In the title of his article, “America’s Necessary Dark Night of the Soul,” Gary Kamiya uses a phrase that has a long history in spirituality. I included it in a sermon a few months ago on Psalms 42 and 43. In a previous blog post, I said something about it.
The psalmist is someone who feels abandoned by God. And yet, all hope is not lost. There’s a fragment—a scrap hung onto—and it appears three times in this combined psalm: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God” (42:5, 11, 43:5). A. A. Anderson says it’s a source of inspiration to one experiencing 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.” In 2007, 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.
Kamiya, in reflecting on our national political (and I would add, spiritual) ambivalence regarding the prosecution of torture, he compares it to this “dark night.” “Those opposed to reopening the book on the Bush years argue that doing so would tear the country apart. [Those opposed would seem to include President Obama.] They’re right—but they forget that the country is already torn apart.”
How can we hope to be healed…how can we hope to have any semblance of unity—though admittedly, it will take time—if we don’t face up to what has been done in our name? The icon of today’s conservatives, Ronald Reagan himself, said in his signing statement of the UN Convention against Torture, “The core provisions of the Convention establish a regime for international cooperation in the criminal prosecution of torturers relying on so-called ‘universal jurisdiction.’ Each State Party is required either to prosecute torturers who are found in its territory or to extradite them to other countries for prosecution.”
Kamiya adds, “Ever since 9/11 we have been living in a twilight country, one where it is not clear whether laws apply or not, a morally relativist place in which unembarrassed emotionalism has replaced adherence to ethical and legal principles.”
Shining the light on torture is something that must be done. It must be done as carefully, and with the least amount of bias, as possible. Both American and international law require it.
Can we honestly say we respect ourselves as a nation without first enduring this darkness?