Sunday, January 08, 2017

Dark Night of the Soul #2: St. John of the Cross

In the first post of this series on the dark night and the movement from last year’s election, I introduced the relief I felt when I realized that my experience and possibly that of others, was a movement of the soul for me. At the heart of it was the nearly 500-year old understanding of the movement toward union and unity with God.

The image of the Dark Night of the Soul in that growth toward union comes from the mystical vision and writings of St. John of the Cross. It is deeply embedded into Christian mysticism and Catholic tradition. It is powerful and life-changing.

Saint John of the Cross (1542 – 1591) was a major figure of the Counter-Reformation, a Spanish mystic, a Roman Catholic saint, a Carmelite friar and a priest. He is also known for his writings. Both his poetry and his studies on the growth of the soul are considered the summit of mystical Spanish literature and one of the peaks of all Spanish literature. -
John, though 25 years her junior, was a contemporary, and a colleague of St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582). Together their writings and work are the foundation of over 400 years of prayer and faithfulness. Their friendship cultivated John’s visions that became the understanding of the dark night of the soul.
The Dark Night of the Soul, a poem written in 1578 or 1579, narrates the journey of the soul from her bodily home to her union with God. It happens during the night, which represents the hardships and difficulties she meets in detachment from the world and reaching the light of the union with the Creator. There are several steps in this night, which are related in successive stanzas. The main idea of the poem can be seen as the painful experience that people endure as they seek to grow in spiritual maturity and union with God. -
When I first came across the idea of a dark night over 35 years ago, I thought, as do many, that it is a time of great distress, loss, and uncertainty. While those are some of the experiences of a dark night, to get stuck on that idea is to lose the incredible power of what this is all about.
The main idea of the poem can be seen as the joyful experience of being guided to God. The only light in this dark night is that which burns in the soul. And that is a guide more certain than the mid-day sun. (Aquésta me guiaba, más cierto que la luz del mediodía.) This light leads the soul engaged in the mystic journey to divine union. -https://en.wikipedia.or/wiki/Dark_Night_of_the_Soul
The poem begins with an underlying joy, in spite of the darkness:
On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings
--oh, happy chance!--
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised
--oh, happy chance!--
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.

In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide,
save that which burned in my heart.
Note the repetition of “oh, happy chance!” in stanzas one and two and “In the happy night” at the start of the third. John is letting his readers know that while the darkness and trials of the “night” may seem things to be avoided, there is more to this than meets the eye- or any of the normal senses. This is a higher power than our human powers. This is the work of God. This is a way toward union with the very Creator of the universe.

It has been felt by some that all people go through these ups and downs of living. It is such a powerful phrase that seems to describe many human reactions, such use is no surprise. But, no, this is different. It is different in quality, in source, and finally, in its conclusion.
The "dark night of the soul" does not refer to the hardships and difficulties of life in general, although the phrase has understandably been taken to refer to such trials. The nights which the soul experiences are the necessary purgations on the path to divine union: the first is of the sensory or sensitive part of the soul, the second of the spiritual part. Such Purgations comprise the first of the three stages of the mystic journey, followed by Illumination and Union. -
Which is why I was at first hesitant to apply the dark night to what I have been going through since the beginning of November. So many people were reacting in ways similar to the way I was feeling. It was situational, built from the shock and negativity of the election. It might even see self-righteous, grandiose, or even insensitive to take this solely upon myself. It’s not all about me, in spite of what I may want to believe.

But then I realized- remembered(?!)- that God comes to us in the midst of our own individual lives. God speaks to us from the events of the world we live in. God calls us into deeper union by what is occurring in our own souls. Might it be that the feelings engendered by the election are part of something in me that I need to pay attention to? Might it be that for me this is the next phase of my own spiritual movement? Might it be that by publishing this on my blog others might find a way through their own experiences that just might be for them a dark night experience?

I have been interested in mysticism for almost 50 years. I have been intrigued by the mystical traditions of my Christian faith as well as the faith of my Jewish ancestors. I have been moved by the mystical world of the Muslim poet Rumi, the depth of Howard Thurman’s practices, and Evelyn Underhill’s explanations. Mystical stories have been found in my own Moravian history in the renewal of the ancient church by an experience of the Holy Spirit in the 1720s at the same time as the mysticism of the Baal Shem Tov was revolutionizing Eastern European Judaism. I saw the events of the charismatic movement and wondered.

There is something deep, profound, and ultimately world-shattering about these- and the countless other examples from myriad traditions and places.With all this, it should probably not have surprised me when the mystical tradition of St. John of the Cross and St. Terese of Avila, two of my favorites, came to the surface as a result of these past two months. In these two posts so far I have set the history. In the next one I will explain some of my past exposure to the dark night and its place in who I am- and most likely in who I am becoming.

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