Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Christian Life and the Dark Night - Part VIII

The Christian life consists of struggles when there is an honest attempt to live authentically. This does not demand perfection but willingness to strive, “to run the race so as to win,” (see Phil. 3:14). This is John’s ascent of Mt. Carmel; it is the nada, nada, nada of everyday life; it is the call to discipleship, or in the words of Thomas รก Kempis, ‘the royal way of the cross.’[1] The positive signs of growth will consist of a deepening of one’s prayer life even when it seems dried-up. It is learning to sit silently and quietly while gazing upon the Lord; this is the beginning of contemplation. It is the transition into the ‘night of the spirit.’ On our part we are passively standing by while God does the work: “…for contemplation is naught else than a secret, peaceful and loving infusion from God, which if it be permitted, enkindles the soul with the spirit of love.”[2]
           In regards to the active night of the senses, John of the Cross stressed that it is us at work, cooperating with the grace of the Holy Spirit. The soul experiences a certain purgation during this stage, a sensory dryness at which time “God transfers his goods and strength from sense to spirit.” One may never move beyond the more common ‘night of the senses’ into the ‘night of the spirit.’ The ‘night of the spirit’ becomes the illuminative way; the soul has passed from the purification of its senses by letting go, into the passive way of letting God. The soul, being in the illuminative way, may experience a sense of abandonment in the darkness and rejection by God. It is the state of soul by which one cries out: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me,” (Psalm 22:2). This is the contemplative state – the divine initiative of infused contemplation.
     The experience of the ‘dark night’ is an experience of being enveloped in the brilliance of Divine intimacy. The brilliance of the ‘dark night’ floods the soul like a deluge, as expressed in Psalmist’s cry:

    Save me Lord for the waters have come in even unto my soul; I am stuck in the mire of the deep, and there is nowhere to stand; I have come unto the depth of the sea, and the tempest has overwhelmed me. I have labored in crying out, my throat has become hoarse, my eyes have failed while I hope in my God, (Ps. 69: 1-3).

     The experience is phenomenological but concretely cemented in the everyday events of daily life. The person in this experience has a sense of negation that stems from the purifying reality of the dark night or in the words of John Paul II: “the night of faith.” Being in the ‘dark night’ or ‘night of faith’ one feels as if they are in the crucible; John of the Cross sees this as an opportune time to learn how to love, set free from all that enslaves. According to him it is a time in one’s life when “the silence of God speaks its most eloquent and revealing word of love in Christ crucified.”[3]
     John of the Cross used the example of fire and a burning log. He explained that the fire slowly burns as it moves toward the center of the log, until it is entirely engulfed by the flames. He claims that this metaphor is comparable to the flame of God’s divine love since it purifies and transforms the person, beginning with the senses, and slowly penetrating the spirit:
     The very fire of love which afterwards is united with the soul, glorifying it,is that which previously assails it by purging it, just as the fire that penetrates a log of wood is the same that first makes an assault upon it…. Because this flame is savory and sweet, and the will possesses a spiritual palate disturbed by the humors of inordinate affections, the flame is unpleasant and bitter to it.[4]

[1] Thomas A Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, edited by Clare L. Fitzpatrick (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1977) 90.
[2] Ibid. 1:10:6.
[3] John Paul II, “John of the Cross, Master of the Faith,” The Pope Speaks, (Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 2005) 225.
[4] John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, st. 1, nos. 19, 23, pp. 648, 650.

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