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Walking Through Obscurity
A Review of The Dark Night of the Soul by Gerald G. May, M. D.
A friend suggested that I was going through the dark night of the soul when over several conversations I seemed to return to the disenchantment I had with the familiar elements of my spiritual life. My voice was not one of a superior critic – I was genuinely happy for those who found joy in contemporary worship, clarity in certain doctrinal and political stances, and solace in a certain type of prayer. I, on the other hand, found questions. Not contempt, mind you. Rather, concern that the familiar mainstays that had served me well in my faith tradition seemed to have lost their effectiveness. I wasn’t going to abandon ship. I wanted these things to work – or at least I wanted to find the things that did work. Or, and maybe this is it, I wanted whatever it was that would connect me to love God and let Him work through me to love others.
This sense of loss is what the dark night of the soul is all about according to Gerald May’s interpretation of both Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross. The dark is not sinister, but obscure. It is a season through which familiar joys and comforts are peeled away in order for God to bring a child closer and deeper to union with God and love.
Attachments and Idoltry
Man, according to May, is created with the capacity to love God. Our heart finds its fulfillment in union with the Divine and as He works through us to love those about us. About us are pointers and signposts that point us in the right direction. For example, beauty, justice, freedom and spirituality are all whispers from another world that point us to the Person of God. Yet, we fall short. We don’t recognize these signs as pointers towards God. Rather, we settle on the things themselves, forming attachments, falling into choice-less compulsions and addictions and finally making the signposts our idols.
The beauty of intimate relationships does not lead us to thanksgiving but pornographic abuse. The bounty of provision does not lead us to joy but gluttony. A step towards God’s freedom lands us in fearful hoarding. What starts as a courageous quest for justice ends up as hateful resentment towards opponents who are in fact created in the image of God. Our journey towards God fails as it ends up in an idolatrous attachment to things that were meant to lead us towards God but end up being our unworthy objects of worship.
The Dark Night
If attachments are our problem, then God uses this process of obscurity to dry us up, relinquish our control and remove the attachments that have been hindering our spiritual growth and our path towards God. This work must be done in obscurity for if it was done openly, we would resist it.
May speaks of two ways in which God does this work in the night. One is actively and one is passively. In the active work, there is a perception that our spiritual progress is a result of things we can control – we give more attention to Bible Study, prayer, meditation, inventory or some other spiritual discipline. The passive work, however, is where much of the work is ultimately done and much of the progress is made. This is the part of the work where it seems that God is doing for and to us. Mays holds these ideas in mystery because in reality, it is often difficult to distinguish what is a result of our efforts and what is a result of God’s. The work is done at midnight when the sun is down and it difficult to find one’s way through a forest.
It is not unusual while in this dark night to feel dryness and impotence in prayer and life as well as a lack of desire for old ways. As a result, self-reproach sets in as one feels lazy and unmotivated and wonders if they ever really desired God in the first place. Further, what sets in is what Saint John of the Cross calls “the spirit of fornication” where all of the old joys feels gone and one may even consider running amok as if to say “There must be some way I can still get a kick out of life.” A “Spirit of Blasphemy” can, according to Saint John, set in that reacts to God for taking all of the good things away. Ultimately, life feels the way of spiritual confusion. One longs to understand what is going on so that he can make it right.
The thing that distinguishes this scenario from depression or rebellion is one key element: when one presses his own heart, he discovers that he truly has a simple desire to love God. One may feel as if this desire is absent due to the confusion and feelings of loss and anger. One may even say, “I can’t do it anymore” or “I guess I really don’t want it.” But when the deep-hearted desire is probed, the heart’s desire really is, “I don’t know what it means or how to do it, but what I really want is just to be with God, just to be in love with God.”
Change In Prayer
As the life is changed, so is the prayer life, according to these mystics. Here lies the section of the book that is probably the most difficult for the Western thinker. According to Teresa, there are four modes of prayer that correspond to the means a garden is watered. The flowers in this garden are virtues but focusing on cultivating these virtues or digging out the weeds (vices) is less important. What is most important is that the garden gets watered and God takes care of the rest. The concept of moving beyond our self-conscious Christian experience towards a self-forgetful love that leads us to union with God seems to be a common idea among the mystics.
The four means by which this garden is watered is by a bucket, by a water wheel, by a river and by rain each one representing a deeper type of prayer. The first means, the bucket, is the only one we have the power to do. It is the prayer of meditation. It requires much work and is necessary but it is the least efficient means to water the garden.
The next three means of watering are varying depth of what is called contemplative prayer. The rain is the most intense representing complete union with God – an experience that is generally short and rare. The other two (waterwheel and river) are two other degrees of joy and contentment in God doing a mystical, spiritual work in us as we connect with Him in prayer.
Why this is frustrating for a Western thinker is that we are prone to ask the very question that I asked when reading this section – if contemplative prayer is so mysterious that one can’t really describe what it is and if it is not something that we are able to bring about anyway since it is the work of God, why bother talking about it? I was hoping for something I can do or for a technique I can practice, not a mystical experience that I not only can’t create but am rather fuzzy on exactly what it is I am after.
Nevertheless, this section does bring hopefulness to one’s prayer life in that perhaps prayer is more than simply reciting my prayer lists of those I know battling cancer or “traveling mercies” for the retired couple traveling to Chicago. Perhaps in prayer there is that work that is beyond my comprehension that God wants to work within me to take away the attachments that bind and hinder my spiritual life.
Reading Modern Ideas into Ancient Thoughts
The weakest part of the book is May’s attempts to reconcile the thinking of the mystics to other modern systems. May speculated how the meditations of the mystics spoke to modern psychological issues of addiction, gender, personality and social systems. I felt the time could have been better spent seeking to understand the ancient’s thinking instead of speculating how they might have thought like us in a world with vastly different questions than theirs.
An even greater departure from the writer’s actual intention was when he argued that God’s work was to produce within us a loving awareness that is not tied to any particular deity – a kind of divine nada. Therefore, our movement towards God should be void of any concept of God, Allah, Krishna, Jesus or Buddha.
Modern spirituality is quick to point out similarities of practice and concepts between Christian mystics and, say, Buddhism. However it would be silly to think that Theresa and Saint John would have ignored the distinctions and embraced some sort of deity non-entity. Historic Christianity from its origin has had a preoccupation, even an obsession, with the Person and work of Jesus. Theological counsels for centuries were called in an exacting attempt to get the understanding of Jesus right. Both Theresa and John were Doctors of the Catholic Church. To look at their works without asking, “What does Jesus, the incarnation, the atonement and the resurrection have to do with the dark night?” is a glaring omission that that plays well with modern’s notion of Deity-anonymous but does not respect the faith tradition to which they had given their lives.
The dark night of the soul, according to May, is not a one-time crisis experience. Rather it is “at times and for short periods, into this night of contemplation and purgation . . . causing the night to comp upon them, and then dawn, frequently.”
This dawn that results from the dark night is hope. It is not necessarily the hope that all circumstances are going to work out – conflicts resolved, wayward returned, sicknesses healed. Rather, it is simply the steadfast hope in a God that works beyond our circumstances. It is drawing to God in a union of love that the circumstances about us don’t interfere. Moving towards this dawn is a continuous process throughout our life.
So perhaps I am going through the dark night. Perhaps things that once seemed dear are being pulled away. This process is not to get these things back but to help me see that in God, I can live without them.