Dark Night of the Soul

March 17, 2002



Dark Night of the Soul (3/10/02)

University Congregational Church—Wichita, Kansas

Gary Cox

Before I begin this morning’s sermon, I’m going to interrupt our regularly scheduled program with a short message. When you are honored with a position like I have—serving a highly intelligent and open-minded congregation—it is necessary to put in a lot of hours of study. As Bob can tell you, if we didn’t keep a constant flow of new ideas flowing through our minds, we would end up saying the same things over and over, and the weekly sermon would soon be nothing more than our personal and narrow opinions on whatever subject we chose for a particular week’s topic.

Because I spend so much time in study, it finally occurred to me that I should channel that study time into a more structured format. So I started investigating various educational programs. Since I already have what can only be described as my “dream job”, the primary factor involved in my search for a good program was that I be able to continue my ministry to this church, and that the hours of study required would not exceed those that I currently spend in private study.

There are several D.Min programs—Doctor of Ministry programs—that allow ministers to spend three weeks each year on campus, and the rest of the year doing their normal activities in their home church setting, while doing reading, research, and writing. The time requirements are spelled out in advance, and after narrowing my search down to three or four excellent programs, I picked the one that I thought looked best, and applied.
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This program is called the ACTS Doctor of Ministry. ACTS stands for Association of Chicago Theological Schools. The three-week residency requirements are centered around the campus complex in the Hyde Park area of Chicago, and the six mainline seminaries in the Chicago area work together on the program. I’ll tell you a bit about it, and hopefully you’ll see why I am very excited about this.

Ministers enter this program and receive their doctorates through the seminary of their denomination. So for me, I applied through Chicago Theological Seminary, which is the seminary of the denomination in which I am ordained—the United Church of Christ. Each denomination accepts five students per year into the program, which over the past several years has become quite famous, and top seminary professors from all over the country go to Chicago to teach the classes. For example, in my first residency I am scheduled to study under one of the most respected professors in the country—David Bartlett, the Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of Preaching at Yale Divinity School.

As a part of the program you will see a video camera set up now and then to record some of my sermons. This is so both volunteers from the congregation and the professors from all those seminaries can dissect my preaching. That is sure to be a humbling experience! And that brings me to another point I want to make about this program, something that makes it quite unique: it very much involves you—the people from this congregation. One of the aspects of this program that makes it unique among doctoral programs is that it draws the minister and the congregation into a very close relationship as the people of the congregation help map out the direction the program takes. More on that in the coming months.

Anyway, I’m very excited about this, and I hope you will be too. I will be taking three weeks of vacation—the last two weeks of June and the first week of July—to go to Chicago and begin the program. I will do that once a year, and complete the program in three years.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

I make no secret of the fact I have a special love of the mystics. One of the great discoveries I made at seminary was that the writings of the great mystics transcend both time and our religious categories. Large parts of the writing of the Dali Lama, or modern Buddhist writer Thich Nat Hahn, can be woven seamlessly into ancient religious texts such as the Upanishads, as well as the writings of the medieval Christian mystics, such as Meister Eckhart, or Hildegard of Bingen.

If those names are unfamiliar to you, don’t feel bad—the mystics are not for everyone, and especially with regard to the Christian faith, they remain obscure figures, studied rarely outside the walls of our seminaries. I suppose it is because of my love of Eastern religion—Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism—that I am drawn to the writings of the great Christian mystics, because it is there that the common ground exists between all religions.

My personal belief is that these mystics are the ones who have wandered closest to the truth, and that the truth they’ve personally experienced, and have attempted to put into words, often loses its power when religion hammers it into doctrine. Of course, I love religion, and I don’t mean to denigrate religion. By its very nature, religion tries to make concrete that which is inexpressible. It uses all manner of language and symbols to point toward God. Christianity has some of the most powerful symbols humanity has ever known. Consider the images we Christians evoke with our religious language: Living Water; Bread of Life; Light of the World; Lamb of God. And consider the cross. For me, and for millions of others, the cross remains the most mysterious, powerful and awe-inspiring symbol in our lives.

But these things are all symbols. A religion goes too far when it starts demanding that it has everything figured out; that its symbols are themselves eternal truths, rather than objects that point us toward eternal truths.

Because of my love of the mystics, I was excited to attend a spiritual retreat with several other United Church of Christ ministers last month at Camp White in Council Grove, Kansas. The purpose of the retreat was to discover ways of using the writings of St. John of the Cross to enhance our prayer lives. I had a wonderful and inspiring time, and my inner spiritual life has indeed benefited from the experience.

But I received an added benefit. In revisiting St. John of the Cross, I came to realize that his writing is so powerful because it goes beyond that esoteric, private inner world where each of us, with our time-bound and finite nature, meets the eternal within ourselves. The writing of St. John of the Cross is powerful and meaningful because it meets us where we live, in our everyday lives, and reminds us that as human beings we all share certain struggles. Those struggles may seem to be so personal, so private, we can’t explain them, or share them with anybody else. But in reality, they are a part of almost everybody’s human experience.

I should say something about the person who led the retreat. Her name is Loretta Ross-Gotta, and she identifies herself as a hermit, although she is married and has two children. She actually has a hermitage, and she divides her time between the hermitage and her amazingly understanding family. She seems to me to be a person who keeps one foot grounded in the here and now, and another foot grounded…somewhere else. I can identify with that balancing act, so I found her to be somewhat of a kindred spirit. She certainly spends a great deal of time in prayer, and she has seriously studied the writings of St. John of the Cross.

Before I move on to the parts of his writing that speak so directly to our human experience, I’ll provide you with just a little historical background on St. John of the Cross. He was a monk who lived from 1542 until 1591. Now remember, the Protestant Reformation began around 1520, so St. John of the Cross lived in the early years of the divide between Catholicism and Protestantism. He was a part of what historians call the “Counter-reformation.” Most devout Christians of that era realized that the institution of the Catholic Church had become corrupt. The Protestants protested by leaving the Catholic Church. The Counter-reformation was the reform movement within the Catholic Church.

I bring this up because as a Catholic reformer, and as a result of the religious turmoil of that time, St. John of the Cross was at times the head of an order of friars, at times the rector of a college, and at other times imprisoned for his religious convictions. Some of his greatest writing occurred when he was imprisoned by opponents of the reform. He wrote a religious poem during one imprisonment called The Dark Night of the Soul. It soon became, and remains to this day, a great spiritual classic. He spent much of the rest of his life expounding on the ideas he first formulated in The Dark Night of the Soul.

In modern theology, and especially in spiritual writing, those words—the dark night of the soul–represent an experience many human beings go through. There are, quite literally, hundreds of books dealing with the dark night of the soul. Perhaps you have had this experience. You surely know somebody who has endured the dark night, even if you have not yourself gone through this experience, or have not given the experience that particular name.

To understand what is meant by “the dark night of the soul,” we must first understand what it is not. It is not depression. It may lead to depression, but the dark night of the soul and depression itself are two different things. With depression, medication can help—anti-depressants can help with the cure. Such medications do not help with the dark night of the soul. Another difference is that with deep depression, one tends to be self-centered, and a bit draining on other people. With the dark night, others do not feel drained by your presence; in fact, one’s compassion tends to be enhanced through the dark night experience. And lastly, severe depression can make a person want to stay in bed all day, and robs them of their effectiveness as a human being. The dark night of the soul is so deeply internal, most people do not recognize that you are having the dark night experience, as you continue to function in what appears to be a normal manner.

So what are the characteristics of this dark night of the soul? What is happening at the deepest levels of a person when he or she suffers through what St. John of the Cross calls the dark night? First and foremost, the dark night of the soul is a faith crisis. It normally occurs in a person who has at some point had a strong faith, and who suddenly feels a sense of abandonment by God. At the root of this sense of abandonment is a feeling of meaninglessness. And to take it to the extreme, it’s not just that you feel your own life has no meaning; it’s that you come to believe nothing has any meaning. You can find no inherent value to life itself, and feel it would have been better if creation had never happened. That is the hidden foundation of the dark night of the soul, a foundation that is so deep and so dark, even the person going through this experience would rather not give it voice, and hides this deep sense of meaninglessness not only from others, but even from themselves.

The dark night can be triggered by any number of things, from the death of a loved one to the loss of a job. There is a feeling that there is no way out. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, because the tunnel just goes on forever. Nothing matters except for the problem, and there is no solution to the problem. So add to the meaninglessness of life the hopelessness of the situation.

Another characteristic of the dark night of the soul is the feeling of being humiliated. You go about your daily routines, but you go through the motions with no sense of pride. You feel no real self-worth, and so you add to the meaninglessness of the world and the hopelessness of your problem your own personal worthlessness.

Meaninglessness, hopelessness, worthlessness: those are the inner characteristics of this experience. They coincide with several outward signs that indicate one is trapped in a dark night of the soul. First, you become powerless to pray with your rational mind. It seems that God is either not there or is not listening. All connections to God are cut off, and prayer is nothing more than an empty ritual. Second, there is a continual feeling of emptiness in all life’s experiences. There is no satisfaction in anything you do. And third, there is a sense of culpability. You may feel like a victim, but deep down you feel like you deserve the pain you are suffering through. This leads to a constant sense of anxiety, dread, and even panic.

Now, some of you have no idea what I’m talking about. Others are thinking, “He just described exactly what I’ve gone through myself.” It would be natural to think that those who have not had this experience are the lucky ones, but according to St. John of the Cross, the dark night of the soul is actually a gift from God, because it is only by walking through the dark night that we can recognize the light of God’s love when it appears.

The reason the dark night, for all its horrors, is in fact a gift from God, is because it takes away our inclination to think we can reason our way to God. When we enter fully into the dark night of the soul, we ultimately have to surrender to God unconditionally. We cannot reason our way out of the mess in which we find ourselves trapped. And we suffer through what is called the “crucifixion of the intellect.”

And when that finally happens, a new and deeper love is born within us. A love of God and creation quietly awakens at the deepest level of our being, a love that gives meaning and hope and worth to our every breath. It may take a long time for this to happen, but once we pass through the dark night of the soul, we are closer to God, and more deeply in love with life, as the eyes of our hearts see the world anew. We find ourselves centered not in the mind, not in our selfish personality, but rather in our hearts.

We become radically aware that God is with us—more than with us. We slowly awaken to the truth: that God is not out there somewhere looking down on us, but that God is within us. God sees the glory of creation through our eyes. God feels compassion for the world though our hearts. And God heals the world through our hands.

We can think about that God with our minds. We can write about that God with our hands. But we can only know that God by passing through the dark night of the soul, and that is why St. John of the Cross says the dark night is a gift from God.

Of course, the dark night of the soul comes in many forms. While it is a universal human experience, it is always absolutely unique for the person who is going through it. And its many forms can take on differing levels of severity. Some suffer through the dark night over a period of years, as they run from the hard questions life throws at us, hiding in the minutia of daily living. This person doesn’t confront the mystery of life directly, and is haunted by a sense that there is something missing, something lacking. He or she feels there is surely meaning and purpose for life, but is not confident enough of that fact to give the matter much thought. So life is lived almost thoughtlessly, and over time, the dark night silently overwhelms them.

Others are thrown into this experience by thinking too much about the hard questions. They follow certain schools of philosophy down a path that leads them to a state of utter mental confusion. Unlike the person who has hidden from life’s questions, this person often encounters the dark night of the soul as if they had crashed into a brick wall.

And others experience the dark night through some sort of loss, perhaps a loved one, perhaps a job, or any of the other losses that occur in the course of a human life.

I speak of the dark night of the soul this morning for a reason. First, I want people to understand that this is a common experience—this feeling of meaninglessness, hopelessness and worthlessness. When it happens to you, no matter how personal and private the experience seems, I hope you will remember that others have gone through the same general experience. And second, I want you to know that there really is light at the end of the tunnel, in spite of how it may seem at the time.

No matter what, there is always hope. Even in the darkest valley, even in the face of death, there is hope. St. John of the Cross explains the way out of the dark night perfectly by giving us a paradox. He writes, God’s love is offered freely; to experience it costs us everything. Think about that: God’s love is offered freely; to experience it costs us everything. All four gospels tell us this was a primary message of Jesus. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.

What we are told to lose, in this situation, is not so much life itself, but the life we have dedicated ourselves to living—the life of selfishly clinging to people and things as if the whole world revolved around our individual desires, our personal happiness. We are called to something bigger. We are created for the purpose of entering into a relationship with God. Jesus said that the first commandment, the greatest commandment, is to love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength, and with all our mind. We can spend our entire lives running away from that idea. We can hide from it, we can stay so busy we never have to think about it, we can fill our every moment with the cacophonous noise of radio and television so we rarely have to give the matter any thought at all.

But we can’t run away from God forever. The mortality rate for human beings is 100%, and between this moment and our inevitable demise we can’t draw a single breath except for the will of God. It is in God that we live, and move, and have our being. And that is good news. The good news is that we have a God who loves us more than we can possibly imagine, a God whose love is higher, deeper and wider than the limits of our minds, a God who forgives us with every breath we take for every mistake we’ve made, and who waits, so patiently, for us to open ourselves to his holy presence.

Now we move closer and closer to Easter. But we can’t get there without passing through Good Friday, and if you ever feel alone, if you ever feel that your dark night of the soul is beyond the understanding of anybody else, I ask you to please remember the words of Jesus from the cross: Eli, Eli, lema sabachtani? (ay’lee ay’lee, luh-mah’ sah-bakh’-thah-nee) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

The dark night of the soul? Jesus knows. God knows. And God has an answer. It’s called Easter. And it’s free. It’s absolutely free. All it will cost us is…everything.