Sunday, January 15, 2017

Dark Night of the Soul #3: An Earlier Experience

My only previous experience of a dark night-type experience was over 30 years ago now. Details have become foggy, but it all began with a premonition. I envisioned a war in the Middle East during August of 1982. About two years earlier, in 1980, I had been asked to choose hymn verses and write prayers for our denominational devotional, The Daily Texts. I was assigned August 1982. As I read through the daily scriptures for the month I found myself growing afraid. They seemed to indicate that a war was coming in the Middle East. This idea got planted firmly in my conscious and unconscious mind.

This was only enhanced in November 1980 when I hosted a trip to Israel. Among the group who traveled with me were several people who believed that the Second Coming was imminent. An important part of that view is war in the Middle East. They spent a great deal of time talking about that as we toured the country. They almost seemed more interested in that than in the religious and spiritual aspects of the trip. The visit to Har Megiddo (Armageddon) was particularly difficult!

One afternoon I had some free time and I went to one of the hills on the outskirts of Jerusalem and sat there meditating, contemplating and praying. I could envision fighter jets flying over the walls of the Old City. My overactive imagination did its thing. It cemented the fear and uncertainty I was feeling. It remained there when I returned home. A few months after the trip our daughter was born. Now there was more reason to fear and worry.

I lost many nights sleep over the next 18 months. I didn’t talk about it to anyone for months. It was a constant presence in my thoughts, under the surface at times, but always bubbling up in the night. I became interested in St. John of the Cross and his writing at that point, but was unable to truly connect it with what I was going through. Nothing I did seemed to ease the tension. I began trying to figure out how to survive the coming war. It was no longer located in the Middle East in my imagination. It had become World War III. We owned a vacation place in the wilds of northern Pennsylvania so I decided that this would be as good a place as any to survive such a war. I planned that we would go there for the month of August. I never explained why.

I did go to see a pastoral counselor at one point. All he did was make it worse. “It must be something to have that ability at premonition,” was the only comment I remember. Not a help. I don’t think he was being sarcastic. Ironic, maybe. I did finally talk to my wife about it, but by then I was overwhelmed and just looking forward to getting past August. I knew it was crazy, but it was still alive.

Needless to say nothing happened. August 1982 came and went. I went back to “normal” life- or so I thought. Looking back from 35 years later I see that something else happened. It was but the beginning of a longer dark night that took another six years to finish. During this time my use of alcohol increased significantly. I would go up to our vacation place by myself. I would spend days alternating between drinking myself drunk at night and working on sermon and worship planning during the days. Days were productive; nights were hell. I would find renewal in the daylit woods and writing but the darkness would bring the demons. It is not an unusual pattern for a deepening alcoholic. I didn’t realize it was happening and even had trouble describing it several years later when faced with the outcome. But I tried something- in July 1984 we moved from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin.

Geographic escapes don’t work any better than any other actions of denial. The darkness was deepening and I was oblivious to the problems. A number of other personal and emotional storms began to develop. I began to question my own direction, desires, calling. I was outwardly doing well; inwardly I was falling apart. And no one knew it. Least of all myself. Can I blame it on the inability to identify the dark night of the early 1980s? Could it have been avoided if I had taken a different approach before it reached these stages?

No, I don’t think so. One of the difficulties of becoming spiritually mature and insightful is that you have to be old enough to have had the necessary experiences. Premature maturity is truly an oxymoron. The darkness at the beginning of that decade was the start of the dark night. It was setting the stage for what was to come. Through the mid-1980s I struggled with an inner darkness. I thought there had to be light shining somewhere in there; in truth I was fooling myself since I was looking for answers in my own understanding. I was refusing to allow the spirit touch my soul, although I knew that I wanted it.

My drinking expanded. It was a classic binge drinking pattern. It was easy to binge when I was away from home. I would go to conferences and hide in my room at night. I would visit friends in New York and make sure I had enough to drink when I was alone in what I called my “monk’s cell” in their apartment. I would walk the streets of New York with loneliness in the midst of eight million people. I was lost in my own darkness and unable to see the dark night St. John talked about.

Until finally, in late 1988 I had my own epiphany. I had become an alcoholic. I needed help. I entered treatment. Part of me expected it to be an escape. It turned into freedom. I thought it would be a way out of the inner hell I had created. Instead it became a way through that hell. It was a true dark night for in reality the night that John describes is an awareness of- and acceptance of- powerlessness and personal unmanageability in all areas of one’s life. Which is, of course, the First Step of Alcoholics Anonymous. I wouldn’t have used the words from John’s first stanza at that time. I do now!

On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings
--oh, happy chance!--
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.
John describes this first stanza of the dark night as purging the lower self- the sensual self. In my years of sobriety and work as a substance abuse counselor, I would say that this is a good way to describe the work of the first three steps of AA. That purging or “housecleaning” is then described in steps four through nine. It is necessary. Most addicts and alcoholics have been hijacked by the senses and feelings of the “pleasure center” of the brain. Or rather, their chemical use has hijacked that area and turned their lives into hell. There is a constant search in the bottle or the pills, the weed or the next line, to get rid of the thoughts and feelings that seem to never go away.
—Oh, happy chance!— 
 that I was able to go forth and discover, in the midst of darkness, the light that shines in that darkness.

I could spend many days putting the dark night and early recovery together, which is not the purpose of this particular series. When I started this discussion of the dark night and how I have come to approach the current political and cultural issue I did not expect it to go this direction. I did not- and do not- have the whole thing outlined and ready for “prime time.” It is through my times of writing that these things work out. As I wrote the first two posts I realized that, for me, this is part of a longer and more profound journey. In putting this together I am describing my pilgrimage and its present location. I do not believe that this is unique to me. The language I use in the telling is mine but the experiences are far more common than not.

Within the next week we will have a new president. The divisiveness, anger, fear, and even hatred shown in the campaign and transition period was what spurred this series. There are times when I see a post on Facebook or a news story about some particularly difficult event that I get this awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. Anxiety builds; darkness seems to be more prevalent. It doesn’t appear as if that is going away any time soon. For today, and at least the next few weeks, the question is how do I live and grow through this? The Dark Night remains the best paradigm for me to work from.

In the next post I will delve more deeply into the path the dark night takes us on. John is very clear about what that is and why. I will utilize my experience of the Twelve Steps in that, but it is not about alcoholism or addiction. It is about the spiritual journey. John states that the goal of this journey into the dark night is
the state of the perfect, which is that of the Divine union of the soul with God.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that the purpose of the twelve Steps is the same, though in different words-
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps… and to practice these principles in all our affairs. [emphasis added]

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