Dark Night of the Soul, Lenten Observance, Day 18, 2013

Bk. II, Ch. III: Annotation for that which follows.
Bk. II, Ch. IV: Sets down the first stanza and the exposition thereof.

The spiritual and sensual need to be purged together, for the purgation of the senses, what counts as the first step on the process towards union with God, is but a preliminary, a “kind of correction and restraint of the desire…” and not really a purgation, as the root of those desires come from the spiritual side where habits are formed.
In this second night, the Dark Night of the Spirit, both parts, sense and spirit are purged. And this requires a certain fortitude, for this second night is much more difficult to withstand.
At this point the proficients still see God as little children, and not as grown men. To get there they must be tried. St. John says that God “strips their faculties, affections and feeling, both spiritual and sensual… leaving the understanding dark, the will dry, the memory empty and the affections in the deepest affliction…” Again we get the image of weaning them, of God forcing them to walk. Though I agree that one must develop to a point of maturity, it still seems a bit harsh. And that’s likely my sense side, still dependent, that feels that way. At times, I get a sense of God throwing kids into the deep end of the pool to see if they can swim, and to force them to learn that skill. That always seemed to me a bit harsh. On the other hand, I suppose the point is that sooner or later one has to develop some abilities on one’s own, and cannot remain tied to one’s past and to one’s appetites. And that any such weaning will be difficult – a case of withdrawal.
I get the idea that any such purging, or disciplining, can be cursory, and that such an outward show means nothing if not marked by a real change within. Just as scoundrels can dress up and look fine, but they are far from fine. But I still question whether such severe efforts need to be taken. They seem a lot like the sort of craziness we hear about when we hear that someone has kidnapped someone and then treated them horribly taking someone who is an adult and making them dependent as a child. And I can’t see that as a feature of God’s direction. How is that a loving God’s action? I’m puzzled. And it seems to be working from a view of humankind as debased rather than blessed, and that is a bit troubling as a starting point.
I think that life can be difficult and living correctly in the world takes some effort. Still, I think there may be more to a view that looks, with hope, to the potential of humankind to excel, and to the goodness of people (which may be warped by experience and evil in one’s life).
Also, I’m not sure I get how this breaking down of a person helps that person then be a fully functional part in creation, standing as a man in the sight of God and in union with God. Do people who have such breakdowns generally recover? Some most certainly do, but I’m missing something here. There is something of God as drill sergeant here that I can’t at this point fully appreciate.
In ch. IV, St. John makes more explicit his own situation, and how this first stanza (yes, we are still on the first stanza) applies to him. Having given up those things which gave him pleasure, in poverty, he could proceed, going forth from himself, from his low understanding, “without being hindered therein by sensuality or the devil.” So ch. IV largely sums up the foregoing points and explains that the soul having given up the pleasures, can now get out of itself which will enable it to have union with God. This does suggest that the soul (and a person) is separate from God, that God is a distinct figure. And yet, God could not be totally alien to us, or else we could not come to know God.
We know that St. John wrote the poem, “Dark Night of the Soul,” while he was in a Carmelite prison. Was that the low point he needed to hit before the light bulb of enlightenment appeared? And yet, we also know he broke out of that prison, so I’m not sure he was fully at the low point. And there are lots of “prison” letters, poems, and essays. We have Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, some of Seneca’s essays, and his Moral Epistles to Lucilius were written when he was, for all intents and purpose, under house arrest (he had fallen afoul of the Emperor Nero, though he was still technically free), and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

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