Dark Night of the Soul


My son is a member of a theology club at the seminary he attends (that is coincidently the seminary that both my wife and I teach at). He led a discussion, while all were eating samgyeopsal, on Christian Mysticism. He sought to avoid the obvious stereotypes… Mysticism as “New Age” of syncretistic, Mysticism as Heresy, and Mysticism as self-absorbed contemplation. It is not to say that those stereotypes are meaningless, but can be used broad-brush to ignore more positive aspects of Christian Mysticism. The key point here is to note that Mysticism can be Christian— doctrinally Christian, and committed to Christ. Its goal in this context is communion with God.

He used as his primary source Evelyn Underhill’s 1911 classic, Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness. The topic was interesting, and the discussion was lively. The main interest ended up however, being in the sub-topic, “The Dark Night of the Soul.” The term, a translation of a phrase coined by St. John of the Cross, and the title of a poem he wrote, describes a season of emptiness.

In the journey to communion with God, many Christian mystics (and I don’t see it limited to them only) experience a time of spiritual “dryness”– a feeling that God is not near, and is not listening. In this situation, the individual will often have symptoms of depression, and feel temptations for vices thought long conquered.

What should be made of such symptoms? Some perhaps would join Job’s friends in seeing it as evidence of punishment for ungodliness.

I would argue that this “Dark Night of the Soul” is far from limited to the Christian mystic. I think all of us have times where we see God as distant. I think many of us feel a disconnection and depression… and don’t always know why. Job did not know why, and as far as the text goes, it was never explained. Jesus felt a disconnection from the Father. Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken Me.” Some try to read that through the lens of Penal Substitutionary Atonement theology (Jesus took on our sin at that moment, and so the Father was forced to look away).  Others push towards a fulfillment of prophecy thing. But perhaps we are trying to be too theologically clever. Many have felt that they were trudging through the “Valley of Death” with little evidence of upcoming greener pastures and stiller waters.

A number of the Lament Psalms appear to describe a similar feeling. Psalm 44, especially expresses this, for it sees God as the cause of misery, but without the classic justifications:

All this has come upon us,
 though we have not forgotten you,
 and we have not been false to your covenant.
Our heart has not turned back,
 nor have our steps departed from your way;
yet you have broken us in the place of jackals
 and covered us with the shadow of death.
If we had forgotten the name of our God
 or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
would not God discover this?
 For he knows the secrets of the heart.
Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughered.
Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face?
 Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
For our soul is bowed down to the dust;
 our belly clings to the ground.
Rise up; come to our help!
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!
             Psalm 44:17-26

These times are probably better a time for self-reflection and a call out to God. For others, it is a time for understanding and support. Many have seen these times open to greater joys and closeness with God.

A nice little article from Christianity Today on this is HERE.

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