A couple weeks ago I was talking with a friend about this series. I commented that the impetus to explore the role of the Dark Night of the Soul was the fear and anxiety I and many were feeling after the election of Donald Trump. His first reaction was, you don’t believe this is the worst it’s going to get, do you? Isn’t that what the dark night means- that it will get better from here on?
An article I found online addressed this issue. From Our Sunday Visitor:
The dark night of the soul is not an evil to be endured; it’s a good for which we should be grateful. Of course, it doesn’t always seem that way. The thought of plunging into a spiritual abyss and losing all the sweetness in our relationship with God strikes few as appealing.A Protestant writing in Christianity Today put it this way:
One lesson we can learn from the ancient mystics is that dark nights are not problems, but opportunities. Grasping this reality moves us beyond "How do we fix this?" to "What might I learn in this?"With the awareness that this dark night is going to be helpful let us also remember that darkness IS frightening. Think about how much we are aware of things in the dark- even things that aren’t there- except in our imagination. Every creak and bump in a dark house is multiplied. The old Celtic prayer for protection included “things that go bump in the night” right along with “ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties”. Darkness, sometimes described as “wilderness”, however, is almost always seen as the path to spiritual growth.
--The purpose of the dark night, of course, is to strip us of our futile attempts to find God on our own terms and awaken us to a much simpler desire for intimacy with God
Traditionally, spiritual directors identify three primary stages (or ways) of growth in holiness.
- The first is the purgative way, where we break habits of vice, acquire habits of virtue and learn to live a Catholic life.
- The second is the illuminative way, where we grow in virtue, charity and the life of prayer.
- And the third is the unitive way, where our wills and hearts move in perfect harmony with God’s.
In the dark night of the senses, God purifies us of our attachments to the things of the world — physical comfort, physical pleasure, material success, popular acclaim — as well as even the comfort we seek in prayer. Sorrows afflict us, and things that used to ease us — food, sex, shopping, compliments, even the liturgy — no longer do. Through this dark night, God prepares us for the illuminative way and a deeper, more contemplative life of prayer.Let me talk about these stages of moving through the dark night. As we walk these steps it is important to remember the wisdom of Winston Churchill:
The dark night of the soul occurs at the end of the illuminative way, as we prepare to enter the unitive way. During this dark night, God roots out our deepest attachments to sin and self, and the desolation that accompanies that rooting out is overwhelming and crushing. - Our Sunday Visitor:
If you're going through hell, keep going.It is tempting to stop, to "give up", or "give in" to fear, cynicism, anger, or reprisal. We have seen all that and experienced all that in many different ways over these weeks since the election. Those are not the ways to get through the dark night; they do not help us- or anyone- move forward. We easily get stuck in these and don’t move anywhere helpful or healthy.
What then do we go through? As in that quote from Our Sunday Visitor the first part is the purgative way. Purgative means cleansing, intense purifying, even liberating. We are talking about the path of the dark night moving us away from our attachment to things of our own doing and making; we are realizing that we are powerless over people, places, and things; we become aware of how we cling to things that are not helpful or productive in order to gain fame, fortune, or even at times a sense of calm and peace. Does it really make us feel better when we revert to angry, nasty comments? Does it help us- or anyone- when we lash out at those who differ from us? These are all the ways we act when we don’t know what else to do. “Well, they started it,” is not a good reason.
But in the dark night nothing positive seems to be working either. As John of the Cross describes it, even the deepest and most sincere prayers and rituals seem to lose their effectiveness. God seems to have abandoned us. We may cry, “How can God let this happen?” We feel lost and lonely.
At that point we have two choices.
- Admit we are lost and nothing can help us or
- decide there has to be a power greater than ourselves who can get us through this. So we go searching in a sense of desperate hope. The Catholic Dictionary says we discover that as we detach from the things we have trusted we move closer to God and
the will becomes more firmly attracted to God and more securely attached to his divine will. This purification, however, is only a means to an end, namely, 1. to give greater glory to God, who is thereby loved for himself and not for the benefits he confers; 2. to lead the one thus purified to infused contemplation and even ecstatic union with God; 3. to enable the mystic to be used more effectively by God for the spiritual welfare of others, since the more holy a person is the more meritorious are that person's prayers and sacrifices for the human race. -Catholic DictionaryThis is the seed of the illuminative way- the second phase on the path. Down in the depths of that dark night, as we struggle and wrestle and seek beyond our deepest longings, we also discover some light. Enlightenment. In Twelve Step language, we come to believe that there is a power greater than ourselves. This is a power that can make sense of what is happening to us, that can lead us into new understandings of the world we inhabit- as well as the inner life we each can develop. We can be restored to sanity. We do not need to “give up” or “give in” to the world, our fears or desires, even our personal ideologies, political or religious positions, institutions. In our search for comfort and release of fear we have often relied on these. It is time to move on. We need to “surrender” to the Higher Power.
One would think that such a surrender would be the start of something wondrous and bright. And at first it does seem so. It is like a “pink cloud” where everything is hopeful. That is but the beginning. We are so used to hearing that all one must do is “trust God and all will be okay” that when it doesn’t happen that way we get upset, angry, or lose faith. What has happened is that we have experienced part of the joy of cleansing of the senses and physical issues. We must then, as John of the Cross guides us, also be cleansed of the spiritual issues.
It may be necessary for us to give up warm and fuzzy religious feelings, or have them taken from us by God so we can draw closer to Him. Catholics United for the FaithThe action of surrendering is not as easy as we would like; we are not done with the cleansing. Or more to the point, simply coming to believe is not the end. Much still can block us from the light at the end of the dark night. As part of the spiritual growth ahead of us we must also take a serious look at who we are and what has led us to this point. In the Twelve Step programs this is the “housecleaning” stage.
- We take a searching and fearless moral inventory and share it with a trusted mentor. (Twelve Steps, Four and Five)
- We discover our shortcomings and ongoing character defects and become willing to surrender them. (Twelve Steps, Six and Seven)
- We become aware of those we may have harmed or had difficult relationships with and make amends. (Twelve Steps, Eight and Nine)
- We learn how to take a regular self-inventory and be quick to make amends when we have hurt another. (Twelve Steps, Ten)
These are deeply spiritual steps.
- These force us to look inside and be honest about ourselves.
- They make us confront the ways we may still cling to the old ways of self-centeredness, anger, resentment.
- They lead us into finding new ways to relate to the people in our lives and the world around us.
- They are preparing us to be awake in our spirit and in the Spirit of our Higher Power.
This may seem like a long way to get to what is happening in the world in these early days of 2017. We now have a new president, one who has arguably been the most controversial and disliked candidate-now-president in modern politics. Many remain fearful of what he is going to do. Many have seen him do things that they find unacceptable and promote values they have difficulty accepting. Many are ready to stand up to him and challenge him in the face of his supporters who tell us to “get over it.”
I believe what we are facing is an ongoing spiritual journey. We have only been at this specific journey since early November. It took many by surprise. Too many of us were complacent, almost sluggish. The election was a shock to our system. It told us that we didn't know our country as well as we thought we did. It told us that there is more going on here than we were paying attention to. Many of us have felt like we were swimming in quicksand, being pulled down and out. That is how, for me, the dark night began this journey.
Spiritual can be a confusing term. I am using it here in both the traditional "mystic" sense of becoming unified with a Higher Power (being part of something greater than ourselves) and in the awareness of being connected to those around us- our fellow human beings. These must always be together no matter what spiritual tradition, or lack of one, we may have come from. The journey will be unique for each of us, based on who we are and what we have experienced. It must also be in connection with others.
Marks of the spiritual can take many forms:
- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control
- humility, forgiveness, and acceptance
- honesty, openness, and willingness.
to name but a few.
For us to be prepared for a spiritual journey, one must have been spiritually prepared. That is where we are now. We are at a beginning. These stages of the journey, or the Twelve Steps as a paradigm, or your training and direction and how that happens. We are less than 90 days into this particular journey. We are preparing.