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 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.
In St. John of the Cross’ poem Dark Night of the Soul we get a clear sense of the burning pain of being lost in the night. As a main theme of this book, we will look deeper into the fifth paragraph; the “Oh, night” from the point of view of falling in love with the sorrow, which is a main obstacle to healing our pain and suffering.
In religion and spirituality we find that both mystery and doubt play an important role. Doubt is a key that opens us up to the mystery of God. However, doubt is also painful because it separates us from our union with God and certainty. When life is going our way and all the doors open there is a thrill of being alive, but then when all of a sudden the doors close in our face and we expect things to be the same, it hurts.
One can only imagine what Jesus must have felt like when he died on the cross. Coming out of the desert in full power of the Spirit of God he went on to preach about the Kingdom of Heaven coming soon: “the Kingdom of heaven is near.” We must expect that Jesus saw this kingdom as coming soon because he used words like “near” and “at hand.” He did not say sometime in the future like in 2000 years.
Rather than stretching “near” all the way till our time today and hoping for the Rapture, it would seem reasonable to conclude that Jesus actually thought that the kingdom was near. Maybe he even thought that he had the power to bring it about in his lifetime.
Looking at things from this perspective puts Jesus’ last words in context: “Father, why have you forsaken me?” No matter how we interpret these words, we cannot claim that they do not express doubt, but of course, in knowing exactly why he was in doubt we must also know exactly what he was expecting.
Without absolute certainty, I would suggest that rather than expecting to be saved by his followers Jesus was contemplating the directions of his ministry, which at that time could have seemed to him like it was ending on the cross.
But as we all know the ministry of Jesus did not end there as it was only the beginning. Whether we like religion or not, and even though Christianity has committed horrible acts in his name, still it is hard to reject that while still imperfect, western society has gone through a moral evolution over the last 2,000 years.
My point here is that even though we doubt in the face of obstacle, as I was in doubt when my life and career was in ruins due to a prolonged immigration process, often God knows what is best for us. As Jesus would probably have faded away in history without his death on the cross, so also my life would not have turned to writing and the service of others without intervention.
The problem, however, with doubt and the uncertainty of standing in the unknown is that it can be painful. The shadow of not knowing our future or the pain of having things turn out differently than what we expected can be great. Especially, if we struggle all that we can and fight against an unwanted outcome.
This struggle against the darkness of the unknown is what St. John of the Cross calls the active night. During this first dark night of the soul, he tells us that, “However greatly the soul itself labours, it cannot actively purity itself.”
The struggle here is the labor of the soul that takes it deeper into the dark night. As in the “Oh, night” of the poem, we can interpret this as if the soul is in love with the night and as such this active labor of the soul cannot bring it to fulfillment in the union with God.
This is because the labor of the soul is directed towards the sorrow. Through the “Oh, night more lovely than the dawn” the soul has fallen in love with the night as it has fallen in love with the sorrow.
Another Christian saint, St. Faustina gives us more insight into this duality:
“The soul is drawn to God but feels repulsed. All other sufferings and tortures in the world are as nothing compared with this sensation into which it has been plunged; namely, that of being rejected by God. No one can bring it any relief … It finds itself completely alone; there is no one to defend it. It raises its eyes to heaven, but is convinced that this is not for her — for her all is lost. It falls deeper and deeper from darkness to darkness, and it seems that it has lost forever the God it used to love so dearly.”
On this path of the sorrow we find the question “why” where the soul is more attached to the “how” – as in how could this happen or how could God allow this to happen? While this is natural, there is a danger in asking these questions and going too deep within the sorrow without a foundation of love.
The pain of the sorrow can lead to despair through the question: How could this happen? Or how could God allow this to happen? This despair can lead to deep sadness through a sense of powerlessness, and this sadness can then again lead to depression.
Through this way of entering the night and engaging the sorrow, we are using the sadness to tell the soul how we feel and this covers the soul in sorrow. On an intellectual level we are using our emotion of sorrow to tell our mind how we want to feel. This becomes a cycle of sadness that leads to depression.
In the Oh, night of the poem there is through this path a love for the night or an attachment to the sorrow itself. Through this path the night that “joined Beloved with lover” the soul is joined with sorrow and through the attachment to the sorrow, the path towards depression has been set.
This is the active part of the night that locks the soul in the darkness of the night.