Preached on the celebration of Juan de la Cruz – Dec. 14, 2015. The Gospel reading was John 16:12-15; 25-28.
I like the darkness. I like the nighttime. I’m a night owl, not a morning person. I’ve always envied morning people because I’d love to rise before the sun and welcome each new day. But several years ago, I decided to allow myself permission to be the night owl I am rather than try to be something I’m not.
My experience of the night time is rich, full of imagination, where time seems to stretch in an unfettered way, unbounded by meetings and deadlines and appointments or work or interruptions or my favorite TV shows, although Netflix has made that much more challenging. When I think about it, when I look back on my life thus far, I can see more clearly that this night time has been a time for me to be with God.
This is obviously not everyone’s experience – people experience God in many different ways. So, it’s not that one experience is any better than another. God shows up when we need Her to. Or, more accurately, when She’s got some work for us to do.
John of the Cross understood this. John, whose life we celebrate today, was a medieval mystic in the 16th century who grew up in an orphanage in Spain. He learned several trades and eventually went to university where he was taught by the Jesuit order and then he entered monastic life. A woman named Teresa recruited him to help reform the Carmelite order and he ended up opening his own monastery, which irritated the people in power enough that they imprisoned him. It is because of this imprisonment that we have some amazing mystical poetry and spiritual classics: The Spiritual Canticle and The Dark Night of the Soul.
When we think of the phrase the dark night of the soul, we typically think of painful suffering or a belief that morning will never come, that I will have to endure this torment for an unimaginable length of time. And when we read John’s masterpiece, indeed, that is what he’s talking about. In a way.
John admits that the Dark Night of the Soul is no fun and that this “no fun” can result in suffering in our lives. But for John, this is more of a spiritual quest. And so, there is a hopefulness in it. This dark night is a night that brings us closer to God. It doesn’t feel good, not like a really good cup of coffee (if that’s your thing) or a sense of accomplishment or the yummy feeling that the holiday season can engender or a look from your lover.
For John, the hope is about letting go of all the things we think we want or need in this world and realizing that all of our yearning is actually a yearning for God. Although it can manifest temporally, in the affairs of our lives and our world, the Dark Night of the Soul is experienced as a kind of self-annihilation, a spiritual journey that means we leave the world behind, in a sense.
We don’t have to become a monastic, but to quote a number of spiritual teachers – we are in the world, but not of it. We continue to live and work and love, but our identity ceases to be wrapped up in the trappings of our personal goals or our desperate needs. And so, John sees this dark night as a purification –as a way to let go of all that is unnecessary, that is not of God, so that we might return to God.
So that we might return to Love.
On a dark night,
Inflamed by love-longing –
O exquisite risk! –
Undetected I slipped away.
My house, at last, grown still.
My house, at last, grown still.
Lately, I can’t imagine a darker night of the soul than the one we are collectively experiencing as an American society. It’s more than just a temporal state of affairs – it’s a spiritual sickness. To witness the hate-filled rhetoric, and the acts of violence against our Islamic brothers and sisters, and the racial hostility and fear mongering, and the nearly constant stream of mass shootings… to say nothing of the poverty and the loneliness we sometimes see but we tend to walk by without noticing, perhaps because it’s too painful to notice.
It’s as if our society has lost its mind. Or, more accurately, it’s as if our society has lost its soul.
It feels just like a dark night. How do we respond? How can we calm our minds and allow our hearts to hear God’s Holy Spirit more clearly?
In other words, can we return to Love in the midst of this temporal dark night? Can we live and work and love in this world and find the Way of Love?
If we are called to be purified by these dark nights, how might we see through the illusions of the world and become midwives for the Hope God is birthing in our midst?
I think in the midst of a dark night, we seek some sense of certainty. We reach out for something or someone to comfort us, to make us feel better, to give us a way to make sense of it, to give us a way to do… something to fix it.
It happens when we experience personal heartbreak. It happens when we try to get our heads around communal or congregational conflicts. We search for the explanation, we search for someone to blame and, if we’re not careful, our hearts begin to harden and Love slips away.
And this is John’s point. That we must grow beyond our yearning to be comfortable and our need for easy answers and come to a place of knowing that our true yearning is a yearning for God.
God is not found in certainties and blame or in self-righteous stances and rhetoric. God is found in Love… in a Love that reaches out from the very core of our being when we have finally let go of a need to be right or a need to be good or a need to be in control or a need to be safe.
And this Love that reaches out from our own soul is a Love that is, really, seeking itself – seeking to know itself and come back to itself.
It’s God moving through us and bringing us back to Himself, calling us home, freeing us from our struggle, from our delusions of specialness and pride and unworthiness so that we may know what is real – we belong to God. We are the beloved of God. And nothing can separate us from our essential and innate Love.
Our Gospel writer John tells us, “When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” 16:13
So, in other words, Love is not just a spiritual experience. In the midst of this Love, we come to know Truth. We come to know, in a very temporal and tangible way, what God would have us do. And it’s not sitting idly by awaiting a messiah to save us. No. For our messiah has already come and continues to be, for us, Emmanuel – God is with us.
Rather, in Love, we come to know how to be the midwives to the Hope God is birthing in our midst.
When we allow Love to flow through us instead of scheming in fear, when we offer ourselves to God instead of offering ourselves to vengeance and hate, we become what God needs in this world – the Body of Christ.
These dark nights are scary – whether they manifest as the events of the world, or as conflict in our communities, or in personal heartbreak… or whether they are the spiritual purification John talks about. It’s hard to tell sometimes and this is why our John of the Cross knows the importance of practice, a practice of silence and contemplation so that we might listen for God’s voice.
Because in the midst of these nights, it’s so easy to hear the voice of illusion, the cry of pain, the whisper of fear. And as a community of faith, this is why we are called to practice praying around a Table like this one – this Table of Reconciliation. This Table where we remember who we are and whose we are when we pray, “In your infinite love you made us for yourself.” We reclaim our belovedness when we say, “In your infinite love, God, you made us for yourself.”
We practice reconciling ourselves to God’s unbounded Love every time we come to this Table. We practice Hope in the experience of the Eucharist, participating in the sacrament of Love incarnate. We open ourselves to touch God and be touched by God so that we may know God… again.
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.
And when we know God, our mortal explanations become silent. Our desperate need for certainty vanishes and the darkness gives way to the light burning in our own hearts, the one that leads the way more clearly than the risen sun. And we become servants of Love, so that Christ may be born in our midst and we may know Emmanuel – God among us.
Come to the Table that is Hope. Pray for the world and for the church and for ourselves and those we love. And then come to the Table of Reconciliation. So that we may free ourselves from the voices of fear, and we might become servants of Love once more.