Monday, February 06, 2017

5. Dark Night of the Soul- Purpose and Meaning

In this week’s post I want to explore the purpose and meaning of the “Dark Night of the Soul”. I’ve already talked about this in various ways, but I’d like to focus on it in a little more breadth this week. As we do this, it is important to remember, again, that the “dark night” is not dreadful and dreary, a place with no hope. As John of the Cross understood it is an exciting and possibility-filled journey.

Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!
The journey is one that is not to get something, but to become something and someone. A person is changed as the dark night continues, if one is willing to be open to what is happening. A website called Neomysticism had this to say:
The main purpose of it all is not to attain something. Rather, there's a certain consciousness — an awareness — that grows in the person who experiences this night. This will later lead to a full awakening — living from that 'higher mind' that Jesus refers to in his use of the word metanoia. [Often translated as repentance. Literally “change of mind."] God's presence is not something you attain, but something that's already there. You just become aware of it. You realize it... often through unlearning and getting rid of obstacles. That's why the journey of true spirituality is often referred to as a path of descent. You have to become less.
The last stanza of John’s poem presents this union with God this way:
I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.
Okay. Let’s bring this down to earth, to a way that we can understand it, not because we are less open than John, but because such poetic language needs to be unpacked. Even John wrote two books expounding on the short poem. For me, in line with what I have been writing before, I return to the Twelve Steps as developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. In particular, the concluding step, number 12:
  • Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps,
  • we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and
  • to practice these principles in all our affairs.
So the result of the dark night’s pilgrimage is:
  • Spiritual awakening
John described it as “all ceased and I abandoned myself.” A spiritual awakening is not necessarily, nor very often, a moment of blinding experience. Most of the time it is the result of the path of a spiritual journey that opens us to a new way of understanding ourselves and our world. What was important is no longer important. John can say that after abandoning himself he could leave his cares “forgotten among the lilies.”

As we lie awake wrestling with the night and the issues swirling around us and our country, the idea of being able to leave the cares forgotten feels unreachable. Yet, as John said, “oh happy chance” that this would be possible. After all this IS what started us on this journey in the first place- the wrestling with things seemingly too big and too out of reach for us mere mortals. One day we come to new understandings as a result of these and we realize that we have awakened from the night. We are more spiritually awake than we were when we began. It is ongoing, to be sure, but we are different.

It is now a new spiritual day- even if the world itself still looks dark and uncertain.

The second thing about the 12th Step is the natural continuation of the awakening. We have had a spiritual awakening. Therefore we:
  • Carry the message
In the 12 Steps the people who the message is taken to are of course others with the same issue- alcoholism. It makes sense then that the message we carry is first to those who struggle with the spiritual issues we have faced. It is a message to those seeking direction or answers, hope or support in what feels like a time of being lost and alone.

The world of 16th Century Spain was one of great change, difficulty, and disagreement. The worst of the Inquisition was a still fresh memory; the expulsion of the Jews from Andalusia after the “reconquest” of Spain from the Muslims was complete; Roman Catholicism as a whole was in the midst of dealing with the Protestant Reformation and its own counter-reformation. St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila were tireless in living what they had discovered in their own dark nights. They carried the message by being who they were in spite of persecution and even time in prison.

A short biography of St. John says this:  
It was not long before the exemplary lives of the small community of reformed friars and nuns that had gathered around St. John and St. Teresa respectively began attracting vocations [i.e. others who wanted to join with them in their work.]  -St. John of the Cross
When we have a spiritual awakening, the world has not changed one iota. John says that the “heart lit me from inside':

It [the heart] guided and shone
Surer than noonday sunlight over me.
We have changed. Which means for us that everything has changed. That's why we carry the message. But how do we do that? Back to the 12th Step. The best way to carry the message is to:

  • Practice this new way we have learned.
Practice these principles (the way of the soul and spirit) in all we do. Speaking is not enough. It is more important that we live these principles in all we do. A phrase that has come to mean a great deal to me in the past year captures the essence of this:
How you do anything is how you do everything.
There are many ways of saying it-
  • practice what you preach; 
  • actions speak louder than words; 
  • I’d rather see a sermon than hear one; 
  • faith without works is dead.
It has to do with personal integrity and self-awareness. (More on that in the next post.) We can’t compartmentalize our lives, living one way here and another way over there. At the worst that means we are being dishonest or uncommitted to anything. At best it is being wishy-washy.

Let me give an example I have wrestled with over the last few weeks. I have often said that dialogue is important in this time and place. We need to talk with each other, not throw slogans, engage in name-calling or stereotyping. (Sarcasm can take us a long way- but in the wrong direction.) I have also said that we need to learn to find ways to express support and care for each other. Liberals, like myself, for example, can be great at standing up for the least and the lost, but overlook the least and the lost among those on the other side of the issue. We end up ignoring them, calling them ignorant or uninformed. (Note: Do not tell me that “they” do the same. I can’t change them- I can only change me.) That is NOT what I preach and say I believe. How I do anything is how I do everything.

Guilty as charged.

So, three weeks ago I was given the opportunity (by my Higher Power?) to sit next to a staunch Trump supporter. He was joyous about the new president and what was going to happen. I tried to ignore him. I’m tired of this crap. He talked about what he liked about the new president’s agenda. I tried to ignore him. I made some comments back, mostly negative. But that damn still small voice kept bugging me- how you do anything…

So I began to listen. I still heard the Trump-supporting party line. But I also began to hear the both uncertainty and hope mixed in with it. This acquaintance is best described as part of the white, male, middle class- a group easily”demonized” in these very polarized and divided times. I was able to hear, for perhaps the first time, his pain, his fear, and his reason for hoping that the new administration will do something positive.

Once I made a conscious decision to listen, really listen, things began to change. I tried not to place him in a stereotyped box, even when he made such statements about “liberals” or “Muslims”. I did challenge the generalizing and engaged in some dialogue about the issues, pointing out differences between talking points and what is happening. He began to listen to me and took in what I was saying. I hope that was because I was treating him as an equal in the dialogue. The other evening, after three weeks of this weekly conversation happening in bits and pieces, I thanked him for his willingness to talk and listen. He sat back and told me what he really hopes for in this administration, also admitting his concerns, something he would have been unwilling to do when we were on “opposite sides.”

How we do anything is how we do everything. If we spend time stereotyping others, we will not see them as individuals.If we spend time seeing those with opposing viewpoints as “the enemy” we will always be at war with them, even if we agree on more than we disagree. It took some real effort on my part to move to a point of really listening. But when I managed to do that more often than not, I found myself in real conversation about some very important things. (These are not directly related to the Dark Night discussion.  I will talk about them in another “interlude” piece in the next week or so.)

What this whole episode has done is bring to the front for me the essential work of dialogue, conversation, even mediation if needed. It means that when I stand up for certain values, I have to be willing to apply those values to those I might be in opposition to! If I believe all people are loved by God and worthy of my attention, then I cannot place some people outside that love just because I disagree with them. I can’t not love them or care about them just because I might find some of what they do as immoral, reprehensible or downright wrong. I remember when the ACLU went to court to help a white-supremacy rally occur. They value free speech and civil liberties- even when it might have been unpopular with their own constituency.

For people who are seeking a spiritual way through this time, it is always, always, always fundamental that we begin with our values. What is it that I am called to do? How am I called to do it? What are my values that guide me in all these actions? The Dark Night helps those questions become clarified and answered as we become more and more spiritually awake, these ways become clearer.

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