Dark Night of the Soul, Lenten Observance, Day 13, 2013

Wow! This is the thirteenth day in the month, and my thirteenth posting in 2013. Good thing I don’t have triskaidekaphobia. And it’s Ash Wednesday. I thought I’d take a moment before the blog proper to muse on Ash Wednesday. I was rather a strange kid, and growing up Catholic, I had a certain fondness for the dark sacraments of Confession and Extreme Unction (now the weakly titled “Annointing of the Sick”). I also rather liked Ash Wednesday. Everyone in my neighborhood growing up would go around with the ash mark on their forehead. In fact, it was so common that if you saw someone without the ash mark on their forehead, you were rather puzzled — maybe they were going to a late Mass. It was not only the ashes, but the meditatio mortis that really got to me: “Remember, man, thou art dust, and to dust thou shall return.” Those are heady words for a kid. In today’s entertainment environment, I’d likely have spent the day meditating on my life as a Zombie. But in those Zombie free days of my youth, it did get me thinking of mortality. And I couldn’t wear black (the school uniform was blue slacks, white shirt, and plaid tie), so I didn’t externalize my dark thoughts, but kept them brewing within.
At that time, I believed in an afterlife. Now I do not so believe. So the life we have is it. That does not mean we should live our lives as if every day were Mardi Gras, but it does put some of the reflections of the Dark Night in a different light (sorry about the punnish oxymoron there) — if one is going to “see God,” then one must see God here, and not somewhere else. It makes all of Mother Teresa’s struggles seem even sadder — for with no afterlife and a lifetime of yearning in the dark, there was likely little joy there. Well, I’m getting morbid, so on to St. John:

Ch. 11: Wherein are expounded the three lines of the stanza.

This section, in rather quick (well quick is a relative term) succession, St. John deals with the rest of the first stanza: “kindled in love with yearnings,” “Oh, happy chance!” and “I went forth without being observed…”
St. John starts off by noting that “this enkindling of love is not as a rule felt at the first,” and when it is felt, the soul does not understand where such love and affection comes. This yearning leads to a thirst for God which makes all else seem arid.
I’m not sure I fully get to this sense spoken of – I imagine that, short of feeling something like this, one cannot fully know what the author is talking about. I wonder, though, if one has gone through something like this, does this work help at all? Do you need it? And if you haven’t, can you feel it? It does not strike me as something one can force (the earlier injunction to patience seems to suggest as much). I have know the feeling of falling in love and of being in love, but that is tied to a sensual desire. In the absence of that, I’m not sure I fully understand it. Even in areas where sex is not involved, the senses seem always to be involved. Someone or something makes you laugh, or cry, or wonder, or excited. And this seems to be a much longer game of patience. In a Catholic setting, I still wonder about someone like Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. She had been a Communist, and engaged in a rather open sexual arrangement, but, once she had a daughter, she turned to the Catholic Church. Of course, she and the bishops didn’t see eye-to-eye, but I wonder if her struggles with the bishop and with her co-founder served as some kind of purification and dark night. I am amazed at the story of people who, despite strong personalities, endure difficulties and difficult relations as part of their spiritual practice.
This dark night which God imposes to ween the soul of its sensual side is a means of preparation for the union. But I still am very much a person of my senses, and cannot easily see (there again, even in metaphor, the senses) past them. For St. John, that break with the past is a means towards final enlightenment and union with God, and so, it is a happy chance.
The final part of this stanza, “I went forth without being observed…” I don’t get. Who would be doing the observing? (It turns out to be the world, and the devil that would be doing the observing — but not sure exactly how the world misses this — what with the seeker going about in somber reflection, and all) In his explication, St. John focuses on the movement from the senses to the Dark Night of the spirit, going through the narrow gate, a gate that few find or go through. But I still don’t get the bit about being observed. Surely, St. John would say that God observes one’s actions. And this internal movement might go unnoticed by others, but what would that matter? And I do wonder if people close to one wouldn’t notice a change in behavior, or attitude. So, I’m struggling with this, but I’m not sure I’m getting much here.

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