Friday, January 4, 2013

Into Mystical Darkness ~ Part I


Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, mystic

To all my brothers and sisters of various religious traditions:

An Introduction
The following posts are a look into the mystical life with particular emphasis on the Christian tradition. Mysticism is not limited to any one faith tradition but transcends the limitations placed upon each of the doctrinal differences intrinsic to our belief systems.

The mystic is one who is fully immersed in the world, but totally estranged from it as he/she makes the ascent toward the All Holy One. Each of us are called to be mystics, to embrace the present moment, yet transcend the finite through the embrace of the Eternal Now.

In the posts, "Into Mystical Darkness," it is my hope that each reader will be able to see himself/herself in the content that follows, regardless of your religious tradition and the limitations of language, as together we strive to unite in what is common and essential to the ultimate expression of our religious consciousness ~ the mystical life. "True change is within; leave the outside as it is."

Mystical Darkness
     Mystical darkness in the Christian tradition develops under the influence of Pseudo-Dionysius in his work Mystical Theology. In this work he roots mystical darkness in the Scriptural event of Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai as described in the Book of Exodus (19: 1-25). God manifests himself in the darkness of the clouds of smoke only after the Israelites learned to set aside all earthly cares in order to fully enter into the darkness of God. Moses was ordered to descend to the people and purify them. The theme of ascent, and the need for purification in order to journey toward the presence of God “is suggestive of an archetypal ‘mystical ascent’, in which the soul passes beyond images and comes to know God as he is in himself.”[1]
     Moses is first purified, along with his chosen priests (Exodus 19: 20-22), before ascending the summit of Mount Sinai. The mountain is completely covered in smoke, it shook violently, the trumpet blared, and God spoke and replied in the thunder, (Ex. 19: 18-19). In the midst of this chaotic situation, Moses’ ascent toward God is paralleled with the Divine Liturgy, in which the bishop/priest ascends the altar of God in the midst of chanting of hymns/reading of Scripture into the ‘symbolic darkness’ of the silence and obscurity of the consecration in the sanctuary.[2] The liturgical parallel Dionysius makes seems to convey that only godly people can be in the presence of God, therefore the importance of setting aside all earthly things and being purified is necessary in order to be properly disposed for the ascent toward God. Pseudo-Dionysius writes:
It has neither word nor act of understanding, since it is…made manifest only to those who travel through foul and fair, who pass beyond the summit of every holy ascent, who leave behind them every divine light, every voice, every word from heaven, and who plunge into the darkness where, as scripture proclaims, there dwells the One who is beyond all things…[3]
     Mystical darkness is the way of negation. It is the apophatic ascent, that is, the journey toward union with God by transcending the self and being transformed. According to scholar Andrew Louth it is “the ascent through negation that prises the soul out of itself.”[4] This is the path of surrender through the ‘night of the senses’ and the ‘night of the spirit’. This way of negation and surrender occurs as one ascends the mystical ladder toward union with God. There is a mutual encounter on the part of God and the mystic; in other words, God descends (so to speak) to the mystic as the mystic ascends toward union with God. Louth writes: “God goes out of himself in love in establishing the creature’s being, the creature goes out of itself in love in union with its Creator.”[5] This occurs through the path of mystical darkness, “for this is to see and know truly and to praise in a transcendent way him who is beyond being through the negation of all things…and thus manifest its [the soul] hidden beauty solely by the process of cutting away.”[6]
     Contemporary scholarship on the subject of ‘mystical darkness’ attempts to make a distinction between ‘mysticism’ and ‘experientialism.’ Denys Turner contends that John of the Cross does not associate ‘interiority’ or the inner-life as an ‘experienced thing.’ Turner writes: “To be truly ‘interior’ is to know, but only in the obscure conviction of faith, that our inwardness is beyond all possible experience, that our agency is moved by that which we cannot incorporate into any experienced selfhood.”[7] In other words, that which pertains to the human agent directly can be experienced ‘as moved.’ Turner contends that one cannot experience what moves the human agent, since this occurs passively by the direct and immediate work of the Holy Spirit. For Turner, the ability to know is found in the dark night’s conviction of faith.[8]
     Another contemporary author, Bernard McGinn, holds that mysticism deals primarily with the consciousness of an immediate/direct experience of God’s presence. McGinn makes the distinction between “ordinary religious consciousness,” and what he refers to as the “mode of the divine presence” as received in a direct or immediate way. McGinn’s “mode of divine presence” when acting on the human agent in a direct/immediate way is comparable to the “divine illumination” of St. Bonaventure, and “infused contemplation” of St. John of the Cross. Bernard McGinn writes:
This experience [of the presence of God] is presented as subjectively different [from ordinary religious consciousness] in so far as it is affirmed as taking place on a level of the personality deeper and more fundamental than that objectifiable through the usual conscious activities of sensing, knowing and loving. There is also an objective difference to the extent that this mode of the divine presence is said to be given in a direct or immediate way, without the usual internal and external mediations found in other types of consciousness.[9]   
     It seems to me that even contemporary scholarship contributes to a certain continuity of thought in regards to the traditional understanding of mysticism, but especially in how this is understood according to the apophatic way. The ‘continuity of thought’ I refer to is primarily the interpretation given to the experience of the passive night and its effect on the mystic.
     The via purgativa is the first stage of this movement. Growth at this stage requires an ongoing purification of the senses; it is, as St. Bonaventure writes: “a journey into the wilderness.” St. John of the Cross referred to this stage as the ‘dark night of the senses.’ St. John states:
…the more it grows, the more the soul feels itself touched and inflamed with the love of God, without knowing or understanding how, or whence that love comes, except  that  at times this burning so inflames it that it longs earnestly after God…but in the meantime, like a sick man in the hands of his physician, all it has to do, in the dark night and dry purgation of the desire, is to suffer, healing its many imperfections, and practicing many virtues that it may become meet for the divine love.[10]
     The ‘dark night of the senses’ causes seemingly overwhelming temptations that attack the individual in matters of faith, hope, chastity, patience, and peace of soul. St. John of the Cross writes: “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus, shall suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12).[11] The journey toward union with God has a prerequisite, i.e., purification. This purification occurs in the ‘dark night.’ Scholar, Fr. Thomas Dubay, writes: “One who lives the paschal mystery, life through death, lives more and more deeply and thus will see more and more penetratingly. Authenticity is begotten on the Cross.”[12] According to John of the Cross: “…the purest suffering brings with it the most intimate knowing, and consequently the purest and highest joy, because it is a knowing from further within.”[13] At this stage the soul begins to love, not for the sake of consolations/feelings, but solely to please God. Efforts still need to be taken to cultivate virtue, especially as regards to one’s state in life. There is not a specific length of time one remains in the ‘dark night of the senses.’
     The ‘dark night of the spirit’ plunges one into the deeper realms of the soul where occurs the purification of the memory and intellect. The soul continues to progress toward union with God, that is, transforming union with God or spiritual marriage. The ‘darkness’ experienced during this period is not ‘darkness’ in the sense of something negative. Instead, the dark night of the spirit is the experience of infused divine light that pierces the soul. It is the meeting of the perfect with the imperfect, the divine penetrating the human soul.[14] This divine penetration, during the via negativa, acts on the soul in such a way so as to continue to rid it of its faults and weaknesses.
     The ‘night of the spirit’ is another state of purification whereby God “leaves the mind in darkness, the will in aridity, the memory in forgetfulness, and the affections immersed in pain and anguish.”[15] The divine penetration that occurs in the ‘dark night of the spirit’, is as St. John of the Cross describes it:    
…a certain inflowing of God into the soul which cleanses it of its ignorances and  imperfections, habitual, natural, and spiritual…God secretly teaches the soul and instructs it in the perfection of love, without efforts on its own part beyond a loving attention to God, listening to his voice and admitting the light he sends, but without understanding how this is infused contemplation.[16]
       The Holy Spirit illumines the soul and pierces the darkness of spirit. The soul, plunged into the ‘darkness of spirit,’ is being brought into closer union with God, despite the sense of loss/loneliness, abandonment, lukewarmness, and unworthiness. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange wittily refers to the experience of the negative way as “the salutary crisis,” since “the soul is purified under the influence…of the spiritual fire of contemplation and love.”[17] The goal of the mystic is ultimately union with God. Medieval spirituality is consistent in its effort to emphasize the necessity of self-abnegation, self-emptying, a turning away from ego-centeredness in order to be filled with God.    




[1] Andrew Louth, Denys the Areopagite, (Wilton: Morehouse-Barlow, 1989) 101.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Paul Rorem, Pseudo-Dionysius, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) 189.
[4] Louth, Denys the Areopagite, 107.
[5] Ibid. 108.
[6] Ibid. 108-109.
[7] Denys Turner, The Darkness of God, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) 251.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Bernard McGinn, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism, vol. 1,  (New York: Crossroad, 1992), xix.
[10] Adolphe Tanquerey, S.S., The Spiritual Life, (Westminister: The Newman Bookshop, 1948) 670.
[11] 2 Timothy 3:12
[12] Thomas Dubay, S.M., Authenticity: A Biblical Theology of Discernment, (Denville: Dimension Books, 1977) 113.
[13]John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, stanza 36, no. 12, 614.
[14] Ibid. 689.
[15] John of the Cross, Dark Night, 2:5.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., The Three Ages of the Interior Life, (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Company, 1948) vol. 1, 377.

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