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).

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