The third enemy to conquer is one’s own self.
The way to combat this enemy is to first think of everyone as artisans that are present in your life in order to prove you. In order to “free yourself from the imperfections and disturbances that can be engendered by the mannerisms and attitudes of (others) and draw profit from every occurrence, you should think that all in the community are artisans”.
“Some will fashion you with words, others by deeds, and others with thoughts against you; and that in all this you must be submissive as is the statue to the craftsman who molds it, to the artist who paints it, and to the gilder who embellishes it.”
St. John of the Cross want us to get along well with others in the communities in which we live and in order to do so we need to overcome our sensuality and the way we feel. His goal for us is to attain peace and free us from many stumbling blocks that will trip us up on our way to live charitably with everyone.
Our selfishness and sensuality can keep us from doing something we ought to do because we find it disagreeable. Or it can move us to only do those works that we find delight or satisfaction in doing. St. John of the Cross sees this as a weakness within the soul. We should do whatever is fitting for the service of God. Doing those works we find disagreeable, and doing them well, will aid our striving to conquer our weakness and gain constancy.
Another sensual weakness that needs to be overcome stems from becoming attached to pleasant feelings that can be found in spiritual exercise. This attachment can lead one to carry out these spiritual exercises only for the satisfaction that is experienced in them. St. John of the Cross also counsels, “nor should such a person run from the bitterness that may be found in them, but rather seek the arduous and distasteful and embrace it. By this practice, sensuality is held in check; without this practice you will never lose self-love or gain the love of God.”
(St. John of the Cross Collected Works, ICS Publications, The Precautions)
The way to combat the Second Enemy.
The devil more commonly deceives spiritual persons under the appearance of good rather than evil. The devil knows that spiritual persons will not reach out and choose an obvious evil. “Thus you should always be suspicious of what appears good, especially when not obliged by obedience.”
St. John of the Cross wants us to do the right thing and in order to be safe in such a matter he counsels souls in three ways regarding the wiles and deceits of the devil.
First, he counsels that those striving for perfection should never take upon themselves, without the command of obedience, “any work – apart from the obligations of your state – however good and full of charity it may seem, whether for yourself or for anyone else inside or outside the house.” We should always strive to be obedient to our duties that correspond to our state in life.
Obedience is what is being asked; in little things as well as big. To neglect being governed by obedience in all things you will soon find yourself in error. The devil loves to deceive in this way by playing on our pride, you know, I am right!
The second counsel is on a matter that many fall into to their own loss and harm. It is “that you always look on the superior as though on God, no matter who he happens to be, for he takes God’s place.” This can apply to any one who is regarded as our superior: a boss, spouse, religious superior, bishop, or priest. To dwell on their character flaws, behavior, ability or their methods will do you harm because you will change your obedience from being motivated by visible (human) traits of the superior and not be basing your obedience on the invisible God whom you serve.
The devil can induce us to dwell on the things that others do to annoy us or to let their good qualities please us and make us happy. He does this because it interferes with our obedience.
The third counsel is “that you ever seek with all your heart to humble yourself in word and in deed, rejoicing in the good of others as if it were your own, desiring that they be given precedence over you in all things; and this you should do wholeheartedly.” This is a good practice and will increase charity within our soul. Always remember that the devil’s aim is to cool charity in souls and in this way wins them over.Overcome evil with good and “try to practice this more with those who least attract you.”
Finally, “ever prefer to be taught by all rather than desire to teach even the least of all.”
God wants obedience more than sacrifice (1 Sam 15:22)
(Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, ICS Publications, The Precautions)
St. John of the Cross instructs souls that want to become more recollected, to practice more silence and to be more “poor in spirit” in his work titled, The Precautions. In it he says that in order to enjoy the peaceful comfort of the Holy Spirit and reach union with God (and who wouldn’t want that!), souls must be freed of obstacles that come from the world, defended from the deceits and cunning of the devil and liberated from ‘self’.
In other words, the battle we are all faced with each and everyday takes place on three fronts: the world, the devil and the flesh.
St. John of the Cross tells us that “the world is the enemy least difficult to conquer; the devil is the hardest to understand; but the flesh is the most tenacious, and its attacks continue as long as the old self lasts.”
To overcome these enemies of the soul one has to vanquish all three of them. When one enemy is weakened the other two are weakened as well. Once all three enemies have been overpowered then there is no war in the soul.
All of what our saint advises in The Precautions require our active efforts and, of course, recourse to grace.
Against the World
First of all we should love everyone and love them all equally. “Do not love one person more than another, for you will err; the person who loves God more is the one more worthy of love, and you do not know who this is.” Loving one person more and another one less doesn’t help in holy recollection. We need to keep our affections, our hearts, directed towards God.
“Do not think about others, neither good things nor bad.” Thinking about others, their good or bad qualities, will keep us from recollection and opens us up to a number of imperfections. The devil is a nasty meddler in this area and can harm our souls by deceiving. We should always guard our thoughts, for thought is power, the beginning of action.
Secondly, souls should free themselves from worldly goods. We shouldn’t desire them or worry about them. This includes food, clothing, possessions, status, positions, and honor.
“Direct this care to something higher – to seeking the kingdom of God (seeking not to fail God); and the rest, as His Majesty says, will be added unto us (Mt. 6:33).” St. John of the Cross promises silence and peace in the senses by this practice of seeking the kingdom of God.
The last advice he gives to fight against the world is on how to guard ourselves in the community in which we live, be it a religious community, social community, workplace or family. “Carefully guard yourself against thinking about what happens in the community, and even more against speaking of it, of anything in the past or present concerning a particular religious (or person): nothing about his or her character or conduct or deeds no matter how serious any of this seems.”
We are to never be astonished or scandalized by anything we may see or hear of, but rather, preserve our peace of soul and forget what we may have learned of or seen. He doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t correct someone. We should do so ,but only at the proper time and to the person who should know of it.
“Forget these things entirely and strive to keep your soul occupied purely and entirely in God, and not let the thought of this thing or that hinder you from so doing.” Failing to do all this will result in a loss of peace in the soul and a fall into many sins and imperfections. Our tongue is a great disturber of peace; ours and that of others. St. John of the Cross reminds us of this fact and counsels us to quiet the tongue, interiorly and exteriorly. For more counsel on the tongue, read the Epistle of James in the New Testament.
(The Precautions, ICS Publications, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross)