The Sixth Mansion (Part 2): The Dark Night

March 31, 2014

It is said that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but this conventional wisdom is put to the test during a period Christians have a hard time talking about. For an intimate look at the Dark Night, which itself is not a mansion in Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle but a dynamic, we turn to her sixteenth-century contemporary John of the Cross. He describes a condition of the spiritual life that flummoxes and disturbs the Jesus-follower, especially if one does not see it coming or understand its purpose. But even if one does, the experience is heart-wrenching enough—and sometimes long enough—to have the most advanced of saints trembling in a very dark place.

The first type of Dark Night involves a cessation of anything the senses pick up as to the presence and activity of God. John of the Cross calls this the “dark night of the senses” (Mansions, 154-163). It is not our imagination (belying the old challenge, “If God seems far away, guess who moved?”), but God is actually launching us on a new challenge intended to mature us as disciples by putting us on our own for a time.

Think of it this way: when we were babies, our cries when we were hungry or diaper-dirty were swiftly heard and heeded. We were fed or our diapers changed. Our parents’ God-given job at this stage of our life was to respond to our needs with such consistency that we would trust them and bond with them as we overcame the hurdles of infancy. As we grew older, we were taught how to walk, feed ourselves, learn at school, positively reinforced with pats on the back, gold stars on a chart, or a special treat on a Sunday afternoon. If our growing-up environment was healthy, our emotional and psychological maturing developed us into stable, self-reliant adults. If our parents did their job right (and I realize many fail, but hang in here with me), we have absorbed their wisdom and found a way to live consistently with their values and protections. Such “children” rise up to call their parents blessed.

God loves us so much, and our early Christian life is a time during which God shows that love by responding to our needs, pouring out blessing in large and small doses as needed. We accumulate experiences of spiritual touches that build our faith. But in order for us to be mature in Christ, we cannot be allowed by God forever to assume that following Jesus is about our feeling great, blessed, comforted, etc. Ultimately, God wants us to know that our relationship with him does not rise and fall on blessings (the creation) but on him alone (the Creator, Romans 1). And so, in order to test our progress, God withholds the blessings for a time in order to reveal the state of our dependencies.

By way of encouragement, God is doing something active: purifying our souls of those attachments and dependencies on things that cater to our weaknesses. If we are to trust solely in Jesus, we cannot depend on anything else for security, love, or affirmation. If we are to trust solely in God, we must be in touch with what it is we cannot trust in ourselves. During the Dark Night of the Senses, God withholds the “consolations” (the sense of blessing) and anything that feeds our spiritual pride, so that our only reason for living is for God’s sake (not even “our own spiritual growth”).

E. Stanley Jones, a life-long Methodist missionary in India, after decades of service suffered a catastrophic stroke and was bedridden. A Catholic bishop came to consult with him one day, pouring out his feelings upon retiring from service in the archdiocese. He was bemoaning the fact that he missed having a staff, missed the pomp and ceremony of his office, missed the authority he had carried. He was a sorry sack, pouring out his loss and the grief it was causing him, even to the point of shaking his faith in God. Jones, from his bed, looked at this pitiful man and told him, All these years you have relied on the props of your office to hold up your faith. I have lost everything and am confined to a bed, but my faith is strong because it never depended on props to keep it alive. Now that is a purified soul!

Ordinary Christians advancing on the road to spiritual maturity and union with God have those times and seasons when, from a sensory point of view, God seems absent and unresponsive. Prayer gets us nowhere; it seems our supplications hit the ceiling and fall right back down into our laps. We derive no blessing from worship, no consolation from prayer, no fruit of Bible study. God is putting us to the test with the question, Do you rely on blessing, consolation, and fruit more than you depend on Me? God gives us the opportunity to live without those spiritual perks for a time, in order to establish confidence in the presence and power of God as he knows himself to be and for his own sake, not ours. The deeper we travel through the mansions toward the center of the castle, the more spiritual life is about God and the less it is about us. This is progress!

We must stifle the tendency to “work harder” to wrest from God’s hand the blessings that we miss. The Dark Night of the Senses is a Lenten season of deprivation God orchestrates and we endure, so that on the other side we are convinced and secure in God’s love alone.

John of the Cross speaks of an even deeper level of Dark Night, that of the Soul. This is perhaps more frightening as it associates with our fear of abandonment, rejection, and despair. Not only is God seemingly absent, but we are mortified by the true state of our souls and its weaknesses, propensity to sin, and the hopelessness of our condition without the redeeming work of Christ. Our hunger and thirst for righteousness is met by God’s silence for a time, sometimes years, until God feels we have had enough purifying.

Protestants sometimes have a problem with the concept of “purification,” because we believe that our salvation was fully effected by Jesus Christ upon the cross and there is no further price to pay to satisfy God. So let me say here, the Dark Night is not about paying a price, earning grace, or even pleasing God. It is a ruthless dealing with the Old Nature that wants to depend, still and in very practical ways, on things and people and not on God. If we want to be Christ-like, we will be one with the Father. But this oneness means forsaking all the other things we say aren’t important, but it turns out they really are. As the writer of Hebrews said, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:4). Since we have not willingly chosen to resist the sin that so easily entangles us, God—graciously and patiently—will purge our souls of their unholy dependencies. Does it hurt? Unspeakably. Will we survive? God knows our hearts and what we can bear. Will it ever end? Not sure; ask Mother Teresa:

Perhaps the greatest example of the Dark Night of the Soul in recent memory is provided by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In the early 1950’s God spoke to her and directed her to start a radical mission to the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. She uprooted her life and started a new order there, and God blessed her with a place, a cadre of dedicated Sisters, and financial support. God’s presence with her was tangible and she was empowered to launch an amazing ministry. After she was fully committed and the work had begun, God absented himself from her. Her prayer life went dry and her soul cried out to the One who had led her into this risky and costly ministry.

In the book Come, Be My Light, her fifty-year spiritual torment is chronicled by the priest responsible for investigating her life for Catholic sainthood. In the book, Brian Kolodiejchuk traces her spiritual development by means of correspondence with her spiritual directors and father confessors. Her experience can only be described as excruciating. After twenty-five years of daily mass, spiritual devotion, and desolation, something finally made sense to Teresa. God was allowing her to experience the abandonment and despair common with the very people she was reaching through her ministry on the streets of Calcutta. Her compassion for them, in Jesus’ name, helped her to smile and pour out the love of Jesus to them. But even until her death, there was never again an outpouring of blessing or even a sense that God was with her. She simply kept talking to God in prayer, offering her life as a living sacrifice, not for earning God’s favor but simply to love him by doing simple things for others.

I don’t think sharing my own experience of Dark Nights can add to those of these great saints of the church, but I have had them and wouldn’t wish them on anybody. Except for the fact that when God does show up again, there is nothing sweeter, more reassuring, or more thrilling than to be face-to-face once again with the God who never stopped loving me.


5 Responses to “The Sixth Mansion (Part 2): The Dark Night”

  1. Oh, my. Tough stuff. Thanks for journeying there and having guts to tell us about it.

  2. Peggy Bell Says:

    Thank you for sharing.

  3. emd5542 Says:

    Mary, I just sat quietly and read 6th mansion parts 1 and 2. You’re putting your congregation through spiritually maturing paces if we dare to be courageous and trusting enough to grab hold and hold on. Sometimes it seems as though I’m climbing up a very steep mountain but even with the right attire and assisted by the right tools, the travel is sometimes exhausting and the pace even discouraging. But pressing on leads to rest, one just doesn’t know when or how. Thank you. Keep it coming. Hungering for the next mansion whether I’m ready or not, Eleanor

  4. emd5542 Says:

    So this is it?! Where are you taking us next? 🙂

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