11 November 2008

on a dark night

In a recent sermon on Psalms 42 and 43, in which I did the first half and my wife Banu the second, I spoke about the phrase, “the dark night of the soul.” That phrase goes back to a poem written in the 16th century by St. John of the Cross. As he advanced deeper in his life of prayer, he began to experience periods of extreme loneliness and emptiness. The light and joy and peace he first received from God began to wither away. This was his “dark night.”

Last year, when some of Mother Teresa’s letters were made public, we saw how she also spoke of feeling abandoned by God. Her dark night of the soul was a dry wilderness of pain that lasted for many years.

The thing about these experiences “on a dark night” is that they aren’t signs of God’s displeasure: very far from it! Our psalmist, St. John of the Cross, Mother Teresa—and many other people—aren’t being punished by God, even though it may feel like it. I think we can agree that we’re not talking about slackers in the spiritual life! These unpleasant experiences are instead a sign of God’s love; they’re a sign of purification.

I’m not saying that so-called “dark” feelings, in and of themselves, are good things. I am no masochist; I don’t enjoy pain or fear or suffering! But there are lessons we can learn only by attending their school. As Jesus says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24).

Without death, there can be no resurrection. And that’s not simply a matter of coming back to life; it’s a matter of coming back to superabundant life.

The image posted is “Christ of St. John of the Cross,” by Salvador Dali.

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