The second stage of holiness, “the cloud” of God’s presence, is something most active Christians experience in one way or another during their lives. Whether we think in terms of Moses on the mountain, or St. John of the Cross’ dark night of the senses, the fact is that being in the dark can be scary. It can also be beautiful (more on that tomorrow).
How can we prepare ourselves for life in the cloud? Well, as we’ve already said, when sensory comforts are removed all that is left to us is an invitation to deeper love; love understood as a decision to affirm the life of another even to the point of self-sacrifice. In the cloud, this decision is an internal affair, since all external data has been cut off. So, the tools we bring into the cloud must be internal tools… and this brings us to our task: study.
Christian intelectual formation is great training for life in the cloud because it arms us with a self-supporting internal structure for our being. What should we study? The short answer is, everything… but some particular helps will be: The study of Scripture. As St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” We can also study, very fruitfully, the lives of the saints; those cheerful givers and happy warriors who went before us into the cloud. They’re example teaches us how to proceed. Consider for a moment St. Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius was wounded in battle. During his convalescence, cut off from his accustomed secular pleasures, the only thing he had to read was a Bible, and a collection of lives of the saints. In the solitude of his hospital room (a sort of cloud), Ignatius discovered – through study – the mode in which God was calling him to love… and from that Love sprang the Society of Jesus (thats is, the Jesuits), which went on the change the face of the world! Study of the official teachings of the Church (i.e. Catechism, preaching by the Pope, etc.) will also yield great benefits. And if formal theology isn’t an option, the study of the arts: music, poetry, literature, sculpture… All of these can be helpful in discovering, implicitly, the truths conveyed explicitly by theology.
Studying doesn’t seem very “holy” or “spiritual.” Pop-spirituality has, over the last hundred years, tended to create a distance between intellectual formation and what it means to most people to be “spiritual.” The intellect is a thing of the person… perhaps it is the most personal thing we have. But popular spirituality encourages us to seek something outside of us… an, “out of body experience,” or zen-like state of total self-abandonment that treats our humanity, essentially, a an encumbrance to holiness. This is NOT Christian tradition. Human intellect, reason, choice… these most uniquely human qualities are precisely what -out of all creatures- make us resemble God the most. We must bring these tools into the cloud of God’s presence to help us keep moving closer to his likeness.