Pope Francis has cautioned that the biggest enemy of mercy is “self-love.” St. John of the Cross agrees, and teaches that the greatest work of Divine mercy in us is God’s work of overcoming our distorted “self-love” so that we might become capable of the selfless love that is the origin of mercy. Mercy, remember, is loving and seeking the well-being of difficult, needy, irritating, unattractive, unpleasant, smelly, nasty, unworthy others unto discomfort and self-renunciation.
By self-love, neither John nor Pope Francis mean to disparage that healthy love for self that reverences all that is good in us and appropriately cares for our genuine well-being (c.f. Ephesians 5:29). Rather, both are disparaging that self-absorbed inward turning that thwarts the authentic good found in hard virtues, resists God’s holy will, and prevents us from loving with the love of Jesus Crucified.
In his treatise Dark Night, John begins his discussion of the purgative phases of spiritual growth by using the Seven Capital Sins to analyze the extent to which the incurved ego remains alive and well in those who have made significant progress in prayer, have tasted of remarkable graces, but have not yet gone through the more mature developments in the spiritual life that require God to expose and purify their well-disguised spiritual narcissism. As a Carmelite priest I know says it: “What St. John calls beginners are those who won’t let God pluck out the spiritual lollypop He once placed in their mouth when they were small children. God gives us spiritual sweets when we are young to get out attention, but removes them when it’s time for stronger nourishment. Beginners at the threshold of deeper stages of growth fight God’s invitation to maturity kicking and screaming…”
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