Carl McColman: The Choices We Make Determine Who We Are


This morning I was reading St. John of the Cross, and came across this passage.

An act of virtue produces and fosters in the soul mildness, peace, comfort, light, purity, and strength, just as an inordinate appetite brings about torment, fatigue, weariness, blindness, and weakness. Through the practice of one virtue all the virtues grow, and similarly, through an increase of one vice, all the vices and their effects grow.

-John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, I.10.5

from The Collected  Works of St. John of the Cross 

This reminds me of the famous passage where St. Paul discusses the "works of the flesh" and the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:19-23).

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

For now we will set aside the harsher aspect of St. Paul's language (if quarreling will keep us from inheriting the kingdom, then I for one am in trouble!) and simply consider what I think is the parallel truth found both in Galatians and in The Ascent of Mount Carmel: The choices we make determine who we are.

Drawing by St. John of the Cross

I grew up under the shadow of a punishing image of God: the angry father, the dominating lord, the sovereign judge who would tolerate no dissent or disobedience. It has been a long journey for me to let go of such a toxic, idolatrous deity. One of many ideas that have helped me along the way is this simple thought: that we are punished by our sins, not for them. God, who is Love, is not in the business of spanking naughty humans. But God also loves us enough to give us the freedom to be who we choose to be: for good or for ill. A God who always cleaned up after us would not be a source of authentic freedom. So there is the paradox of the God of Love: merciful enough not to condemn, yet truly just, so to let us make our own way in the world - so that the choices we make determine who we are.

The "works of the flesh" - the worship of false gods like money or power, the abandonment of one's self to addictive or abusive acts, the perversion of love into sexual consumerism, the triumph of hatred over relationship, and so forth - separate us from the kingdom of God not because of God's judgment, but because of our own alienation. As John of the Cross reminds us, such "inordinate appetites" not only alienate us from God, but form in us unhealthy traits such as inner torment, weariness, blindness, a sense of defilement, and tepidity. When we choose to alienate ourselves from love, we form ourselves into unloving creatures.

But grace happens, and for as long as we live we remain free to choose again. John of the Cross helpfully points out that while any one vice can drag the entire person down, so, more hopefully, any virtuous choice can strengthen us in all virtue. If our addictive and abusive choices form us into a kind of spiritual sickness, thankfully our loving choices, slowly but surely, form us into regaining what is ours by birthright: the image and likeness of God.

So when we choose to receive, and live by, any one of the fruit of the Spirit - authentic love, joy, peace, patience, compassion, generosity, loyalty, tenderness, discipline - we create the space in our hearts for all the fruit, potentially, to take root and grow. Such transformation does not happen over night: indeed it takes a lifetime, if not beyond. But to embark upon the journey is to be on the journey. Making the first choice determines who we are and what we will become, even if it takes a lifetime for that to fully and truly manifest.

So what does all this have to do with contemplation? Well, this entire post is my reflection on a quote from one of the great contemplatives of the church, John of the Cross! But also, I worry that we who exult in the joy of silence, and the serenity of seeking God's face in kenosis and unknowing, often forget that the contemplative tradition speaks with a fairly unified voice about the importance of making mindful choices, not just in our prayer time, but throughout our lives, as a necessary prerequisite to a healthy and meaningful contemplative practice. Contemplation is like a delicate orchid, that requires very specific conditions in which to grow. Those conditions include a life grounded in trust in God, compassion, serenity, love of neighbors, sexual integrity (chastity), and, at the very least, the active effort to let go of addictions and abusive habits and behaviors - all by the grace of God, of course. We don't have to be perfect or holy in order to walk the contemplative path. But if we are serious about the contemplative life, our practice of silent prayer must be grounded in an overall life dedicated to actively responding to God's universal call to holiness. "You are as holy as you want to be," noted the great Flemish mystic John Ruysbroeck. It's important to remember that. Our choices determine who we are. We do not make ourselves holy - only God can do that. But God respects our God-given freedom, which means that, with only rare exceptions, God will not make us holy unless we signal that we want it - and we do that by the choices we make.

So tomorrow Lent begins, and I offer this meditation on the relationship between contemplation and choosing holiness as an invitation to keep a Holy Lent. I hope that your Lent will be a time of rich contemplative resting and knowing, trusting in the unseen, but real, loving presence of God. I also hope that it will be a time in which you (and I) will mindfully reflect on the choices we make and will continue to make. Where our choices have led to disordered appetites, may we gently let that go, and wisely choose again. And where our choices are made in response to the leading of the Holy Spirit, may we enjoy the fruit of that Spirit, including the "mildness, peace, comfort, light, purity, and strength" of which John of the Cross speaks.

Have a good Lent.

From Carl's blog at