O night! O guide!
O night more loving than the dawn!
O night that joined
The lover with the Beloved;
Transformed, the lover into the Beloved drawn!
—excerpt from John of the Cross’ prayer
(contemporary musician Loreena McKennitt has a beautiful song with these words set to music)
Dearest monks and artists,
We have some new dancing monk icons which we will be sharing with you over the next few weeks. Artist Marcy Hall has been busy at work creating these delightful images. Last week we shared Teresa of Avila, this week is another Spanish mystic, John of the Cross. He is probably best known for his writing on the “dark night of the soul” and the exploration of what is called the apophatic path in Christian tradition. Apophasis is a Greek term that means to deny and is also called the via negativa – the way of negation. In apophatic spirituality all descriptions of God happen through saying what God is not like in the belief that with our limited human perspective we can never describe the full glory of God.
John of the Cross lived in 16thcentury Spain during a time of much religious persecution and he himself was imprisoned and tortured for many months during which time his many of his great poems were composed and insights into the dark night journey.
For John of the Cross the spiritual life is not about getting closer to God. Instead it is a journey of consciousness. We realize union with God, we don’t acquire it or receive it. It is something we already possess but we need to let go of everything that keeps us from seeing this reality. The dark night journey essentially is about stripping away all of our false idols and securities so that we might come to a more profound realization of the love that already dwells within us.
Even though we are made with love, filled with love, and meant for love, we feel separate and behave so destructively because we are asleep to the truth and we do not realize who and what we are for. We also misplace our love, we become attached to things other than God.
We move through life and seek God in all kinds of religious images, feelings, and experiences. We yearn for a glimpse of truth. They are objects of our attention rather than the Divine subject. God is too intimate to be a thing or object. We see God reflected or represented, but miss the essence of the Divine being. John describes God as “no-thing” or nada. In all of the good things of life, God is not identified with any one of them.
When John of the Cross wrote about the dark night experience, he wasn’t using dark as a metaphor for something evil or sinister. In our religious traditions we have often divided our experience into dark and light with dark symbolizing what is bad or rejected and light symbolizing what is good or what we strive for more of. In this way of thinking, this is a holy darkness through which God helps us to release attachments and idolatries.
This is not meant to imply that God somehow “gives” us our suffering to then free us. Instead as human beings, we will experience suffering, and through grace we can encounter God’s presence there with us guiding us and helping to give our suffering meaning.
The hallmark of the dark night experience is its obscurity – we feel disoriented, we don’t understand what is happening to us. According to John of the Cross, the night involves us relinquishing our attachments we hold so dear, and takes us beneath our layers of denial into the inner landscape we try to avoid.
How do we navigate this journey? Through staying committed to practice, to showing up for ourselves and life, being present to our experience, and not shutting down and through having a mentor along the way who can help offer us an anchor. There is no way out, only through the heart. Ultimately we take the journey alone, but it is helpful to have a wise guide who has gone through their own dark night to help us witness what is happening.
(This was excerpted from our self-study retreat A Midwinter God)
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Dancing Monk Icon © Marcy Hall at Rabbit Room Arts (order a print here)