Every year of my ten-year reading plan contains -- in addition to passages from Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Lewis -- at least two other Christian classics. Earlier in this year (the fourth of the plan) I read Origen's On First Principles and John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul.
Neither Origen's work nor his reputation is easy to understand. He is both a Church Father and a heretic; in other words, his teachings (from the third century) are both revered and suspect. I think the early Church declared his belief in a potential universalism (the doctrine that all rational creatures, even demons, may eventually be reunited to God) anathema, but I'm not sure. In any case, I found his work full of both useful and weird ideas.
The systematic nature of On First Principles surprised me: the Trinity, angels, creation, the end of the world, and salvation are all treated in order here. In other words, Origen outlines the structure of existing things and of the plan of time. I didn't realize such a work existed before early medieval works by Augustine and Boethius, for instance. His teaching that temptations can come from wrong ideas, amoral bodily desires, or direct demonic suggestion corresponds with the traditional phrase "deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil" (found, for instance, in the Litany in the Book of Common Prayer) as well as with the three temptations Satan offered to Christ in the wilderness.
His ideas on free will get pretty strange, though. Taking "God is no respecter of persons" as a bottom line, Origen believes all differences between people must arise from merit. "Jacob I loved and Esau I hated" can only be explained by acts committed in a previous (unembodied?) life by these two. On the other hand, he says, God continues to work for the good of every soul. Even the hardening of Pharaoh's heart was temporary and for his good; who knows how Pharaoh ultimately responded to all the miracles and the safe exodus of the Hebrews?
The sixteenth-century work by John of the Cross, also speculative, seems less bizarre than Origen's. John wrote his treatise to encourage people he counseled who all seemed to go through the same problem: at some point in the progress of their Christian life, they lost joy in worship. John teaches that God gives us this dark night of the soul in order to take our hearts off the things of worship -- the building, the music, the candles, the decorations, the language of the prayers -- and fix them on Himself. Christians who go through the experience, he found, come out of it having a more mystical relationship with God, that is, a devotion to God steadier than before but less able to be put into words. What is not in our senses, he says, Satan does not know, so he cannot hinder this progress in the inner realm.
One of the niftiest ideas in the book has to do with the transformation of our minds. John of the Cross holds a classical view of three faculties of the mind: understanding, memory, and will. Each of the three Christian virtues corresponds to and renews one of those faculties. Faith, teaching us right doctrine and giving us belief in it, overcomes our human understanding. Hope, pointing us to the future, overturns our dependence on memory. And love, placing the desires of God's heart into our own, directs our will.
Both authors talk about painful experiences God puts people through for their greater good: a hardening in one case, and a dark night in another. The encouraging ideas of these two books came at the right time for me. It's been a rough year, one in which the things of worship, especially music, have been less joyful than usual. Something similar happened about nine years ago, and I did not react well then. This time I'm much more at rest in the knowledge that He provides for me. Besides Himself, and other things I can't put into words, his provision includes the right reading plan devised four years ago, a counselor's advice written four-hundred years ago, and a systematic theology written seventeen-hundred years ago.