are meant to liberate us so that we can then love God and allow Him to love us with full freedom.
The focus of self-denial is not the self, but the emptying out that is necessary if God is to fill us. Abnegation means making more space for God. And the emptying is only a preparation for and a prelude to enjoyment. God can never really take possession of our hearts unless we discard and destroy every-thing and everyone that subtly seeks to usurp His rightful place. He is a terribly jealous God. But He is also a loving God, so very gentle and patient. For even though He has the master key to our hearts, He does not force open the door, but knocks and waits for us to open our hearts and welcome Him. And when we do just that, what joy is ours as He sups with us at a table meant for two!
I feel the need constantly to purify myself through self-denial and mortification which though apparently seemingly negative is necessary if I am to allow God to take possession of my heart. Must not the vine be pruned if it is to bear greater fruit? It is only when I have purified and washed myself clean that God then invests and renews me with fresh clothes. The sunlight can filter more brilliantly only through a window pane that is thoroughly clean.
I like so much the word Ascent that John of the Cross uses. Climbing is not always easy. It is a challenge and call that is both difficult and dangerous. It denotes asceticism and application. It demands effort and energy. It also de-scribes the striving and the struggle. But it is worth the strain and the struggle especially when we have reached the summit. And at the summit, we might easily think we have made the grade and qualified ourselves to receive some reward. On the contrary, at the summit there is nothing but only God. And God makes but one demand of us, the demand of all true love, that we make Him our everything!