Recently I had a conversation with my brother-in-law, Kris, who is also a beer brewer. I was telling him about how one of my recent brews had turned out (a Trappist Rochefort 8 clone). One of the things I mentioned was that the beer was slightly too sweet, and I was not sure why this had happened. Kris, who has brewed significantly longer than I, immediately asked me the temperature at which I had mashed the grains (infused hot water into them to extract sugars). As soon as I told him, Kris replied, "Well you are mashing at too high of a temperature. You should be about three to four degrees lower."
I was not completely sure why this seemingly minor detail had such a profound effect on the quality of my beer. So like any good Dominican, I began to research. I discovered that the temperature at which one mashes has a profound effect on the enzyme groups that are released from the grains. I learned that if one were to use two identical grain profiles but mash them at different temperatures (one at a higher temperature, and one at a lower temperature), it would produce two different tasting beers. It turns out that those three or four degrees made a very big difference in my beer.
I learned a similar lesson about prayer this summer as I began reading St. John of the Cross' famous Ascent of Mount Carmel during my annual retreat. I had never been one to read the writings of mystics. In the past I found all of the mystics whom I had read (Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, etc) to be very difficult to comprehend. Mystics often find it difficult to convey in writing the experiential knowledge that they receive in prayer, and as a result, I had resigned myself to the fact that I would probably never relate well with mystical spirituality.
However, I found St. John of the Cross to be different. Trained in the famous Salamanca school, St. John was a gifted Thomist who, like the Angelic Doctor himself, had the gift of being able to synthesize complex topics into more manageable, approachable pieces. I learned that precision is very important in one's life of prayer. In particular I learned that it is crucial to be attentive to one's attachments, as well as the subtle ways in which God leads us into divine union with Himself. Those subtle movements are often found in the darkness of prayer, and precision is crucial if we are to recognize these moments of God's grace at work. This is in a large part because the way God speaks to me in the darkness can seem foreign at times. I need to be attentive to the precise places where the light of grace is breaking through. St. John has helped me to realize that this precision is crucial for me to make progress in the work of sanctification, a process that happens continually as I trudge the road of the Ascent to Mount Carmel.