I'm currently reading through St. John of the Cross' "The Dark Night of the Soul." In this short book, the 16th century mystic expounds upon his "Songs" which deal with the "dark night of the soul," the period of purgation through which all followers of Christ must come in order to be perfected and united completely in love and purpose with the Divine.

The Songs itself is quite short–only a few stanzas. However, St. John devotes several pages to expounding the meaning of the verses. In his introduction to the concept of the "dark night of the soul," St. John describes some of common barriers that hinder believers from true knowledge of God and precipitate the need for the grand purgation. Two of these hindrances are spiritual voluptuousness and spiritual gluttony…or simplified, the danger of experiential worship.

To John, the con-mingling of the spiritual and physical experience of worship is wholly positive: to be united with God is not just an act of mystical ecstasy, but is rather a way of being that intersects the whole of one's life with that of the divine. The danger of experiential worship, however, arises when the experience of worship–and not God–becomes the thing for which the worshiper desires. He points out that the intimacy of worship surely leaves an indelible mark on the memory–how could it not? However, if one is not careful, the memory of the experience of union with God can unwittingly subvert the pursuit of God in worship:

"When such love (for God in worship) is born of sensual appetite, it works contrary effects; for the stronger the one grows, so does the other grow less, and the memory at the same time; for if this love [for the memory of the experience of worship] increases, it will be instantly seen that we are growing cold in love for God, and forgetting [God] for the sake of the memory…"

As devious as this result might be, St. John still sees a greater danger. Not only can the experience of worship be subtly substituted for true devotion to God, but even more demonically it can become the very criterion by which we adjudicate the value and benefit of worship. If it were not enough that the experience of worship could create misguided motivations, St. John warns that it can become a gluttonous force, consuming every virtue of worship for the sake of perpetuating the experiential memory:

"When people of this sort worship, all they seek is to preserve some experiential relish or sensation, rather than to reverence and worship God with heartfelt humility. And in such sort do they annex this to themselves as a right, that when they have not derived some delight or sensible emotion, they think they have done nothing…and not perceiving that the least of the benefits this Most Holy Sacrament confers is that which touches the senses, and that incomparably the greatest is the invisible gift of Grace…"

The gluttonous danger of experiential worship, to St. John, is ultimately revealed in that we–by virtue of our infatuation with experience and the sensuous–become the ultimate judges of true worship and miss out on the true, divine purposes within worship. While God may desire those that worship in "spirit and in truth," this bent toward experiential memory and sensuous gluttony makes the carnal act of worship the primal mode human/divine relationship.

Does this mean that "experiential worship" is without any virtue whatsoever? Obviously not. St. John recognizes that as humans created in the image of God, our worship will necessarily intersect the experiential–in fact, such "experience" is core to what St. John will expound as the dark night of purgation. However, left unchecked, the trend toward experiential worship can become distorted and corrupted, ultimately becoming a tool of the evil one to deceive and destroy, even through that which is seemingly virtuous. The only hope, then, of unifying the sensuous nature of worship with the true spirit of virtue and humility that God desires is that the human person walk through the ultimate midnight cleansing of the heart, the great purgation of the dark night of soul wherein God brings to perfection the will and desires of the human heart.