The Dark Night

I came across this text this morning from a daily email from Richard Rohr (May 10, 2022). I really appreciated Mirabai Starr’s translation of the Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila, the key text for a course I did with James Finley through the CAC, so I was just as excited to read this snippet from her translation of Dark Night.

For me, Mirabai’s style helps these texts land in some interesting ways yielding a freshness and relevance that can provide some pretty neat insights. To this end, here is a snippet from St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, translated by Mirabai. I hope you find this encouraging, refreshing and comforting, especially if you too are experiencing the aridity of a Dark Night experience with all its doubts and insecurities of God’s presence.

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What we need most
in order to make progress
is to be silent
before this great God
with our appetite
and with our tongue,
for the language
he best hears
is silent love. 

John of the Cross, Sayings of Light and Love, trans. Mirabai Starr

The deep suffering of the soul in the night of sense comes not so much from the aridity she must endure but from this growing suspicion that she has lost her way. She thinks that all spiritual blessing is over and that God has abandoned her. She finds neither support nor delight in holy things. Growing weary, she struggles in vain to practice the tricks [prayer practices] that used to yield results. 

John of the Cross encourages those experiencing this dark night to trust the silence that comes when we surrender our need to speak to God using our own words: 

This is no time for discursive meditation. Instead, the soul must surrender into peace and quietude, even if she is convinced she is doing nothing and wasting time. She might assume that this lack of desire to think about anything is a sure sign of her laziness. But simple patience and perseverance in a state of formless prayerfulness, while doing nothing, accomplishes great things.

All that is required here is to set her soul free, unencumbered, to let her take a break from ideas and knowledge, to quit troubling herself about thinking and meditating. The soul must content herself with a loving attentiveness toward God, without agitation, without effort, without the desire to taste or feel him. These urges only disquiet and distract the soul from the peaceful quietude and sweet ease inherent in the gift of contemplation being offered.

The soul might continue to have qualms about wasting time. She may wonder if it would not be better to be doing something else, since she cannot think or activate anything in prayer. Let her bear these doubts calmly. There is no other way to go to prayer now than to surrender to this sweet ease and breadth of spirit. If the soul tries to engage her interior faculties to accomplish something, she will squander the goodness God is instilling in her through the peace in which she is simply resting. . . .

The best thing for the soul to do is to pay no attention to the fact that the actions of her faculties are slipping away. . . . She needs to get out of the way. In peaceful plentitude, let her now say “yes” to the infused contemplation God is bestowing upon her. . . . Contemplation is nothing other than a secret, peaceful, loving inflow of God. If given room, it will fire the soul in the spirit of love.

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Michael writes:
This strikes the modern westerner’s ear with a clang. For many, it seems so counterintuitive. We are raised to work harder, strive, stretch, brutalize the flesh and get what we want. Activity, or more accurately, productivity has become a sacred virtue in our culture. A quote from a Mr.Bean bit sums it up in a humorous way; “Jesus is coming soon. Look busy.”

As St. John of the Cross insightfully shares via Mirabai is that sometimes our best spiritual efforts don’t help and can actually hinder us during these kinds of seasons. It stirs our souls, makes them so very noisy when what we really require is stillness. We are really good at activity, but, we don’t do stillness well. Silence and stillness are hard and take practice. In a sense, it’s a radical surrender to the always present, faithfulness of then God-who-is-love, especially when we sense it least. It is counterintuitive, isn’t it? Instead of scrambling, grasping, and flailing about in our religious finery, we let go. We let go into a love that has always held us, always sustained us.

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John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, trans. Mirabai Starr (New York: Riverhead Books, 2002), 67, 68–69, 70.

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