Archive for February, 2013


Dark Night of the Soul, Lenten Observance, Day 28, 2013

Bk II, Chs. XIV and XV: Wherein are set down and explained the last three lines of the first stanza and Sets down the second stanza and its exposition.

When I first read the chapter heading for ch. XIV, I thought –weren’t we done with the first stanza already (after all, we are ¾ of the way through the book)? We get another take here, that the soul must leave the house, as there the soul is likely to be hindered by those within (the passions and desires). We also get the idea here that God must be found in solitude. I’m not sure that I believe that, as I think that God might very well be found in crowds as well.
Of course, the house might very well be seen as the body (which is the seat of passions and desires, and often seen in Catholic theology as an area of weakness that must be overcome). But then the idea of the soul leaving the body suggests death or some out of body experience, which St. John does not seem to be talking about elsewhere.
Our passions get in our way, so we cannot leave, or we find it difficult to do so. But the soul must leave freely, “going forth in freedom.” Of course, only the soul who is going through the Dark Night, can understand the servitude in which it once was.

Ch XV: Sets down the second stanza and its exposition.
In Ch. XV, we get the bit about going up the secret ladder. Of course, this is the way out that the passions don’t see. St. John defines this ladder as the “living faith.” In the dark night, it is possible for the soul to get free of the passions, as they are confused in the darkness, and so make its escape. For the passions are dumbfounded and even asleep, and so the soul can escape. Again, I’m not sure of the dichotomy here – one’s soul is part of who one is, and passions are part of the whole. Awareness of those passions helps control them, and discipline can help tame them, but the idea of escaping them – that I don’t get. Maybe later. Again I wonder if St. John is talking, in general, about experience after death, though elsewhere he does seem to be talking about a beatific experience in this life.


Dark Night of the Soul, Lenten Observance, Day 27, 2013

Bk. II, Ch. XIII: Of other delectable effects which are wrought in the soul by this dark night of contemplation.

St. John opens this chapter with a description of the soul in a state where it is “enlightened in the midst of all this darkness.” It is full of “mystical understanding,” but without the “actual union of love,” and that it is marked by a “serenity and simplicity” beyond any naming. This description sounds a lot like the lassitude that follows the sexual act, or that sense of anticipation before the sexual act. Though the former doesn’t quite fit, as that is of passion spent, and we don’t have that, and the latter doesn’t work, as there is a heightened sense and anticipation, but that state cannot be described as “serene.”
This does sound like the soul on the brink of union with God, though. We still “see ourselves darkly” as in a mirror, but there is some sense of God in the world, and at work in the soul. There is an equilibrium here (hence the serenity), even if one does not yet have the union. Here, it seems to me, is where the practice of meditation plays a part – if we meditate on a regular basis, we can come to some calm equilibrium. It can, over time, help to quiet our monkey minds. I think that’s what we have here. Of course, this is quite past just some mastery of meditation, as St. John had dispensed with that as a crutch.
And then St. John talks about how the will and the understanding are being purged at the same time, but that the “enkindling” is first felt in the will. For the will, which here seems to be something like the ego, must be tamed and caught by the passion for God.
He also discusses the keenness of thirst in the soul in this dark night. This is much deeper than the keenness felt during the purgative night of the senses. For here, there is some recognition of the thing lacked, and that lack is all the greater. So, we are closer to the goal, but we are much more aware of that goal still beyond our grasp.
And yet, St. John says that, during this testing, God gives the soul an “estimative love of Himself,” an awareness of the love that is somehow still beyond our grasp, so that we are aware that all this trouble is a test and that it is not God’s anger. That sense that God is not angry with us, and that God doesn’t despise us, helps us through our troubles. I wonder sometimes about Dorothy Day, who had quite a bit of trouble dealing with the patriarchal culture and structure of the Roman Catholic Church (she was always battling with the Archbishop of NY), but who always remained true to the faith. I wonder if she felt something like this – the troubles of day to day living, but behind it some awareness of God’s love and so she was able to endure.
The soul finds itself ready to do “strange and unusual things” to find “Him Whom it loves.” This sounds a lot like the spirit of all those love songs where the one lover in the relation feels a need to debase itself in some way to prove its love to the other. And there are all sorts of stories that have the same theme – love, to be found to be true, must first be tested. Of course, this test of love does require the death (or at least restraint) of the ego, for you must be willing to sacrifice all for that “pearl of great price.”
St. John cites the example of Mary Magdalene, who did not care how she looked, nor how foolish she seemed, when she went out so early to the tomb to find Jesus’ body and tend to it. And then he cites the examples of she-bears and lionesses who are willing to give all to find their cubs, who seem to be lost. This love is impatient, eager to gain its desire or die, but also patient, in that it will endure a fair amount, so long as union seems a possibility.
And yet, when that union is postponed, there is a sense of despair that kicks in. The soul begins to feel it is “unworthy” and that makes it miserable. I’m guessing this is the way that Mother Teresa’s misery is interpreted. But God must make sure that the old sensual self is dead, so it can be recast anew. In this case, all that is not God is removed, and union is possible.
Here I’m having some trouble. One, there is an assumption of God apart from the world, which I can’t quite see. The other is that the road of senses is not the correct or viable path to union, and I’m not sure that is true either. I think that gluttony is not the right path, that consumption does not equal nutrition. Still, I think a heightened sensuality may still be a path to the divine (though I’m pretty sure that St. John would not agree).


Dark Night of the Soul, Lenten Observance, Day 26, 2013

Bk II, Ch. XII: Shows how this horrible night is purgatory, and how in it the Divine wisdom illumines men on earth with the same illumination that purges and illumines the angels in Heaven.
A quotation from the Psalms is given that the “wisdom of God is silver tried in fire…” Again the idea of a metalsmith working with metal and melting it so that any imperfections can become separated from the pure metal and removed. And that ties into the idea of fire or flames used to purge souls in Purgatory, or even in the purgatory of the Dark Night St. John describes in this essay.
This chapter uses another metaphor – that of a glass which refracts the light of the sun being like God’s Wisdom and Love. When such Wisdom and Love hit the angels, it goes through them without much refractive effect, as they are things of the spirit and of the spirit purified, and so, when one angel is so shone upon and through, so are they all, but when that light hits humans, the degree to which the light (wisdom, love) gets through depends on the spirit of the recipient, just as light moves easily and without much distortion through plate glass, but less so through thick and dark glass.
Again we get the metaphor of wood, of the log burning in fire until it takes on the qualities of fire itself and becomes pure energy. St. John notes that the soul eventually reaches a point (provided it stays with the program, I’m thinking) that it it becomes aware of the living fire within. And that changes things, for the soul is much more capable of withstanding the difficulties of the Dark Night when it sees some fruit.
The chapter ends with a statement by St. John that the soul sometimes feels the heat of the Divine Fire, but at other times it gets the light, and not the heat. I’m not sure I fully get this. With the heat comes pain, but with the light comes something else. Part of the process is the pain of knowing (or feeling) separation from God and a sense that God has abandoned wretched creatures like ourselves. But the light must be some understanding of the process (and so not just the blind sensation of the pain of the Fire, or the feelings of passion within), but some grasp of the bigger picture. And yet, I’m guessing you need to feel both the passion and have the understanding.


Dark Night of the Soul, Lenten Observance, Day 25, 2013

Bk. II, Ch. XI: Begins to explain the second line of the first stanza. Describes how, as the fruit of these rigorous constraints, the soul finds itself with the vehement passion of Divine love.”
I’m not sure I fully get this chapter. I understand the injunctions to love God with one’s whole heart and the like, and the suggestion that there is a kinship (apparently even in the worst of souls) with the divine, and this can be recognized and we see in that a desire for union with God, but at the end, there is another suggestion, which is that, the soul has gotten used to the burden of the burning away of the imperfections, that, when that fire ceases (as the imperfections are burned away (or largely burned away), the soul is a bit lost or confused.
The particular section is at the end of this chapter: “But in the midst of these dark and loving afflictions the soul feels within itself a certain companionship and strength, which bears it company and greatly strengthens it that, if this burden of grievous darkness be taken away, it often feels itself to be alone, empty and weak. The cause of this is that, as the strength and efficacy of the soul were derived and communicated passively from the dark fire of love which assailed it, it follows that, when that fire ceases to assail it, the darkness and power and heat of love cease in the soul.”
I get some idea of what St. John seems to be talking about in one’s getting used to the trouble and the pain. As the soul endures difficulties, the fact that it does sustain them suggests both its own strength (which must be mighty to endure) and some idea of something beyond that helps it endure. But I don’t get why the soul, having endured such troubles, and, presumably, having a lot of the imperfections burned away, can’t then see some joy at the end. It would be tired, no doubt, but just as someone in any contest gives it his/her all, and there is a certain joy during the actual competition, and an emptiness and lassitude afterwards, still one takes joy in the memory of that struggle and having seen it through. So I don’t quite get the sense that the “heat of love” ceases in the soul, even if I get the idea that the “darkness and power” have lost their grip. Maybe some further chapters will help here.


Dark Night of the Soul, Lenten Observance, Day 24, 2013

Bk. II, Ch. X: Explains the purgation fully by a comparison.

St. John makes the analogy of fire to the “loving knowledge or Divine light” – when a log is put on a fire, the fire first dries out the log, and then makes it somewhat unsightly, all black and hard, and then it eventually burns it all up – making the word become fire. In such a way, the love of God turns us from our base selves into something transformed. The image of a log being consumed by fire is a striking one, but I can’t help thinking that the log had rather remain a tree.
The soul, according to St. John, was not aware of the “evil humours” within, because they were so deep rooted, but those become manifest as the divine Love burns them away, making them even more unsightly at first. He notes that the soul now sees those imperfections it had not seen before, and “it is clear to it that not only is it unfit to be seen by God, but deserves His abhorrence, and that He does abhor it.” In reading this, I found myself thinking “Sez who?” Is it not a bit presumptuous for even a saint to make declarations about what God abhors? And, if God is all-loving, can he abhor anyone’s soul?
This gives us an idea of what Purgatory is like, for there the fire attaches on what it feeds, namely imperfections. If the soul were pure, there would be no fuel for the fire itself. This is an interesting take on the fire of Purgatory. As a kid, I assumed it was real fire, and St. John does not say otherwise, but notes that there are things within our souls keeping us from union, and such souls, after death, would have to spend some time in Purgatory to get them ready for Heaven. So these would have to be consumed, gotten rid of.
And there is another fire, that of the “enkindling of Love,” which the soul does not notice (focused on the pain of its purging). Nice use of the metaphor of the fires of love here, which is a more positive blaze.
During the purging, even though there are moments of relief, the soul largely can focus only on its misery and not see beyond it. For the fire is so intense, but the soul comes to realize that there are still imperfections within that need to be addressed.
Again, I get the sense here of a “No Pain, No Gain,” outlook. Of course, we all have our down side, whether that be pride, or envy, or anger, or sloth. But I sometimes think that such feelings have the potential for good, that they are not all blocks to any sort of revelation. Dr. King felt anger, but he learned to direct that in a positive way. Surely something like that should be considered doing the divine work. And I think of Mother Teresa, who was said to have had near crippling bouts of this sort of depression for most of her life. Though she did some good work with the poor in India, that work, as I understand it (and I may misunderstand it) was not marked by a full and open generosity – she did not accept the truth of the non-Christian path of many of those poor she helped materially. I get the sense that she always held to a belief in the superiority of her own path. And that may be a necessary part of Christianity (if it’s not superior, why do it?), but it strikes me wrong. It does not seem to me truly humble.


Dark Night of the Soul, Lenten Observance, Day 23, 2013

Bk. II, Ch. IX: How, although this night brings darkness to the spirit, it does so in order to illumine it and give it light.

There is in this chapter a sense of “No pain, no gain.” So that the soul has to go through this travail to really be ready to see and experience union with God, and with divine wisdom, that such is not really possible if people retain affections to things they have sensed in the past.
So, St. John brings up the story of the manna in the desert, noting that this was the food of angels, and could take on any taste (sounds like tofu), but that the Israelites could focus only on the fleshpots of Egypt that they missed. So here this fixation on the good food (relatively speaking) they got in Egypt kept them from recognizing and appreciating the miracle that kept them alive.
So the soul, as it experiences the darkness, and is purged of its former affections (in a way, it dies), and it can now enter into union with God, for it loses all those fixation points that it had from long experience. This does feel strange, and the soul feels alienated from itself. “The reason for this is that the soul is now becoming alien and remote from common sense and knowledge of things, in order that, being annihilated in this respect, it may be informed with the Divine – which belongs rather to the next life than to this…” So here the common sense must be closer to the “normal” sense a soul or spirit might have, taking a lot of its cues from the society and the mores of the society.
The sufferings that the soul suffers, according to St. John, do not indicate that this great light is wrong, or the blessings it promises, for they are very great, but that the soul itself is not ready to receive it, and so it all seems a great pain and torment. He quotes Jeremiah and Job on this despair and agony, but he might likewise have brought up the story of Exodus, where the Jews were complaining of their hard road, though it was better than slavery, but slavery had certain sureties and some comforts that, once gone, made the Jews angry and dispirited.


Dark Night of the Soul, Lenten Observance, Day 22, 2013

Bk. II, Ch. VIII: Of other pains which afflict the soul in this state.
First, St. John notes that the practitioner here will lose any sense that his prayers can get through to God, and will feel that somehow there is a barrier, set up by God, between him and God. And the prayers of the practitioner will also lose some of their strength and power – the practitioner will, in effect, be despairing of any hope that God may hear him/her. And St. John says this is as it should be, that at this point, the practitioner should be working on enduring this trouble with patience. He does note that God is working passively in the soul at this point, so that the practitioner is not abandoned, even if it feels so.
And the Darkness also affects memory. And this is good, as the soul can then become totally focused on the darkness and be more aware during the dark contemplation. He also notes again that the brighter the light, the greater the darkness, so that the darkness will, at first, seem quite dark and forbidding, as God’s light is so great, and we not ready for it.
St. John makes the analogy of a beam of sunlight coming into a room. We are aware of the light when it has specks of dust within which reflect that light, but otherwise, we should not be so aware of it, the light being invisible. I cannot imagine light without some dust particles picking up the light. Even so, I’m not sure how it would be invisible, and somehow make things darker. I do get this idea when I see someone walk in from a light place to a darker – anyone inside seeing the person will have a tough time making out the features of the person coming in from the light, but the figure will seem to be in shadow. And, for the person coming in from the light, the lesser brightness of the room will seem, at first, to be quite dark.
And that somehow, the soul, giving up the particular desires and affections it has (being purged of them), itself becomes a more receptive vessel for the divine light and union with God. He quotes the Vulgate translation of Paul, 2nd Corinthians in noting: nihil habentes, et omnia possidentes (“having nothing, and possessing everything”). First you must give up the possessions of your senses, to be ready for the big prize.
The imagery here is quite worthy of note – how can something bright be dark? It can seem so to someone who is not ready (just as our eyes must adjust to a bright light, or in going from the bright sunlight to the inner lighting of a room, it takes awhile for our eyes to adjust. Plato, in the “Myth of the Cave” from the Republic says the same sort of thing. That story says that we are all like guys in a cave; behind us is a fire, which causes shadows to appear on the wall. We assume that those shadows are real, and we don’t know that, as we are chained to our places in the cave. But one guy gets free and he leaves the cave and goes out into the sunlight. At first, it is painful, and the cave dweller is blind for a while. Gradually, he comes to acclimate himself to the bright light, and he realizes that this is the true reality, whereas his cave existence was false. When he goes back to the cave to tell people there, he can’t convince anyone — everyone thinks he’s crazy. This view of St. John seems quite similar.