Thursday, February 25, 2010

Adoro: Feast of St. John of the Cross and the Dark Night

Feast of St. John of the Cross and the Dark Night: "

Today we celebrated the Feast of St. John of the Cross, Priest and Doctor of the Church. His spiritual writings have had a great influence on many souls over the centuries. He is most prominently known for his work, "Ascent to Carmel', from which, tragically, his poem 'Dark Night of the Soul' and accompanying commentary was separated.

Why do I call this separation "tragic"?

A year ago in our Spiritual Theology course, we had the great privilege of being students of not only a solid, faithful Theologian, but one who was also a Secular Carmelite, and one who had studied St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila in great depth.

He explained this tragedy first by pointing out that the "Dark Night" was part of "Ascent to Carmel", was INTENDED by the Saint to be a part of that work, and that logically, publishing it separately removed the entire context of that work. What happens when you remove context?

Imagine what happens when you try to interpret the New Testament without the benefit of the Old Testament. (pause and think for a moment or two.)


So let's talk a little about the tragedy: The Massive Misunderstanding of the "Dark Night".

How many of you have heard people complain that they are experiencing the "Dark Night of the Soul"? They describe their "night" as depression, dryness in prayer, going through many trials, feeling abandoned by God because He doesn't seem to care that they are going through a divorce, suffering in school, suffering some disease, etc.? They are in tears, they don't get any 'feelings' out of Mass or prayer, and coupled with this sense of sadness and depression, they come to the conclusion that they are in the 'Dark Night'.

Does that sound familiar?

The problem is...what they are experiencing ISN'T the Dark Night described by St. John of the Cross.

Most people, even of those we think are the holiest among us, most CONTEMPLATIVES don't ever experience the "Dark Night". And if they did...well...none of us would actually know about it. They certainly wouldn't complain about it. In fact, "complaining" and "The Dark Night" are completely incompatible.

It becomes obvious, especially when one reads the entire Ascent to Carmel that the "Dark Night' belongs to those souls who have worked very hard at prayer, who have suffered for it, who have been faithful and have eradicated both mortal sin and deliberate venial sin from their lives. It is a very high state, spiritually speaking, and one most people never attain.

When one actually considers the actual words of the poem, one can see that the Dark Night is NOT a time of depression or our popularly-defined "feelings of abandonment." Rather, the Dark Night of the Soul is a night that is 'fired with love's urgent longings', it is 'secure', it is 'glad' and illuminated by a light 'more lovely than the dawn!'. It speaks of the intense spiritual wounding of love, where even though there come trials and conflicts and temptations, one is 'abandoned into the arms of the Beloved.' It is a night of

'the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover'

This poem, this theology of St. John of the Cross is about a deep mystical union with Christ. Have you clicked on the link to the poem describing the Dark Night? Is it not one of the most beautiful descriptions of mutual self-sacrifice you have ever read?

NONE of that speaks of depression. The reason it is a "Dark Night" is precisely the same reason one is blinded when going from a place of darkness into, say, a room where one is forced to look directly into the sun. It is the interior closeness with God that so blinds the soul and draws it into perfect abandonment, enduring all things, suffering all things out of a return of sacrificial love to the Beloved.

But But But....What about Aridity? How Come I am not Feeling Anything in Prayer? Isn't that the "Dark Night"?

This is a common misconception. Many people who return to their faith, enter the Church and maybe begin reading some of these mystics have a tendency to conclude that the very moment prayer doesn't "feel good" anymore it must mean they are entering the "Dark Night". And then, through the promptings of Pride, they think they are entering a new level of prayer when really, they are only beginners. Now, understand, these people aren't claiming some massive level of holiness; they are only misunderstanding the meaning of "Dark Night". While there IS a "Dark Night of the Senses", before one gets to the degree written of by St. John of the Cross, there are many little trials of aridity that must come that cannot even TOUCH the level discussed by our beloved Saint.

When you are faced with dryness in prayer (aridity), whether you are a convert, a revert, or a cradle Catholic, know that aridity is normal. It is God's way of withdrawing the breast so that we can learn to eat normal food. We can't be spiritual infants forever, can we? In order to stop depending on the wonderful consolations and feelings of love and affection and awe, God will withdraw the sentiment so that we can take our same actions, even as we seem to "get nothing out of it." This is a test of our character, our will, and above all, our love for God.

Do we love God for who He Is? Or for how He makes us feel?

Everyone goes through these periods of aridity. Quite honestly, I haven't received any massive consolations in YEARS, whereas, when I first returned to my Faith and attended Daily Mass, I LOVED being there, there were many consolations and affirmations, but then, well...they ended. And I faltered. Thankfully at the time I was reading something that helped me to understand that this was normal and the only remedy was to persevere.

Every so often God sends me some sort of little gift during Mass or during prayer, but more often than not, prayer seems like a chore, it is dry, seems meaningless, and even when connections somehow are made, I'm not "blown away". I often question whether I really love God or whether I'm just looking for consolation. What I've learned is that I need to remain faithful to prayer. For now, that is the Rosary, Liturgy of the Hours (which should be a foundation, is the Prayer of the Church and makes present the Paschal Mystery), and some time in mental prayer throughout the day.

I have learned that I don't pray because I want something out of it, but because I love God and owe Him, in justice, time to acknowledge His Greatness, time to remember that I am nothing and need to depend on Him for all things, time to recall that of all I have for myself, it is nothing to offer a few moments of my day for His Glory.

Yes, I often fail. I'm not vowed, after all.

There is another consideration, though, in aridity.

Are we choosing deliberate venial sin? Let us assume that we don't regularly choose or fall into mortal sin. In doing our examination of conscience and in going to regular confession, are we recognizing a habit of sin? Of ANY sort? If so, it means we are CHOOSING some pleasure of the flesh or of the world in preference to God, who is all Good and deserves ALL our Love.

If we are dry in prayer and receiving no consolations, can we then properly claim to be in the Dark Night? OF COURSE NOT!

If God is not favoring us with little consolations, instead of crying 'foul!', maybe we need to clean up our lives. Maybe we need to realize we are depressed and anxious through our own grievous fault!

The Dark Night of the Soul - What it IS:

* A place of Joy
* Security
* Abandonment into the arms of the Beloved
* Fired with love's urgent longings
* Illumined by a light more lovely than dawn!
* Belongs only to those who have attained, objectively, a high level of sanctity by cooperating with God's grace and eradicating mortal sin and deliberate venial sin

(This is akin to descriptions of mystical union and even mystical marriage written of by other Saints.)

The Dark Night of the Soul - What it IS NOT:

* Anxiety
* Depression
* Terror
* Living a life of mortal sin
* Living a life of choosing deliberate venial sin
* mere aridity, lack of consolations, not 'feeling' like going to Mass or praying

In fact, the above speaks more of the Vice of Sloth (Acedia, spiritual laziness, Spiritual depression, abhorence of things of God, etc) than it does of anything else. Do NOT confuse the two!

There is, of course, a great deal written on this, and my guess is that I have readers far more versed in Carmelite spirituality than I. I will guarantee you this, though: there's not a single person who HAS or IS experiencing the Dark Night as described by St. John of the Cross who will comment in my combox. Why? Because it is so intimate, so holy, and, in fact, they won't even know THEMSELVES that their state in prayer is at this level. Their spiritual director may know, perhaps people who know them well, but...they'd never actually DISCUSS it.

For the, I haven't. In fact, I'm still in the very first age as described by ALL spiritualities: my main prayer is vocal (rosary, LOH, etc.), I'm still trying to eradicate sin, including some serious sin, from my life, and when I'm faced with aridity, I don't dig in; I run away.

So know here that I condemn none, for I am probably far less advanced than most, if not ALL of you.

St. John of the Cross, pray for us!