The monk felt nothing. He had been sitting under the willow tree for what seemed like hours, and though he tried to quiet his mind, thoughts bombarded him like bees swarming a hive.
The more he sat, the more his mind raced. ‘How am I supposed to hear God when I can‘t keep my mind quiet?’, he thought to himself.
‘Don’t be too hard on yourself.’
The monk opened his eyes to see his abbess standing in front of him.
‘How did you know what I was thinking? Do you have the gift?’ the monk asked.
‘No. I don’t have the gift,’ the abbess answered. ‘Your anguish is written on your face. What is troubling you?’
‘I'm such a lousy monk!’, the monk exclaimed. ‘I can’t even sit here in silence without my mind racing like a frightened horse. And the things that are running through my mind are not holy in the slightest! My thoughts are sinful. I have to be the lowest of the low when it comes to spiritual things.’ The monk buried his face in his hands.
The abbess, full of compassion, leaned forward and placed her hand on the monks head. ‘Then you are on the right path,' she consoled, lifting the monk’s face. ‘You are entering the dark night.’
This little story is more or less how I feel about myself and my journey in contemplation. It seems like the more I do it, the further away I get. But it wasn’t until this month’s reading that I had any idea of the way things were to be. In that way, my ‘abbess’ would be St John of the Cross.
St John of the Cross was a Carmelite friar and priest of late 16th century. He is known for many things including his writings. This month’s reflection is on his poem and reflection, ‘Dark Night of the Soul’. According to St John, ‘this dark night is an inflowing of God into the soul, which purges it from its ignorances and imperfections, habitual, natural and spiritual, and which is called by contemplatives infused contemplation, or mystical theology’ (pg 95, emphasis added). It is because of this purging that St John refers to it as the ‘dark night’.
[The] soul relates the way and manner which it followed in going forth, as to its affection, from itself and from all things, and in dying to them all and to itself,...this going forth from itself and from all things was a “dark night” (pg 28).
This ‘dark night’ is not just when things are not going so well or when God seems to be quiet, as some ( I ) have mistakenly thought. No. It is something altogether different. It is an actual drawing that comes from God to enter into a deeper life with God.
Into this dark night souls begin to enter when God draws them forth from the state of beginners...and begins to set them in the state of progressives...to the end that, after passing through it, they may arrive at the state of the perfect, which is that of Divine union of the soul with God (pg 30).
Although the end result is ‘Divine union of the soul with God’ the process is difficult, to say the least.
This is the first and principal benefit caused by this arid and dark night of contemplation: the knowledge of oneself and of one’s misery (pg 69).
Along with this ‘knowledge...of one’s misery’ comes ‘spiritual sloth’:
With respect also to spiritual sloth, beginners are apt to be irked by the things that are most spiritual, from which they flee because these things are incompatible with sensible pleasure. For, as they are so much accustomed to sweetness in spiritual things, they are wearied by things in which they find no sweetness. If once they failed to find in prayer the satisfaction which their taste required (and after all it is well that God should take it from them to prove them), they would prefer not to return to it: sometimes they leave it; at other times they continue it unwillingly. And thus because of this sloth they abandon the way of perfection (which is the way of the negation of their will and pleasure for God’s sake) for the pleasure and sweetness of their own will, which they aim at satisfying in this way rather than the will of God (pg 51).
In other words, when one starts out in contemplation, one is expecting to find sensory sweetness (euphoric feelings, extraordinary visions, etc.) but instead is given a glimpse at her own ‘misery’ (St John compares this to Job’s encounter with God). Since this is not what the beginner wanted, she may abandon the practice altogether or ‘continue it unwillingly’ and, therefore, ‘abandon the way of perfection’. The point seems to me that of intention. What is the intention of contemplation? As we discussed last month, that intention is union with God in the now.
However, what I find a little sad (more than the person giving up) is that St John refers to people before this drawing as ‘beginners’. As if people who are not yet contemplatives are still in an infant stage of their journey. However, this echoes something that Fr Keating wrote about and I reflected upon last month. I want to flesh this out a little.
Starting with a statement from last month’s book and reflection - the institutional church highly discourages contemplation and sees it as something (almost demonic) other than real / true Christianity - to this month's reflection on 'The Dark Night of the Soul'; I see that the follower of Jesus is the one who initially suffers, and that suffering then spreads to others.
Contemplation, as we saw last month, is the 'organic evolution' of the follower of Christ. But, as we have seen, one does not even become a 'beginner' until she begins thinking of contemplation. Until then, she is seen as an infant. So, a couple of questions and responses:
1) Because of the discouragement (or down-right rejection) of contemplation and meditation, has the institutional church created a giant nursery? And if so, was this it's intention or the natural by-product of it's stance?
This could be a real illumination. So many people only see their spiritual lives as defined by institutional churches. I have asked some of my friends to consider their faith without the building down the street, and almost without fail, they stare at me with a rather blank look upon their faces. They don’t seem to have any type of spiritual life outside of those buildings. They are so used to having people do things for them that, if left to themselves, they would not really know where to begin. So, yes, I rather believe that the institutional church has created such a nursery. But, I do not think it was intentional. It seems that it is a natural by-product of it’s views and stances, especially with regards to prayer. I have been a part of that institution for so long that I still feel guilty when I miss a Sunday service. I feel like people are judging my spiritual walk by how often I attend. And, I’m certain, some people probably do. But I don’t think that was the way Jesus intended it to be. There were plenty of religious institutions in his day. I can’t really see him believing that the real answer was to create another one.
2) Is the fact that so many people are taking control of their own spiritual journeys a sign that this is how it was to be all along? That is, given the institutional church's stance on seeing the Bible as an answer book - and they the holders of the answers and final say in all things biblical and the only way of seeing - are people starting to awake (through the leading of God's Spirit) to the need to find another way of seeing? That we are 'in charge' of our own spiritual journeys? Is the popularity of meditation - the surge, if you will - a direct result of this awakening?
I think it could most definitely be such a sign. As more and more people are leaving the institutional churches and finding their own way forward, meditation is becoming a very real focal point in their journeys. Some have left the Christian faith altogether (for various reasons) and found peace and true spiritual nourishment in spiritual practices that enable them to live in ‘a way’ - and not a belief system. People are looking for a way of living and not a religious dogma. And, when I read the Gospels, that is exactly what Jesus was calling people to. And still is.
The call of Christ is for a deep relationship with the One he called Father-Mother. It is a very intimate relationship that is based on love. Love for God. Love for neighbor. Love for enemy. Love of self. Relationships are the nuts and bolts of our every day lives. Sure, there are rituals. But the fascinating thing is the those rituals are often as individualistic as we are. Even within one’s own family. One doesn’t (or shouldn’t) measure one’s relationship on someone else’s. Each relationship has to be worked out with ‘deep reverence and fear’ (Phil. 2.12).
And further, had contemplation not been squashed, what would the followers of Jesus look like today? Would we all look like monks?
I don’t think so. Given what I stated above, all of our walks would look differently. But there is one thing that I really believe to be true. We may not all be in monasteries but we would all be more loving and less violent.
Is the idea of the 'emerging' church actually people who are 'growing up' from that infant stage? Is the fact that so many people label themselves as 'spiritual' another sign of this 'organic evolution'?
This could very well be true. I think the ‘emerging’ church is our day’s Reformation. And the label of ‘spiritual’ would certainly fit in that same category. Although all spiritual traditions are not healthy - just as all foods are not healthy - they are still people who find themselves gaining such great blessings from them that I am reminded of Jesus words, ‘Anyone who is not against us is for us’ (Mark 9.40).
All in all, I found ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ very enlightening and encouraging - especially since I am so very much like that little monk at the beginning. One must keep going, especially through the arid times, because the outcome will truly be ‘Divine union of the soul with God’ here and now. And that, my friends, is the goal of the whole world.
In the Love of the Three in One,