Empty: Dark night of the soul

by | Aug 29, 2021

In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor shares the highlights of the story of a man known as John of the Cross. A Friar and founding member of a renegade order called the Carmelite, John is best know for his classic work, The Dark Night of the Soul.

Given the title, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that John writes about a time when he was feeling down — perhaps depressed. A time when this man of God felt abandoned by God. Based on the title alone, I might order this book if I was struggling with a feeling of hopelessness or dismay. I might expect to find it in the self-help section of my local library.

What if I told you that John of the Cross wrote his classic story while in solitary confinement? During his time in prison, John was frequently beaten, lived on bread and water, and was kept in a dark cell where the only light he saw came from a small crack in the prison wall.

It was the 16th century, and John’s offense was helping a Nun known as Teresa of Avila start a new order. On a cold December night in 1577, John was abducted from his room at the Convent of the Incarnation. An order co-founded by himself and Teresa. He was put in a cell where he could not bathe or leave, except for an occasional beating. This is the setting for The Dark Night of the Soul.

This is a setting where anyone of us would likely experience spiritual darkness. Had John misread God’s intention for his life? Was Teresa of Avila a temptation and their idea of going out on their own nothing more than a fantasy they dreamed up? Who hasn’t experienced a time when doubt prevailed over hope?

When we’re experiencing a time in our lives where we feel spiritually drained, and God seems as distant as the stars, it is common to blame ourselves. Perhaps it was something we did or didn’t do? Maybe God is teaching me a lesson. You see, if we can convince ourselves that we caused it, then we’re really still in control. If we caused it, we could get out of it by enduring the punishment and learning our lesson.

It would take John nine months before he escaped from the prison and restarted a new monastery based on the original ideals of the Carmelite order. After his escape, John completed writing down what he learned in prison, and countless persons have read and relived his journey centuries later.

The Dark Night of the Soul is best described as a love story. John had very little to say about religion. Instead, he used the language of the senses and great passion. John shared his quest to pursue the most elusive lover of all. Only to learn that God is forever just outside our grasp.

The lesson John shares with any who read his story are that a dark night is a gift of grace. It is the gift of helping us give up our notions about God and surrender all of the perceived benefits that we count on as a reward for our beliefs. Similar to an addict in recovery, God’s gift is liberation from our addictions to expectations that our go-to answers will help us grasp the infiniteness of God.

A couple weeks ago, I referenced Hemmingway’s short story, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. Hemmingway’s story was likely inspired by the writing of John of the Cross. In particular, a prayer was written by John of the Cross where he uses the Spanish word “nada” for God. The prayer is titled, The Ascent to Mount Carmel. Named after the place where Elijah did battle with the priests of Baal — a local god created as a substitute for the real thing.

Taylor summarizes the importance of accepting God’s divine gift of unknowing when she writes, “It would be a mistake to attach the promise of more spiritual benefits to a night that is designed to obliterate them.”

We find a story in the Gospel of Matthew that reminds me of how we often search for answers to questions that simply are beyond our ability to grasp. In this particular story, a prosperous young man asked Jesus what good things he needed to do to please God enough to have eternal life.

This story is most often interpreted as the importance of putting our relationship with God ahead of our ambitions. But like all of scripture, the more we drill down beneath the obvious, we discover a treasure chest of wisdom.

The justification for a literal interpretation comes out of the instructions Jesus gave. He instructed the young man to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. This lesson can lead us to the conclusion that following the teachings of Jesus is best done when we are poor with no distractions. This can lead to a debate over how much is too much. And is it really about our bank account or our devotion to God?

Go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor… then come and follow me
Matthew 19:21

But what if the hidden pearl of wisdom is less about tangible assets and more about our addictions to each fix that leads us to the false conclusion that we finally know the mind of God? What if Jesus is warning the young man and all of us that we each must experience a transformation whereby we recognize and accept the gift that John of the Cross discovered while in prison?

This month our series, Night vision, examines the contrasts of light and darkness in our culture, in scripture, and in how we understand the roles of light and dark. Our aim is to learn better how to flourish both in darker times and in the light of day. Plan to join us.

We have a new button on the homepage of our websiteClick here to watch. This button takes you to a viewer to allow you to join live or watch later in the week. We’re also live on our newly launched YouTube channel. You can find these links along with more information about us on our website at FlintAsbury.org.

A reminder that we publish this newsletter that we call the Circuit Rider each week. You can request this publication by email. Send a request to connect@FlintAsbury.org or let us know when you send a message through our website. We post an archive of past editions on our website under the tab, Connect – choose Newsletters.

Pastor Tommy

1 Much of the content of this series is based on Barbara BrownTaylor’s book: Learning to Walk in the Dark: Because Sometimes God Shows Up at Night. New York: Harper One, 2014..

2 St. John of the Cross. Dark Night of the Soul (Dover Thrift Editions) Kindle Edition. Dover Publications, 2003.

3 Ernest Hemingway. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition. New York: Scribner, 1987.

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