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Scott’s Column: Dark Night of the Soul

Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
May 12 2020

We are all experiencing a form of Sabbath–we have stopped our normal activities, particularly our economic activities, and we’ve been compelled into a time of reflection.

For some people, this has been a time of rest and renewal.  For others, this time was busier and more difficult than normal life.

Silence, waiting, introspection, fasting, and simplicity are all among the spiritual practices of our faith.  And all are part of our current pandemic moment.

I’ve begun to focus my thoughts more on How can we better connect the experiences we are going through with the spiritual practices of the church?  What lessons can we learn from our traditions?  This moment affords opportunities for religious experience.

Today I want to write about one particular set of teachings in our faith’s traditions, the idea of the “dark night of the soul.”  For some people this period of quarantine and the resulting isolation and reflection can lead to this “dark night.”  Coping with this tragedy you may have engaged in deep moral reflection that has impacted how you understand your values, your role in the world, your ideologies, even your own identity.  You may have felt stripped of much that you enjoy, of what brings you meaning, purpose, or comfort.

The sixteenth century Spanish mystic John of the Cross wrote the masterpiece Dark Night of the Soul.  For him this was a spiritual experience wherein the soul is stripped of its desires and affections in a period of quietness.  For the individual experiencing this it can be felt as wasted time or more acutely as darkness.  A period of emptying and relinquishing can be felt as purging and annihilation.  One can find it difficult to focus, even to do simple things like pray.  He writes that the darkness can be “profound and horrible and most painful, for this darkness, being felt in the deepest substance of the spirit, seems to be substantial darkness.”

But for John, this is precisely the moment when God is most present with us, filling us with divine light.  Emptying ourselves of what normally captures our attention gives God a chance to fill that space.  It is through this experience that we can attain “the state of union with God” and “live that new and blessed life.”

Wendy Farley is a contemporary feminist theologian who draws upon the mystical traditions in her work.  Her book The Wounding and Healing of Desire was our (timely) Theology Brunch discussion in March.  She writes that the Dark Night of the Soul has two stages of darkness.  In the first we are released from our normal attachments, and in the second we are cleansed of egocentrism.  She writes, “The healing itself is painful, and healing can require remedies that are, in the moment, suffering.”  Maybe you’ve been experiencing some of this the last few months?

She goes on to write that “During periods of darkness, the virtues that were easy for us become impossible; the vocations that we loved are now confusing, dull, even a kind of torment.”  Felt any of that recently?  She adds, “The darkness of these assaults is only intensified by the desire to be good, loving, faithful people.”

While in the darkness, we are unsure what will happen next and when and whether it will end, but Farley assures us that “darkness ends in dawn.”  So we should experience this as a time to be gentle with ourselves and not make demands upon ourselves.  We are able to have this experience because we bear the divine image, and it is a time to get more deeply in touch with that truth.  She writes that we are “restored to our true nature.”  In the new dawn we can have a clearer sense of our vocation and feel empowered.

I invite you to make use of the wisdom of our faith traditions; there you might just discover a tool to help you spiritually in this time of crisis.