Over the past two weeks, I read Dark Night of the Soul, written by St. John of the Cross, a 16th Century mystic. The following post is an imaginary conversation between me (in regular type) and my creative interpretation of John (in bold). To avoid misrepresenting the real-life Saint, I have named my imaginary version of him “Saint Ron of the Cross”.
Me: Thanks for agreeing to talk with me, Saint Ron. I tend to get all hung up on the intellectual side of my faith, so your focused, meditative take on the spiritual life is a welcome change of pace for me.
Saint Ron of the Cross: To be honest, Tyler, I wasn’t given much of a choice in meeting here with you. I am locked in your mind quite against my will, much like the time a some of my fellow monks locked me in a tiny cell for nine months with little to eat or drink and no change of clothes, only letting me outside for a public lashing every week or so, all because I wanted to reform our monastic order and they did not.
But surely my present imprisonment, like the first, is but a blessed gift of God intended to purify my soul for a more intimate, loving union with God. What shall we talk about today?
You’ve already brought it up, Ron! Last weekend, I wrote about how God sometimes feels very warm and close to me, yet at other times feels cold and distant. What am I doing wrong to cause this?
Nothing! God withdrawals spiritual sweetness once you are ready to move to the next stage of your spiritual development. As painful and scary as this experience may be, it is actually God’s means of helping you to grow.
If God never withdrew the joys of spiritual activities, you would become a spiritual glutton, selfishly gorging yourself on the sweetness of God, irreverently treating God as merely a convenient dispenser of warm-fuzzies. The Dark Night cures us of such imperfections. It also turns us from a thinking-dominated spiritual practice into a silent, contemplative attentiveness towards God.
That’s good news! I hope you’re right, Ron of the Cross. Maybe I was wrong to assume that God’s absence was some kind of punishment. Maybe God’s silence is the next step along my journey with God, not a dead end.
Unfortunately, I haven’t experienced the benefits that you describe. I am still a spiritual glutton if there ever was one, and contemplative spirituality has yet to take a center-stage role in my faith. But maybe, now that I know that these are potential payoffs of the Night, I will be more receptive to such growth in the future.
What’s more, the mere withdrawal of “sweetness” can’t describe the extent of my own Dark Night. As I wrote last week, I have felt outright abandoned by God in my own Dark Night, fearing that God has utterly given up on me because of my doubts. What’s that all about?
Ah yes, you’ve encountered the second and much more traumatic Dark Night, the Dark Night of the Spirit. Yes, sometimes God turns off each and every light in a believer’s soul. For those who love God, what could be more terrifying than that?
Yet this too is a necessary step along the road. A deeper and fuller union with God awaits you, but this is impossible until you are dissolved and re-made in the fires of that Dark Night. Despite all appearances, God is pressing in closer to you. This will feel uncomfortable at first, as you have found. But this is the only way that God can bring you into closer intimacy and grant you divine wisdom.
Who knew that a long-dead Catholic monk could relate to my experience better than anyone I’ve ever met? Ron, I take issue with much of your old school dualism and your obsessive inwardness, yet your book has been a breath of fresh air for me.
I hope that you’re right about this Dark Night business. If you and your monk homies reached a deeper relationship and understanding of God on the other side of your Dark Nights, then there is hope for me. Maybe I’m right where I’m supposed to be, no additional panic required.
GoodNIGHT, Ron. (See what I did there?!) It’s been a pleasure.
*Quiet, delicate union with God, transcending any particular thought or meditation*
Alright, Saint Ronny. I’ll leave you to that.
I highly recommend St. John of the Cross’ weird, insightful, little book Dark Night of the Soul. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reading T.M. Luhrmann’s anthropological study of the American Evangelical relationship to God and sharing my journey on this site.
For more on my ongoing “God Project,” start here. If this project seems interesting to you, the best way to follow along is to find “Follow blog via email” at the bottom of this page. If you enter your email address into that box, you will receive an email update with each blog post (typically one per week).