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Reflection October 16, 2016
Dark Nights and the Silence of God (Part Two)
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
I wrote part one of this three (or four) part series in last week’s Advance – about the existential difficulties we experience because of a God who seems to hide from us – especially when we are caught in the horrors of pain and human suffering.
Such an experience is often called a “dark night” after the testimony of the 16th Century Spanish mystic, John of the Cross. His life story is incredibly illuminating and I would encourage everyone to learn more about him on line or in the library. His treatise, written after escaping extreme torture and imprisonment (for trying to reform the Carmelite religious community), was titled “Dark Night of the Soul.” His experience of God – after his suffering – is a classic in the literature of our Christian mystics. When it comes to understanding who God is and how God works in our world – I trust the mystics more than anyone else.
As the psychiatrist and spiritual writer, Gerald May, writes in his telling commentary, Dark Night of the Soul: “One of the biggest lessons of the dark night is the realization that I am not as much in control of my life as I’d like to be. This,” May notes, “is not an easy learning. Especially for take-charge people (like me!), people who think they can – and, more importantly, should be in control of things.” Both my beloved Beth and I are deeply learning this critical teaching.
May continues: “The Dark Night of the Soul, in John (of the Cross)’s original sense, is in no way sinister or negative. It is, instead, a deeply encouraging vision of the joys and pains we all experience in life. The dark night inspires the desire to minimize suffering and injustice wherever possible, and, at the same time, it sheds a hope-filled light on the pains that cannot be avoided.”
As I mentioned last week, suffering is not God’s will for us. God does not want my beloved Beth to be suffering as she presently is suffering. As May writes: “The divine presence doesn’t intend for us to suffer, but is instead with us in all the experiences of life, in both suffering and joy. And that divine presence is always inviting us toward greater freedom and love.”
We all need to know – we all need to believe – that God is with us as we struggle through our lives. What happens in the dark night is that the person enduring the dark night abandons all attempts to please God or appear good. In the experience of the dark night, one senses the emptiness of everything that used to give one comfort. It also feels like God has given up on the person. This leaves one with only one healthy and helpful option: to humbly surrender completely to the presence of God.
In this experience, one learns to put away self-importance and focus primarily on the presence of the Almighty. This is what actually constitutes the virtue of humility. As Mirabai Starr’s writes in the introduction of her translation of John of the Cross’ treatise: “Humility is not a matter of beating ourselves up. It is not a question of judging ourselves and stupid or sinful, as hopeless or bad. Who are we to judge these things? Humility, for John of the Cross, is the gentle acceptance of that most tender place inside ourselves that throbs with the pain of separation from the beloved (God).”
In the dark night, one learns to rest in the silence of God. God is silent – but this is how God works – in silence. My beloved Beth and I are learning this truth. I don’t believe God is very showy. But because of much of our early religious education, we’ve been misled to believe that God always acts in flashy ways – with burning bushes – and the like. We recall the classic movie, The Ten Commandments and expect God to act like some sort of Cecil B. DeMille special effect. But God is much more subtle than this. God acts in silence. What we experience as the dark night is the silence of God enveloping us with the divine presence.
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor