Monday, January 16, 2012

A Doubter's Guide to Faith (2): Dark Night of the Soul

Audio available for listening or download

Job 3, excerpts (call to worship)

Genesis 1:1-5 (kids)
Romans 8:18-27, Song of Songs 5:6-8 (read for message)

We are in the second week of our Doubter’s Guide to Faith. Last week, we asked the question, “How can I KNOW?” and we used, alongside the Scripture, Blaise Pascal – the great philosopher, physicist, mathematician, and Christian mystic – as our tutor.

This week, we explore another great area of doubt and struggle, the experience of pain, suffering, and the absence of God. We’ll do so with the assistance of some new tutors, John of the Cross and Mother Teresa. Next week, we’ll look at questions of science, particularly evolution and Charles Darwin. And we’ll finish up this particular series with an examination of the evidence for faith across a number of significant areas.

Today’s focus raises more questions than can be answered in the time we have today. In fact, pain and the absence of God raises more questions than there are answers, period, at least in my own experience. But sometimes all we want is an answer, and now! A former pastor of mine, Dick Woodward, collected biblical texts that gave an explanation for suffering and had, at one point, over 50 different biblical reasons for suffering. His point? Don’t make unwarranted assumptions about the reasons for your sufferings or mine. Instead, seek God. At the time he offered this, over 25 years ago, he had not yet been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He is now physically limited by multiple sclerosis, but teaching from his bed.

There are many questions raised of pain and the absence of God. We ask “Why?” We want to locate justice, fairness in everything. Sometimes, we are content to wait for justice in kingdom come, but other times that seems inadequate for the concerns of the moment. And, we want to know who is at fault. We’re not content with “no fault” accidents; we want to pin it on someone, anyone, even God. If you were here last week, I hope you heard that it is biblical to question God – and it can be an important part of our spiritual journey.

Again, we cannot address all these questions in the time we have today. The beginning of the academic and theological response is that we live in a world shaped not only by God’s perfect design but by the presence of sin. And, we tend to underestimate how destructive sin can be, how pervasive it is, how sin and its unintended consequences have seeped into every corner of our world. The pervasive effect of sin in the world is like DDT – a pesticide for mosquitos – now found in penguin fat, far from any mosquito territory. The apostle Paul describes “the creation itself” as “in bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21) because of human sin.

We could endeavor to unpack this language and its implications in an academic fashion. But Paul does not do that. He turns from that statement to the life of prayer and the Christian hope. And, Job certainly does not do that. While we did not read the resolution of Job together – and it doesn’t entirely resolve, by the way, much like real life – we read Job in his pain. Job has lost his fortune, his children, his health and now sits, wracked with pain, in the town garbage dump. Three friends have arrived and the four of them have sat together in silence for seven days. Job speaks first, and we hear – because we find ourselves before a remarkable poet – what Paul otherwise calls “groans too deep for words”, the Spirit of God vocalizing human pain (Romans 8:26).

Job pushes us from the academic, intellectual consideration of pain and absence to the personal and visceral, to groans and sighs too deep for words. Any consideration of pain that does not get to that level entirely ignores the human condition.

Today, we are going to address just one thing: the emotional impact of doubt, the question of the presence of God in pain and absence. Just because we do not FEEL God to be present does not mean that God is in fact absent. In fact, it is in experiences of absence that God is often most present.

The expression for this in Christian theology is “dark night of the soul”. The same expression in contemporary speech is usually used in reference to the experience of pain, but that is not what it originally meant, in the mystical work of St. John of the Cross. Dark Night of the Soul is the title of a commentary by John of the Cross on his poem of the same title, a poem that has much more in common with the Song of Songs than with Job. It draws on the ancient tradition of reading the Song of Songs as a love song of the soul for God.
En una noche oscura,
con ansias, en amores inflamada,
¡oh dichosa ventura!
salĂ­ sin ser notada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.

On a dark night,
Inflamed by love-longing–
O exquisite risk!--
Undetected I slipped away.
My house, at last, grown still.
. . .
O night, that guided me!
O night, sweeter than sunrise!
O night, that joined lover with Beloved!
Lover transformed in Beloved!
. . .
I lost myself. Forgot myself.
I lay my face against the Beloved’s face.
Everything fell away and I left myself behind,
Abandoning my cares
Among the lilies, forgotten.
John of the Cross (1542-1591). Translated by Mirabai Starr. 2002. Dark Night of the Soul. New York: Riverhead Books. 23-28.
Not what you expected? Me neither! And, I excluded – as I did with the Song of Songs selection – the most sensual language. But both deal with the absence of God and the heart seeking God. “If you find my beloved, tell him this: I am faint with love” (Song of Songs 5:8).

But, take this road with me for a moment. When Robin and I were courting, a couple that had been married for a few years – but not many – told us that we were so cute together and that this cute, fun, nutty connection we enjoyed would not last. Now, that’s what you call encouragement! We looked at it as a challenge.

It has been almost 22 years now – doing dishes, raising children, “in sickness and health”, negotiating and worrying over budgets, facing miscarriages, going to grad school, now sending kids to college. And, yes, it didn’t just last – it got better!

We all have a few options, once we come face to face with the dull and ordinary in our love, never mind the big struggles:
love can mature, deepen, become more powerful and less about me
we can make our peace with discontent, at least until the kids grow up
we can opt out
And, if it doesn’t get better, it probably won’t last.

Robertson McQuilkin was the president of my college, and Robin’s seminary. During our time there, he retired early to care for his wife as her Alzheimer’s progressed. He had friends who urged him to put her in a home and continue his ministry. But in their private space, she was always “Lover”, even if her face was filled with confusion. “In sickness and in health”. He cared for her, he loved her – even when many days went by without her recognizing him, without an emotional connection.

Do we love the other, our partner, our spouse, or do we love the feeling of being in love? “Doesn’t God want me to be happy?” says a guy beginning an affair. “I know what true love feels like,” says a gal with a series of failed relationships. (See John of the Cross, 36.)
O night, that joined lover with Beloved!
Lover transformed in Beloved!
John of the Cross, 24
I sought him, but did not find him; I called him, but he gave no answer. 7 Making their rounds in the city the sentinels found me; they beat me, they wounded me, they took away my mantle, those sentinels of the walls.
Song of Songs 5:6-7
So, we encounter the insight and mystery of John of the Cross. The night in which Lover and Beloved finally become One is just that – a dark night. And the experience of pain and absence can become, if we allow it, something that sets us free from the pursuit of love’s pleasures to pursue the one we love.

A friend of mine had just found Jesus, and he was thrilled and excited. He said to me, “I just love this feeling. I never want to lose it.” I told him, “It is a wonderful feeling, and I am so glad for you. But if you begin to seek the feeling, you will soon discover that you are not seeking God. And, then you’ll have neither.”

“Doesn’t God want me to be happy?” “I know what true love feels like.” Let me be clear. Happiness is great! True love is wonderful! Pain and absence are painful, and we do not seek them. Much pain and absence is awful and even evil. But we are not truly alone. God-in-flesh, Jesus Christ, not only lived and laughed and loved among us, he also suffered and died for us. And even in our most desperate times, he suffers today. Even though we do not feel him in our pain, he is with us, loving us, and we can love him back.

John of the Cross writes of the experience of the dark night: “The soul must content herself with a loving attentiveness toward God, without agitation, without effort, without the desire to taste or feel him” (69). The dangers John describes are spiritual gluttony, spiritual envy, spiritual greed, spiritual anger, spiritual lust, spiritual pride – all of which make our spiritual practices and devotion to God about ME, not about Jesus. So, if we aren’t getting the feeling we want, the outcome we desire, there is something wrong, with us or with Jesus. But maybe neither is the case.

A true story: Agnes as a young girl was on fire for Jesus. She said that she wanted “to love Jesus as he has never been loved before”. She became a missionary, she experienced the joy of Jesus. Then, it seemed, God left her. In her case, this was not connected with an external suffering or pain. It was simply that God became absent, that prayer and Scripture and missionary service brought no joy. She wrote in private letters to her spiritual directors, “Deep down there is nothing but emptiness and darkness ... My God, how painful is this unknown pain ... I have no faith.” This darkness, this absence of God, continued for almost 50 years, with only one break. Today, we know Agnes as Mother Teresa, and we think of her as one who loved Jesus, and loved him in the poor, in extraordinary ways (John Ortberg).

John of the Cross talks about the dark night, in its fullness, as a rarity in the Christian spiritual pilgrimage. And Mother Teresa’s experience is certainly rare. I’m glad that I have not had to endure that kind of absence, that emptiness and darkness, for such extended periods. I’ve experienced personal pain, unexpected griefs, and some depression; but that is not the same thing as the dark night. It can usher me into that night, it can open me to receive that gift from God, but it is my choice to embrace, my choice to love God in the pain, to love God in the absence.

I don’t have “final answers,” academic or otherwise, to my questions of suffering. Why did we lose children to miscarriage? Why natural disasters? Why cancer and Parkinson’s and mental illness? Even an appreciation for the destructiveness and pervasiveness of sin is not enough, not enough for “groans that words cannot express”, not enough for silence and darkness and absence.

The only thing that is enough is God, and God is love. Job curses the day of his birth, Job wishes that he had been miscarried, and at the end of the book, God shows up. He experiences absence, and the LORD is present. Paul speaks of “groans too deep for words” and tells us that “the Spirit intercedes”. That is, in our experience of absence and pain, the Spirit of God is praying for us. The beloved in the Song of Songs seeks her lover, despite being beaten by night watchmen, she still seeks him in the dark. And, she finds him. Absence is replaced by presence.
I lost myself. Forgot myself.
I lay my face against the Beloved’s face.
Everything fell away and I left myself behind,
Abandoning my cares
Among the lilies, forgotten.
In our experiences of pain and absence, please feel free to question. And I encourage you to seek God for God’s sake, not for our own sake, not to satisfy our needs, not to make us feel good about ourselves, for God’s sake alone. Seek, and love Jesus, this Jesus who chose to enter our world and suffer with us. Seek, and love the Spirit, the Spirit who prays for us in our weakness. Seek, and love the Father, who is never absent even though we may not feel his presence.

Our pain may not go away, but we will find something deeper, Someone deeper discover at the last that we are not alone.

John of the Cross (1542-1591). Translated by Mirabai Starr. 2002. Dark Night of the Soul. New York: Riverhead Books.
John Ortberg. 2011. “Dark Night of the Soul”. Leadership Journal, online, citing Come Be My Light, edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk, Doubleday 2007.

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