St. John of the Cross, a Carmelite priest from Spain coined the phrase the “Dark Night of the Soul”. It is a poignant metaphor used to describe a phase in a person’s spiritual journey which is marked by a sense of loneliness and desolation. Desolation can simply be defined as a lack of the felt presence of God. St. John’s stories tell of the soul’s journey from a bodily home to its union with God. In this story, St. John depicts this journey taking place at night, the darkness representing the trials and struggles as a person matures deeply in Christ.
It is the process whereby all the things we had relied upon to give us meaning and satisfaction apart from God begin to lose their ability to do so, and at the same time God begins the work of becoming the source of our meaning, identity, and satisfaction. As Henri Nouwen writes:
“For as long as you can remember, you have been a pleaser, depending on others to give you an identity. You need not look at that only in a negative way. You wanted to give your heart to others, and you did so quickly and easily. But now you are being asked to let go of all these self-made props and trust that God is enough for you. You must stop being a pleaser and reclaim your identity as a free self.”
This process can be a very painful one as we move from the comfortable illusion of our religious activity and our ideas about God to an ever deepening awareness and surety of the love and grace of God, a deepening experience with God Himself. It is in this we move from loving God for our own sake (what we get out of it) to loving God for God’s sake. With this intimacy, we learn to discern the whisper, the glances of God, and we come to recognize Him in ways and places we have not recognized Him before. In a word, we learn to Sabbath, to rest in Him. Not so much in what He did, or will do as much as in His nature, His character, and His love.
We hosted a weekly get together last fall to look at the Book of Galatians. It was to be four weeks but it ended up being eight weeks as the sharing of hearts was so rich. As we worked our way through and wrestled with what Paul was saying it revealed in many of us a level of discomfort with the idea of stepping out from underneath religious obligation. As people shared what God was doing in their lives it became apparent they were feeling very naked and vulnerable to the mercy of God, as He was leading them to lay down those religious activities that were mere attempts to measure up. Many of us use our religious performance (usually as compared to others) as a barometer of our acceptability to God. Keep in mind these were not novice Christians. Many of them have been in Christian ministry for many, many years, some of which were Bible school trained. They were familiar with saved by faith in Christ by grace. Many spoke and taught it, but all of us admitted that it was quite another thing to really live it! This transition from self-sufficiency to surrender and vulnerability to God has often been characterized as the dark night of the soul.
I am writing this on Good Friday in anticipation of Easter Sunday, where we see another example of a dark night experience. An experience that would have Jesus Himself cry “Father!! Why have you forsaken me!?!” and send the disciples fleeing in confusion and apparent defeat. I can envision them hiding in fear wondering what happened? How did it all go so wrong? Their friend, their teacher, their Messiah and all the dreams and expectations for a new Kingdom lay seemingly dashed to pieces on the ground. I can imagine the deep sense of desolation, and the reality that Saturday morning began just like every other day before it. People still went to work, people still visited, argued and laughed like they did in the days before. The world kept going without missing a beat. But not for you when you feel like there is a hole big enough to drive a truck through your heart. This, in a sense, is what the Dark Night of the Soul is like.
Saturday evening came and the night fell. Darkness. Seemingly alone with your thoughts and then the dawn returns like it always has, but this Sunday would be very different. Your friend, your teacher, your King, the Messiah is alive! His tomb is empty, and He is appearing to people. It is not only the dawn of a new morning but the dawn of a new day in your heart! A dawn of the new Kingdom!
In a haze of pleasant confusion, your heart is overwhelmed with a profound sense of joy and wonder. Your Lord, who was dead, is now alive! You can’t even begin to comprehend the implications of what has happened, what this will all mean, but somehow that is secondary to the reality that Jesus is alive, Christ has RISEN! The desolation gives way to delightful consolation! The promised hope, the firstborn of the Resurrection!
The dawn of the risen Christ had broken in on the thick darkness of the “Dark Night,” but not as people expected. Not in the way that would have made sense to you or I, but in a way that would provide a genuine hope for His disciples; one which would fill all of eternity with a hope that would shine faithfully at the end of the tunnel for followers of Jesus, for over 2000 years.
So here were are today. Many experience what can be described as the dark night. When all the religious titillation loses its ability to satisfy us, we need to remember that this is indeed a gift. A very precious gift in which God draws us deeper, as if deep calls unto deep, where the reality of the incarnation and resurrection gives way to a profound experience of Christ in us, the hope of glory. It is the deeply held conviction of the goodness (He will establish justice and redeem His creation in the fullness of time) and the unfailing love of God. This becomes our light at the end of the tunnel, the promise of the dawn after a long dark night. It is the reality of Christ with us in every situation of life – the good and pleasant, the painful and bitter. In times of wealth and times of poverty. In times of health and times of sickness. In each and every one of these situations, the reality of the Risen Christ can be experienced, and this depth is forged in the Dark Night of the Soul.
A few thoughts about Navigating the Dark Night.
- God loves you and you’re safe. Nothing can separate you from the love of God. Don’t Panic.
- Ask God for the grace to KNOW His love.
- Ask God for the grace to be aware of His actions in you, around you.
- Trust that God can and will satisfy you in significant ways the impostors cannot.
- Talk with healthy friends. Those who, even though they may not understand, will walk with you through this part of your journey. Beware of Jobs friends! (fixers and fad solutions)
- Rest. Yep … Rest in Jesus and from the urges to perform to try and hype God up. The work that God has begun He is faithful to see through to completion.
- Look for life – see how Holy Spirit is moving and be present there. Avoid the temptation to try and “create” life for yourself.