01
Mar
13

Dark Night of the Soul, Lenten Observance, Day 29, 2013

Bk II, ch XVI: Explains how, though in darkness, the soul walks securely.
This is quite a long chapter, but, in some ways, easier to follow than some. It begins with what is assumed to have happened with regard to the affects of the soul. The desires have been “put to sleep and mortified.” The affections of the soul are “bound and can make no useful reflection.” The “memory is gone.” One’s understanding is “in darkness.” The will is “arid and constrained.” And all the faculties are “void” as if covered in a heavy cloud.
This might be a cause of concern, but St. John says that with all such distractions stymied, the soul can proceed quite safely and satisfactorily. Though I get the idea of somehow being past all distractions, with the monkey mind stymied and its muddle all frozen, I’m still a bit puzzled. St. John adds that the soul, if it reflects on the situation, it will see itself as secure in the darkness. But how can it reflect, as all of the faculties are “void” and one’s understanding is “in darkness?” Here I’m rather stuck myself. I get the sense that St. John wants to get across the idea that one must come to this point through some great leap, where the workings of the rational mind have to be left behind and some sudden and great insight has to happen. But the language of philosophy (and of theology) and simply the language we use cannot map out that new terrain – so how can we know, and how can we reflect, and how can we try to understand if those elements are gummed up in the Dark Night? Many of the people I know are very hesitant to look to anything that is beyond reason. As a fan of poetry, and with an Irish cultural background, I’m quite willing to believe that there is a lot beyond the world than that which can be put into order and tamed by reason. Still, I’m not sure how we get there, and I get the sense that there is a problem explaining the whole matter to another. What would be the common reference point to which all could refer?
St. John goes on to ask about why does God limit all desire, even the desire sparked by the good. His response is that one’s faculties and desires are “base” and so suspect, and must be checked. But can one escape one’s faculties and desires? One can learn that one’s faculties are limited, that one has blind spots, and that confusing what we see with what there is constitutes a mistake. And one can have trouble with desires, which do not always consider consequences (so we overindulge to our detriment), but isn’t the solution then to acknowledge the limits of our senses, and to discipline our desires, rather than to get to such a level of dark that one almost despairs, where one misses the good, and where one begins to think that God has abandoned one because of our unworthiness?
St. John also directs the reader/practitioner to take heart when the Dark Night is at its worst, and know that such aridity and pain is temporary and does not represent God’s abandonment. But elsewhere he has said that the one directing the exercises is often not believed by the practitioner in the exercise, as such words of encouragement sound hollow. And if memory is gone, as he says earlier in this chapter, will he remember such an injunction? Or will she just fall into despair?
St. John does suggest that in following this path, we are going to unfamiliar territory, and that, when one is an explorer, one will have to go from the regular path, and that there is terror there, but it is the only way to true growth.
He adds that the pain and suffering of this path is good, because “in suffering the strength of God is added to that of man.” This again seems rather “No pain, no gain!” or even like the Pilgrims with their harsh view of depraved humanity and the rightness of a difficult life. I can’t really accept this as a premise. I like a challenge (for me, reading this book is proving quite challenging), but pain for its own sake, or worse, because we deserve it – that just doesn’t ring true.
The final comments regarding this dark path is to think of it as castor oil – we are taking a cure. In living our regular, daily lives, we are engaged in pleasurable, but harmful activities, and we are now put on the road to health, and it seems too much for us, but it is necessary.

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