At Bloom, we’re participating in Lent. And now that we’re more than two weeks into it, for a lot of us, this whole thing is starting to HURT a little… Craving the food we decided to give up, wishing the commitments we made weren’t quite so ambitious, looking for loopholes in the system, quietly begging “off” in our souls, counting down the days till it’s over, etc etc.
And even more, many of us are finding ourselves saying, “Geez, I gave up all this stuff and thought FOR SURE that by now I’d be experiencing some kind of heavenly ecstasy. Why haven’t I had my out-of-body experience of transcendence yet? Where is GOD in this?” It’s easy to feel let down. “I want my money back.”
As a pastor, hearing people say this … my (excessively morbid?) heart actually rejoices a bit. Let me explain.
The experience of inward “dryness” when making pilgrimage to God is a common experience of saints down through the ages. In fact, in the 16th century the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross gave this experience a name. He called it “The Dark Night of the Soul.” For John, The Dark Night wasn’t a bad thing. In fact, it was an abundantly GOOD thing, for it was during these experiences that the soul was being FREED from excessive attachment to the external support of good feelings and being strengthened to love and serve God. He wrote:
“…the darkness of the soul mentioned here…puts the sensory and spiritual appetites to sleep…It binds the imagination and impedes it from doing any good discursive work. It makes the memory cease, the intellect become dark and unable to understand anything, and hence it causes the will also to become arid and constrained, and all the faculties empty and useless. And over all this hangs a dense and burdensome cloud which afflicts the soul and keeps it withdrawn from God.”
You know, the truth is that despite what we say about our experience of faith, if you talked to MOST Christians, they’d tell you they’ve had at least one experience like this, if not many. (It’s been documented, for instance, that Mother Teresa had an extended experience of inward darkness that lasted for much of her life. Think about that. Mother Teresa!) And I think if John of the Cross is right, then we have something to learn from these experiences…
As Americans, we tend to measure EVERYTHING by how it makes us feel. Does an experience make us feel good? It must be good then. Does an experience make us feel bad (or fail to make us feel good)? It must be worthless. The technical term for this is Hedonism: the idea that pleasure is the ultimate good.
The PROBLEM with this is that it makes true virtue IMPOSSIBLE. Jesus taught that following him would often entail suffering. More often than not, doing what’s right doesn’t immediately lead to pleasure. Often it leads to pain. And if we can’t embrace that idea, we’ll never grow in character, never advance in virtue. Richard Foster writes: “The notion, often heard today, that such experiences should be avoided and that we should always live in peace and comfort, joy and celebration only betrays the fact that much contemporary experience is surface slush.”
That’s what’s so beautiful about The Dark Night. If we embrace it, we’ll increasingly find ourselves freed from the need to always feel good, and will learn instead to choose what’s right BECAUSE it’s right. To choose GOD because He’s God, not because choosing him makes us feel fuzzy inside. The death of subservience to feelings is the beginning of virtue. Foster continues: “The dark night is one of the ways God brings us into a hush, a stillness so that he may work an inner transformation upon the soul.”
But this is hard for us because most of us have been sold a bill of goods about what following Jesus is supposed to be like. We were promised a version of faith in which embracing Christ would give us “our best life yet.” And while that may be true, we forget that the path to getting to the “best life” (the life that GOD actually does want for us, but will likely look far different from Christianized versions of the American Dream), is a path that entails purgation…the sweet sufferings that purify the soul and make us capable of seeing and embracing God. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5).
So if you’re in a “Dark Night if the Soul” embrace it. Keep pressing in. Keep journeying on. Keep choosing the Good, even if it doesn’t seem to be “rewarding” in the moment. And know that God is doing a good, deep work in you through it.
PS – We talked about this issue this past weekend at Bloom. Listen in on the website under “services” and “talks”.