“Next week we’re going to discuss chapter seven, ‘The Dark Night of the Soul,’” I reminded the Tuesday morning women’s book study. We’re reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. No sooner had I gotten the words out of my mouth when ninety-one year old Betty blurted out, “Well, that’s a great chapter for Election Day!”
Betty’s sharp wit never fails to entertain our group, which dissolved into laughter. Of course, Betty has been alive longer than any of us, having lived during the aftermath of the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing American women the right to vote (1920), Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War 2, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, September 11, and the Supreme Court’s October 8 decision to let stand five federal appellate court rulings that recognized a constitutional right for gay people to marry.
Betty has seen it all, and she understands that the results of Election Day will not magically save us, even if Michigan elects the governor and U.S. Senator for whom she chooses to vote. Nor will Election Day be all doom and gloom if you and I continue to live gracious and justice-filled lives no matter who is in office.
Dark Night of the Soul is the title of a poem and commentary by sixteenth century Spanish Roman Catholic mystic, St. John of the Cross. John spent eleven months in a monastery prison for refusing to renounce his work with Teresa of Avila, both of whom attempted to reform their Carmelite religious orders. Allowed only bread and water to eat, John could not bathe or change his clothes, was flogged by the other monks, and spent most of his time in solitary confinement with only a slit of light in a prison wall.
With nothing left but God, John composed his greatest works by memorizing them in the dark of his cell. In the midst of cold, despair and hopelessness, John was on fire with the love of God and wrote about what he learned in the dark. The dark night represents the hardships and difficulties that we meet in detaching from the world and entering into mystic union with God.
After John managed to escape from his cell, he spent the rest of his life explaining that God, whom he described in Spanish as todo y nada, is both all and nothing. We cannot hold on to or grasp God; we can only encounter God and be changed. In the same way, human striving is ultimately nothing. Rather, we experience true life by loving God through listening, seeing and surrendering.
Today we use the phrase “dark night of the soul” to describe an intense personal or spiritual crisis that may seem to mimic clinical or situational depression. However, it’s more like a divine wrestling with God, like Jacob at the Jabbok Ford. The dark night of the soul often takes us by surprise. All of a sudden faith vanishes, God is distant, life is meaningless, and we are overcome with loneliness and despair. Like St. John of the Cross, the only way to move beyond the dark night of the soul is to embrace the dark and learn from it. In the wrestling, God’s love leads us through the valley where the old self dies and a new self is born.
Dark nights of the soul are not confined to individuals. Our country experienced a dark night of the soul on September 11, 2001. The Great Recession in 2007-2008 saw a dramatic economic decline in world markets that had a global impact. And, as Betty so eloquently pointed out, every national election can be seen as a dark night of the soul if we pin the hopes and dreams of our nation and world on the election of national leaders who promise to make it all better. Might embracing political differences enhance our ability as a country to work for liberty and justice for all?
Thousands of local churches are also going through dark nights of the soul. Some congregations are so consumed by conflict that little energy is left for vital ministry. Other congregations are dying right before our very eyes, refusing to change and allow themselves to die to the old in order for something new to emerge.
In the same way The United Methodist Church is in the midst of a dark night of the soul over the issue of gay marriage. United Methodist clergy are testing our polity by performing gay marriages for church or family members. Bishops are placed in difficult situations as just resolutions are sought. Trials are held, judgments are rendered, decisions are announced and appeals are made to the Judicial Council. The night is dark because no one ever “wins.” Strategizing for the 2016 General Conference is leading to different options for the future, including “amicable” separation.
Might God be calling United Methodists to enter the dark night of the soul by sitting in our cells, voluntarily giving up our cherished views of God and each other and writhing in the agony of new birth? Should we be asking forgiveness for wasting precious time and resources that could be used to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with all people?
What would it take for The United Methodist Church to surrender rather than resist, to wave the white flag and admit that without God we cannot “fix” ourselves or others? Could the dark night teach us that the dividing line between sin and grace is not always clear? By living in solidarity with the pain of the world, choosing undeserved suffering and a necessary dying, dare we walk further into the heart of darkness to find God? By refusing to blame others or play the victim, can we coexist in deep suffering as well as great joy, rejoicing in the role we can play together in God’s future of our world?
Surely, this kind of faith is not safe, for the way through is ultimately the way out. I wish the dark night on everyone because in the dark there is no longer certainty about who is right and who is wrong. God is todo and nada. Stripped of everything that has provided meaning, we are left with a God who is all and nothing. Nothing except love. “Who has ever seen people persuaded to love God by harshness?” wrote St. John of the Cross. And, “Where there is no love, put love – and you will find love.”
In his book The Darkness of God, Denys Turner writes that when depression passes, all is restored. When the dark night of the soul passes, all is transformed. I yearn for that transformation, for we are not without hope. In loss, emptiness and nada we not only find hope, we find our true selves.
So bring on the dark night of the soul tomorrow. Let’s go the polls and vote for todo and nada. Let my vote cancel out yours, and your vote cancel out another. But let us vote, coming out transformed rather than restored. And while we’re at it, let The United Methodist Church be transformed, not restored. Let our local churches be transformed, not restored. And let each one of our lives be transformed, not restored.
Transformed not by harshness but love. Transformed not by dogmatism but by understanding. Transformed not by certainty but by surrender – surrender to a God who is nothing but love.