Dark Night of the Soul

I was at a pastors’ retreat earlier this week where a spiritual director suggested that I might find Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross to be a particularly helpful read at this point in my journey.

So, I’ve decided to take it up.  Just for fun, I’ll also be posting my thoughts on the chapters here on my blog.  I hesitate to call it a “commentary” because the book itself is a commentary on a poem by the same author.  Mine would be a commentary on a commentary, sort of like the Jewish Talmud, but without all the incessant arguing.

But first, here is the poem that forms the basis for this book.  I read it out loud to myself before each chapter, therefore I’ll be posting a copy of it with each blog post in this series.

I found this translation online at http://josvg.home.xs4all.nl/cits/lm/stjohn01.html

On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings
–oh, happy chance!–
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised
–oh, happy chance!–
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.

In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide,
save that which burned in my heart.

This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he
(well I knew who!) was awaiting me
— A place where none appeared.

Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping,
and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand
He wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

Since I only got the idea to blog about this after I’d already read the first two chapters, I’ll be playing a bit of initial catchup in this post.

Mother and child in Bolivia. Image by Peter van der Sluijs

The first chapter talks about the love of God being like the love of a mother for her baby.  A newborn soul (i.e. someone taking ownership of her spirituality for the first time) is nourished and cuddled without much being required on her part.  Later, as the child grows, the mother weans the child from nursing and teaches her how to walk on her own.  This is a difficult-but-natural phase in the growing-up process.

In years past, I would have read this chapter as a legalistic call to arms.  I would have said that it was my responsibility to walk on my own and live up to God’s impossible moral standards.  However, reading this chapter as a parent changed my outlook significantly.  I’m currently at the phase of life with my kids that John of the Cross was using as a metaphor for the spiritual life.

Yes, it’s true that parenting is a challenge for everyone as babies become toddlers.  However, the phase doesn’t end all at once.  Even on the toughest of days, there is still a lot of affection to be given.  My wife and I didn’t just decide one day that it was time for our daughter to grow up.  That is happening naturally over time.  We expected her to fall down as she learned how to walk.  We expected accidents to happen during potty-training.  We expected her to mispronounce new words.  She wasn’t punished for these things.  We just loved her through them and she figured them out on her own (with some help from us).

What’s really amazing is watching her personality emerge as she gets older.  Some of it she learns from imitating us (like laughing at fart jokes).  Some of it seems to be inborn (like her tendency toward left-handedness).  But all of it is part of who she is.  And we love her for it.

The same thing is true of us in our development as human beings of the spiritual variety.  God’s tenderness toward us does not end as we grow more spiritually mature.  God expects us to make mistakes and loves us through them.  God is raising us, not to conform to some foreign standard of piety, but to become the best versions of our own unique selves.

If I, as a parent, can find such joy in this process with my own kids, how much more does God do so with each one of us?

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