A truth many of us would rather not face is what I will call “lostness.” St. John of the Cross speaks at length of the dark night of the soul in his classic by the same name. But, since I’m not St. John, or perhaps saint anything, and my understanding of such things is limited, allow me to share my own rudimentary gleanings.
I’ve often mused that, if a person can say with confidence they are in a dark night, they’re not yet in a dark night. Nasty and ghoulish perhaps, but not what I mean by lostness. Dark means just that. Light has gone. Dark has come replacing sure steps with foundering ones. A way forward succumbs to guess work or less. Destinations become forgotten in a haze of bumping into walls not of our own choosing and which we cannot see anyway. As such, we lose not only orientation but the reasons for our non-whereabouts. Soon, we lose hope that light will come again and, at its worst, lose the desire and ability to see life as anything but one’s present bleak experience.
I am told that in situations of torture, people will sustain terrible beatings and then are placed in dark cells for weeks at a time. Painful sensory overload is replaced by unspeakable deprivation and loneliness. The non-existence experienced in these holding periods becomes even worse for the victims and they literally yearn to be beaten again. At least something is happening. Besides, even bad company means we’re not alone, the worst of all punishments.
Such is the lost-ness of lostness. Ostensibly, this is where God does God’s best work on the soul. When the senses have vacated their steadying influence and only a hollowed out vacuum remains, we are left with but one choice: believe anyway…or not. The sheer pointlessness of it all needs to sink into our being in order for us to be stripped of our need for pin-point accuracy in all our dealings. God alone rules here for, alone, there is only God. For we do not exist. Or so it seems. It is both the worst and the best thing God ever does in the human soul. A sweet cruelty, the pangs of which remain indelibly etched within.
A particularly poignant biblical picture of how best to weather such places of struggle is the aching repartee of Jesus with his Father in the garden of Gethsemane. The king of the ages, a long way from anything that was home, has just gotten comfortable with this broken, mortal coil. He loves us but is now asked to give it all up. For something even far worse. Perhaps with little idea of what “to be raised on the third day” might actually mean.
What is the intended result? In time, an eternity to us, a wink to God, we become shining trophies of grace. Not shiny like cheap flea market brass trinkets. But the rich, robust pewter and silver serving trays fit for royalty. The fickle fetters of sense and emotional agility that throw us under the bus when we’re not looking have now bowed to a deeper well. Unseen, but oh so quenching.
But not before we do a lot of fist shaking, weeping and finally giving up. That’s when rescue is sweetest.
Prayer of one who is lost
can I call you God? or god? or what?
I am sick. My soul is sick and I am crushed.
Are you there? If you are, are you good?
Are you to be trusted?
Are you the one I should be looking for or do I wait
for someone else? something else? somewhere else?
How much does guilt, shame, blame
fortify this place of thick, impenetrable walls?
Am I wise or even smart to hope when all I see is
blackness; sorrow draped in the sickly posture of dreams forgotten,
of light full shaded?
Do not speak to me of Job like the others.
He is a fairy-tale, a mockery to me,
a dream of dust and ancient woes
far removed from this Halloween of hellish delight.
He does not speak anymore and,
unlike his, my book has an ending yet undecided,
murky, unmoving like a lake long dead.
Perhaps no ending will come at all?
Perhaps there is no book?
Picturesque dreams no longer peek into sleep otherwise uninterrupted.
A mind instead, in broken time, refuses better context,
mocking lost memories of what I once thought was life.
When a heart bitterly refuses whatever comfort felt like,
to what do I cling? Is this to be my rebellion? My condemnation?
Am I headed for hell because of these questions?
the questions are hell enough.
For what it’s worth,
help me through one more day, this day,
if indeed there still is such a thing.
* * * * *
Is this you right now? What practices might be helpful as you and God seek to navigate this dark time?
Do you have a support system in place? Others who can be co-sojourners with you?
Share some of your own dark night experiences.