Tuesday, February 28, 2017

6. The Dark Night of the Soul- Through and Beyond

Many of us might be saying as we move through these dark night times:

  • This is impossible.
  • I can’t do anything about what’s happening yet it keeps me awake at night.
  • How can I have a good dialogue with others?
  • I don’t have the energy to do what can be done.
  • I can’t find a reason to hope somedays.

This does look and feel that way. A local church has had a statement on its outside sign for over a month now…
Hope in an apocalyptic world.
Says it all. Everything is falling apart. The end is near.

And yet, an apocalypse, in Christian tradition, is not just a cataclysmic destruction- it is a prophetic revelation of what God is going to be doing. And that brings us back to the Dark Night of the Soul and the journey with God.

Here are the ultimate questions, for me at least, in this series of the Dark Night:
How then does one live after the Dark Night? What is the result of this journey when we get through it?
John Drury in an essay titled The Spiritual Theology of St. John  of the Cross says:
The dark night of sense not only overcomes evil but also infuses good into the soul.  It gives knowledge of self and one’s misery.  This makes it possible for the proficient to have courteous communication with God.  The gift of knowledge extends beyond oneself to God’s grandeur and majesty.  Knowledge of human lowliness and divine greatness produces genuine spiritual humility, from which stems love of neighbor. 
The fruits of this journey are humility, knowledge, virtue, and love for God and others. -Link 
Beyond that, John of the Cross doesn’t give us much of an answer. One of the more common criticisms of him is that he doesn’t deal with the every day life of a person who has experienced the union with God. Part of the reason for that is simply that such a union does not fully occur in this life. The contemplative life, one built in prayer and meditation is powerful and may even feel good. But if it doesn’t have an impact on how we live and what we do in this life, does that mean, then, that the life after the dark night is one of simply waiting around to get to heaven?

I don’t think so. One of the reasons I don’t believe that is true is simply from my experience and the experience of others in dark night situations. I return to the spiritual journey and tools that have led me and many others- the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and their basic text, often referred to as the “Big Book.” In chapter 5, “How It Works”, the paragraph following the listing of the Twelve Steps says:
Many of us exclaimed, "What an order! I can't go through with it." Do not be discouraged. No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is, that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.
How then do we maintain the spiritual journey once the dark night has shown us our powerlessness and our need for a “higher power”? After we have cleansed our souls, made it right with others, and taken responsibility for our own actions, then what? When we recognize our own imperfection and perhaps even knowing or unknowing participation in the darkness, what can we do?

Step 11 says that we continually seek awareness of our higher power’s will- and ask for the power to do it. We do this through regular practices of prayer and meditation. There are some principles behind that, of course.
With these come humility and acceptance of life on life’s terms.

In order to do that there are some practices that we can develop.
Dr. Amit Sood of the Mayo Clinic who was one of my mentors a few years ago, says that we need to develop spiritual practices that help keep our lives as stress free as possible. The more stress, the more likely we are to veer away from the better ways of the spiritual life. It always starts with working on ourselves- the only person we can truly change. On his blog, Dr. Sood lists some practices that help in our daily self-inventory and discovery of acceptance.
Pick one of the practices noted below for today, or create one of your own.
    •    Today, I will consider that most people around me have good intentions.
    •    Today, I will try to gain a complete perspective before making any conclusions.
    •    Today, I will try my best to look at well-meaning intent in a previous situation where I got hurt.
    •    Today, I will keep good intentions all day long.
    •    Today, I will forgive myself for a previous unhealthy thought.
    •    Other: (create your own)
Another idea from Dr. Sood is to get in the habit of picking a “theme” for each day. Start the day with an awareness of the theme and then look for ways to live that throughout the day. He lists the following:
Monday- Gratitude
Tuesday- Compassion
Wednesday- Acceptance
Thursday- Higher Meaning
Friday- Forgiveness
Saturday- Celebration
Sunday- Reflection
This kind of discipline can help keep us grounded in our spiritual lives. It can remind us on a daily basis that we can make a difference by how we live and treat others. What the Dark Night leads spiritual people to is a position of witness. Perhaps at times these witnesses are in the form of being the source of repentance for ourselves and our nations.

I come now to some of the ways we can apply these to our current situation- the one that triggered this dark night in the first place. Many are still struggling with the election and its real life consequences on many people. What is interesting to me is that many of those who are feeling this way are doing so out of a real concern for others.
  • We see issues of racism and intolerance- dangerous and toxic ideas that seriously undermine who we are as a nation. 
  • We see issues of people possibly losing health care or much needed Medicare or Social Security benefits. For a nation that says it cares, this is a disaster. 
  • We see the wealthy 2% getting breaks while the potential for fewer benefits for those who can least afford it is real. For a people who claim democracy and equality, this is a witness against us. 
  • We see refugees and immigrants lumped into religious-based prejudice from people who can’t tell the difference between Muslims, Sikhs, or Hindus. 
  • The press is being unmercifully attacked as an enemy, voter suppression is a real possibility- and this from those who claim to uphold the Constitution.
No wonder many are confused and scared.So let me start by calling us to our own living out of compassion. We need to be cautious that we do not succumb to hateful or mean reactions. We need to maintain our own integrity. We need to be able to listen to what the other side is saying. If we are truly all Americans, we need to find ways to work together. In so doing we also need to find ways to counter the prevailing “party line” of Mr. Trump, Mr. Bannon, and their associates.

Unfortunately we are in an uphill battle. You may have discovered, as I have, that logic does not tend to win any arguments in this or similar situations. No matter what the issue, no matter what side we are on, we all tend to follow our own biases. If it confirms our point of view, we believe it, even when it is downright impossible to believe. The NRA used the “Obama is going to take away your guns” meme so powerfully that many believed it- because they believed it. We will also see in Mr. Trump the confirmation of our fears. When we do so, we need to be careful we do not fall into the same hysteria that we have seen from others. This has been difficult and I am failing at it regularly. But I keep trying.

Underneath this we need to maintain non-violence. The lives of Dr. King and Gandhi are beacons to us. Believe it or not, there are actually studies (admittedly cautionary) that seem to show that non-violent resistance has been more successful at bringing about hopeful change than violence in many places in the world. We must not allow violence to take center stage. We must find ways to maintain the peaceful way even when others- often a very small minority- get the headlines for violent behavior.

In the research and reading for this series, I came across this quote from Shane Claiborne in the book Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals:
Peacemaking doesn’t mean passivity. It is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice. It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.
I also live with the question, “What if things do continue to get worse? What if the actions of the administration continue to undermine democratic activity, increase racism and intolerance, and even lead to violent confrontations? What if even a small part of the worst of our fears comes true?

We must maintain our stand. We must stay informed. And I don’t mean by watching either left- or right-wing media. Take the time to follow a variety of reputable news sources that probably lean either one way or the other. New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, National Review and The Guardian can give a wide view point. You don’t have to agree with all that they say, but most of the time they do tend to be a little more balanced than (in my opinion) any of the TV news outlets of any stripe.

After that, there are three things that those who have had some experience of union with a Higher Power through a dark night journey can and should do.
  •     Protect your soul and spirit.
    • Maintain your own spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation, yoga or Tai Chi, worship, communion.
    • Don't let the negativity, hatred, or anger subvert your growing awareness of your spiritual life .
    • Find ways to put your feelings into healthy words so others may be better able to understand why you feel the way you do.
  •     Help others protect their soul and spirit.
    • Be a good listener to people on all sides of the issues.
    • Listen to the cries of all who feel least and lost on both sides, remembering that perception is felt as reality
    • Don't attack others in vengeful ways but hear the pain and fear that has led them to their position.
    • Know that we are all in this together and that we all have our biases that can get in the way.
    • Be as forgiving of them as you would want others to be to you. You are the one who can change your reaction.
  •     Bear witness
    • Some are calling this a time of resistance. Resistance is a way of bearing non-violent witness. 
    • Be cautious and loving in your witness. Just the very act of resistance can feel like a provocation to those being challenged. Maintain the peace! 
    • Speak up for the least and the lost, the stranger and the hungry, the sick and lonely. Those of us who are in some space of privilege need to find healthy ways to use that privileged place to improve the world.
In doing this wrestling over the past months has reminded me that the spiritual life and union with our Higher Power is for this life! It is NOT a pie in the sky for someday we will be in heaven kind of message. The dark night occurs because we have experienced a significant spiritual and cognitive dissonance. This is not who we are nor is it who we want to be seen. What can this mean?

It means contemplation AND action. It means affirming life and peace. It means resistance with compassion.

This of course is but a small step. We can only think and act locally in our own lives. Over this time I have felt drawn to the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer many times. I am going to do a series for Lent here on the blog called Interrupted by God, a phrase taken from one of his quotes. Yes, there are certain issues with Bonhoeffer and I hope to dig through those.

I will start this tomorrow- Ash Wednesday and continue every Sunday of Lent and through all of Holy Week. I have picked a quote for each day and I hope to be able to read more on Bonhoeffer through Lent.

I invite you to join with me on this and continue our individual journeys to our ongoing spiritual awakening and practicing these spiritual principles in all we do.

Blessings and grace!

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