One dark night,
Fired with love’s urgent longings
— Ah, the sheer grace! —
I went out unseen,
My house being now all stilled.The Dark Night of the Soul. Poem by St. John of the Cross
Five centuries ago a little monk was locked in a six foot by ten foot room. For nine months in this cell barely bigger than a closet, St. John of the Cross wrestled with God and with himself in what he came to call the dark night of the soul.
For St. John, the dark night is a stripping away of everything: the senses, feelings, and urges that console us, or that make us feel close to God. Instead, during the dark night, the soul exists on will-power alone. Feeling abandoned by God, without any consolation or sometimes even a sense of hope, the soul is purged of its attachments and imperfections as it is plunged into the darkness. Relying only on the will—the will to love God, and the deep desire to be loved by him in return—the soul matures in holiness and moves to new heights in prayer and union with God.
During his dark night, St. John came to understand that this purging, this apparent abandonment by God that one feels is not actually abandonment but a great act of love. God allows the dark night because it allows a soul to grow closer in love with Him. St. John realized that without the dark night, there could not be an advancement in the spiritual life, nor an even closer union with God: a union for which we have all been created.
On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.
This guided meThe Dark Night of the Soul. Poem by St. John of the Cross
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
— him I knew so well —
there in a place where no one appeared.
It is hard to ignore the parallels between St. John’s dark night and the collective dark night of the Church during this time. Truly the the houses of God are stilled. Some are locked. None have public Mass. The faithful are themselves in their own cells, experiencing a dark night of the church’s soul. And they weep. They worry. They yearn for the sacraments of which they feel deprived. “Why has God removed Himself from us?” they cry.
In times like these we want to see the brave, bold church. We imagine a church that flexes her muscles and stomps on governors, boldly defying laws and orders that her members have decided are unjust. In this dark night, as the Body of Christ, we have demanded the church of the Crusades, but what we have is the church of the catacombs. What history has taught us is that the one is necessary for the other. The church of the catacombs, the church that existed under duress and persecution is the same church who marched forward under the banner of the cross to preserve Christendom. The church of suffering and secret and silence, the church under constraint, is purified and formed during those dark nights. What St. John of the Cross tells us is that without the dark night there cannot be a bright morning.
I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.The Dark Night of the Soul. Poem by St. John of the Cross
Now that we, the faithful, find ourselves locked in our own cells, anxiously awaiting the dawn, we may be tempted to bitterness. To disobedience. To despair. Yet, St. John’s example of patience and humility even under duress should give us hope. During his nine months of unjust imprisonment, during which time he was regularly whipped, fed only bread and water, and suffered from severe frost bite, St. John never once complained against his captors. Nor was he resentful towards them. In fact, in the face of our own confinement, he would remind us “A soul enkindled with love is a gentle, meek, humble, and patient soul. A soul that is hard because of its self-love grows harder” (Sayings of Light and Love, nos. 27, 28, p. 669). And this attitude not of self love, but of abandonment to God and the will to love Him all the more bore in St. John an immense growth in the interior spiritual life. St. John of the Cross would not be St. John of the Cross if not for his nine months in prison and his experience of the dark night of the soul.
A source of consolation
This should give us great consolation and also direction. As we find ourselves deprived of the Sacraments, locked out of Churches, or unable to gather together in the parish halls, we may be tempted to think that God has hidden Himself from us. That He has abandoned us. But perhaps if we seek Him in our own isolation, if we abandon ourselves to His mysterious and loving ways, we shall discover, as did St. John, that He has been with us all along. Then this time of social distancing and quasi-quarantine becomes not a heavy and burdensome cross, but a cross that is light and sweet, a cross that is the catalyst for our own growth in the interior life. The cross that makes us saints.
Despite the sweetness within the suffering of his dark night, St. John did not neglect to ask of God big things. To expect of God the miraculous. Once he was able to rise above his base desires, his senses, his human limitations, and allow the Spirit to illuminate his mind and soul, his very being, St. John, in fact, came to rely all the more on God and His Providence. The paradox of growing in union with God is that the soul discovers all the more profoundly how much it needs God and how it is nothing without Him. After nine months, St. John was able to escape his prison, provided for by the Providence of God. As we continue in this collective dark night as the Body of Christ, may we not forget that we too may expect and demand the miraculous. May we strive to become the saints we are called to be, and may we all, at the end of this dark night, emerge purified, holy, and humble, and pray with one voice the Canticle of Zechariah from the Liturgy of the Hours:
“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”Luke 1:78-79