St. John of the Cross and the Dark Night of the Soul

St. John of the Cross and the Dark Night of the Soul

St. John of the Cross and the Dark Night of the Soul

A warning label for the spiritual life.

Have you seen commercials for medications where they show smiling people enjoying life while the announcer reads a long list of potential side effects that often sound worse than the condition you’re treating? “May cause inflammation, trouble breathing, and sudden cardiac arrest.”

The spiritual life should come with a few warnings, too. Although it often brings exquisite joy, it’s not always sunshine and roses. It’s not like you can expect to graph your spiritual life and expect a straight line of steady progress where you keep feeling closer and closer to the divine. For most of us, it is more complicated–irregular, with starts and stops, ups and downs, and periods where you don’t feel anything at all.

St. John of the Cross and the Dark Night of the Soul.

One person who gave voice to this reality is St. John of the Cross, most famously in his poem entitled “The Dark Night of the Soul.”

John was a fifteenth-century Spanish mystic, a friend of Teresa of Avila, whom we discussed earlier in our sermon series on the mystics. She described the “interior castle” and said our inner soul is like a pure diamond. St. John of the Cross helped her reform monasteries against corruption and their tendency to focus too much on personal comforts and ignore a life of service to others. One of the big issues was whether monks should wear shoes or symbolize their commitment to an austere life by going barefoot or wearing Jesus-type sandals.

Of course, with every action, there is an opposite reaction. Lots of monks didn’t appreciate these reform efforts. Their reaction was so strong that they kidnapped John, took him to the city of Toledo, tortured him daily, and stuck him in a small 6×8 foot cell, with a small slit to let in a tiny sliver of light.

The Dark Night of the Soul is a feeling of being abandoned by God. 

It was there, in Toledo, that he experienced spiritual dryness, calling out to God and praying but feeling abandoned by the Spirit. He composed poems in his head that he wrote down after he escaped, which are still studied as some of the best Spanish poetry ever composed and some of the finest theological explorations of his time.

And here we are, in a building on a street named The Toledo, acknowledging the unsettling spiritual truth that we too are likely to find periods that feel like dark nights of the soul. So what is it? How do we find our way through it to see the light again, to feel the presence of God again?

The dark night of the soul is a nearly universal experience. 

If you get feeling that way, you are not alone. The Bible is loaded with characters who went through dark nights of the soul. From Job to Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If you look at the story of nearly every biblical character, you will find it. King David, after the death of his son, the prophets Elijah and Jeremiah were quite open about their dark nights. Hannah, Jonah, and the Apostle Paul endured their dark nights, too.

No one is immune. I think of Mother Teresa, who did so much good for the sick and poorest of the poor in India. She had a mystical experience at a young age that led her into all of that good work. What we learned after her death was that her journals revealed how she struggled with never having that kind of experience again. She prayed and prayed, but it never came and she felt God had abandoned her.

Goodbye and hello to darkness my old friend.

I think of a video I saw where a guy said, “Summer is here. Say goodbye to seasonal depression and hello to regular depression.” Sometimes we have to say hello to another dark night. Maybe that’s why Simon and Garfunkel’s song hit so close, “Hello darkness my old friend. I’ve come to talk to you again.”

We don’t always live on a spiritual high. There are dry spells and times of the dark night for everyone.

The dark night of the soul feels like getting “ghosted” by God. 

The feeling is similar to my friend who says that her lover “ghosted her,” meaning that she suddenly got cut out of her life. No calls, no texts, no visit, no explanation. She just vanished. The abandonment felt harsh, bewildering. She did everything she could to try to get their attention again, wondered what she did wrong, what could have warranted such disrespect, to not even be given an explanation. That’s what the dark night of the soul feels like. When we don’t feel that connection with God we internalize it and wonder what we did wrong. Was our belief a cruel hoax?

There is no darkness so dark that shame can’t make it darker still.

Looking for light in all the wrong places.

Sometimes it feels as if God has ghosted us. In my experience, I know that the times of the most disappointment and darkness were when I had some magical notion of God who would magically, miraculously solve some issue for me. Hey, can’t you do me a solid? Or just give me a sign that I’m on the right track. Do something to reveal yourself to me, because it feels like I’m spinning my wheels here.

We have all these stories about how belief, prayer, and a positive mental attitude makes things happen. Prosperity gospel preachers make a killing on this message. They quote passages like, No weapon shall prevail against you. You can do all things through Jesus. Prayer can make molehills out of your mountains. But what about the times when life doesn’t live up to the memes?

I’ve been to hospitals and memorial services of so many things that just broke my heart. So many tragedies. Murders, betrayal, going into people’s darkness with them. There are thing that happen where feel-good memes aren’t enough.

Magical-thinking theology traps us. 

I’ve found my way through the dark nights by adjusting my thinking about God. Sometimes I’ve discovered that the reason I’ve felt so isolated is that the on-demand miracle machine God isn’t real. What’s real is a God who is present not in the big flashy things, but the ordinary loving things, the small acts of kindness and service. In nature. In music.

I see the light again in people who fix meals for COA. Prepare who prepare food and provide hospitality for memorial services.  People who send cards and pray for those in need. I feel the presence of God in VBS the energy of the kids eager to learn and volunteers who make this a safe and loving environment for children. These are the sources of light I look for.

Getting through a dark night of the soul. 

I suggest that our faith offers us a different response to the dark night. Instead of resisting it – trust that it can be a time of transformation.

A visitor not a houseguest. Trust that it is only a visitor, not a permanent house guest. Trust that it is only for a time. The Psalm assures us – “even though I walk through the darkest valley, you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Notice that the Psalmist says that we walk through the valley – not take up permanent residence in it.

Detatchment and purification. Saint John of the Cross discovered as we journey through this period of perceived divine absence, we are stripped of our attachments and superficial comforts, compelling us to rely solely on God. This process of detachment and purification allows us to confront and release the false securities and idols that have hindered our spiritual development. Through this, we develop a more authentic and resilient faith, learning to trust in God’s presence and goodness even when it is not felt. The dark night acts as a crucible, refining our character, deepening our spiritual maturity, and preparing us for a closer union with God.

Moreover, the dark night of the soul can foster empathy, compassion, and a greater sense of solidarity with others who suffer. As we endure our own spiritual trials, we become more attuned to the struggles of those around us, cultivating a heart of compassion and a willingness to support others in their pain. This shared experience of suffering can strengthen our relationships and build a more compassionate and supportive community.

Additionally, emerging from the dark night often brings a renewed sense of purpose and clarity, as we gain insights into our true selves and God’s calling for our lives. Ultimately, the dark night of the soul, though arduous, can lead to a richer, more meaningful spiritual journey and a deeper connection with both God and our fellow human beings.

The key is to hang in there, not to dismiss it all and walk away.

Here is a beautiful poem written during WW2, on the wall of a cellar, by a Jew in the Cologne concentration camp.

“I believe in the sun

even when it is not shining

And I believe in love,

even when there’s no one there.

And I believe in God,

even when He is silent.

I believe through any trial,

there is always a way

But sometimes in this suffering

and hopeless despair

My heart cries for shelter,

to know someone’s there

But a voice rises within me, saying hold on

my child, I’ll give you strength,

I’ll give you hope. Just stay a little while.

I believe in the sun

even when it is not shining

And I believe in love

even when there’s no one there

But I believe in God

even when he is silent

I believe through any trial

there is always a way.

May there someday be sunshine

May there someday be happiness

May there someday be love

May there someday be peace….”

― Unknown (written during WW2, on the wall of a cellar, by a Jew in the Cologne concentration camp)