America’s Dark Night of the Soul

Everything is really dark right now. The forces of evil appear are fighting to maintain the upper hand and are clearly determined to drag us as far down the ugly path of cruelty and hatred as they can with willing support from people who ought to know better but are under the thrall of hate and so don’t care. People have revealed themselves and it is bizarre how rare genuinely good people seem to be. And yet, I do believe there’s a well of untapped goodness lurking under the surface just waiting to be released. There has to be; humans are made in God’s image and we’ve not had nearly as many opportunities to pour out good as evil.

I often think of something John of the cross said in The Dark Night of the Soul. He says that when God invades our innermost being and begins to purify us, it pushes all of the impurities in our hearts to the surface – things we didn’t even know were there or thought we had overcome. We see this darkness rising and think we are worse than we’ve ever been. Hopeless, ugly, evil even. And yet that is the point at which God is working most intensely in us under the surface. As his purifying fire expands out from our innermost being it quickly burns off the darkness on the surface to reveal his presence and our goodness.

I work under the theory that what we go through as individual humans must happen with humanity as a whole. I think (hope) we are at that point where the darkness is right on the surface and we believe ourselves to be worse than ever. Or perhaps there’s still more ugliness that needs to come to the surface to be dealt with. Either way, if that’s true, then we’re not far off from the point where the goodness under the surface burns through the darkness to reveal something much purer and more beautiful than we imagined was possible. Chin up, peeps.

PS Just a reminder, that I pretty much predicted we were heading in this direction back in 2014. Let’s just hope I am also right about the end result!

Remembering What It’s Like To Worship

There’s a bible verse from the ever popular prophet Joel which I turn to sometimes when I have sorrow over things I had lost. It says:

“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten . . . ” Joel 2:25

I have long believed that there is nothing I can lose that God will not return to me with interest. And that when it was returned to me, I would know it more truly and more deeply for having to do without it. Which may or may not actually be true, but I choose to believe it because life is better when I believe it than when I don’t. It helped me let go a little more gracefully, as I knew that I would receive it back in time. Sometimes it was cold comfort, but this verse gave me hope that life would eventually get better when I needed something to remind me.

Over the last month, I’ve started having the oddest sensation of being given back my good memories. It’s as if I’d completely forgotten that I really had been happy once. It wasn’t just something I told myself when I needed to shore up my confidence. I really was very happy once. I really did have a happy family once. I really did have an amazing marriage once. I really did have a good, although never perfect or easy, life once.

It’s like I’m coming out of this place where only the darkness existed and emerging back into the light. I can’t quite trust any of it and none of it makes much difference to my present circumstances, but it’s rather wonderful to be rediscovering the things that made my life good. It’s been like coming home and finding a box full of old pictures that had been lost in a move years ago.

One of the things I had lost was music. I wrote a post a while ago about realizing that I had forgotten how to sing nearly every song I knew a couple of years ago. The only songs I could remember were songs about God that I had learned while doing prison ministry. I would be singing my baby daughter to sleep and all I could remember were the same 4 or 5 songs attached to a time I would just as soon forget. Sometimes I choked on the words.

Eventually my daughter no longer needed to be sung to sleep and I stopped singing altogether. Which is something I’d done before, as you will remember if you have read my first book like a good little Upside Down World minion. ūüėČ But there’s a reason that shamans will ask the sick and depressed, “when did you stop singing?” Sickness of the heart and a lack of music go hand in hand.

So, for whatever reason, lately I’ve been rediscovering songs that I used to love that I had nearly forgotten. Yesterday, I happened to hear the song Gloria by the Christian duo Watermark and I remembered what it was like to worship. My heart used to sing this song, once upon a time. (My mouth has a harder time.)

A while back, I started a post by saying that one day I want to be able to write a post that’s all “God is great! He healed my wounds and lifted me from the pit!” But I gave up lying a while back. So, this isn’t that post yet. But I finally remember what it is like to be able to do that. And it is so good. Enjoy!

Gloria

I wish I could crash like the waves
Or turn like the autumn leaves
In effort to praise You
I wish I could smell like the forest
The fragrance lifting a mighty chorus
In effort to praise You, in effort to praise You

But I’m such a limited creature
And my words can only paint so many pictures
But somewhere I think I read that I am
Treasured over all creation
So I know that I must try

I wish I could roll like the thunder
To leave the earth below in wonder
In effort to praise You
I wish I could fall like the summer rain
And every drop would sing Your name
In effort to praise You, in effort to praise You

But I’m such a limited creature
And my words can only paint so many pictures
But somewhere I’m sure I read that I am
Treasured over all creation
So I know that I must try, I must try

Gloria, glory in the highest
Forever I will hide myself in Thee
Gloria, glory in the highest
Forever I will hide myself in Thee

Every breath that I breathe
Every moment in my history
Is an effort to praise You
An effort to praise You

Gloria, glory in the highest
Forever I will hide myself in Thee
Oh, Gloria
Glory in Excelsis Deo
Gloria, Gloria
Gloria
Gloria, Gloria, Gloria

-L & C Nockles

How the Dark Night of the Soul Is Like a Juice Cleanse

Recently one of my friends on facebook did a 10 day juice cleanse. Now, I’m always a bit sceptical about this whole concept of a cleanse because I want to believe that I can eat all the chemical food I want, in moderation and be just fine. Plus I’m really, really bad at fasting so it ¬†must be unnecessary and probably bad for you, right? But I know a lot of people swear by them.

Anyways, while doing the cleanse my friend felt pretty crappy for a while. First she was achy and tired like she had the flu. Then she had such awful sinus congestion that she thought she might have developed a sinus infection. And she lost her voice. By the end of the 10 ten days though she said she felt fit as a fiddle and was glad that she had persevered through the whole thing.

The reason she felt so awful during the first week of her cleanse, the theory goes, was because during this time her body was releasing all of the toxins which had accumulated over the decades. While the whole cleanse concept seems a bit dubious to me, this rang true. Because it’s exactly what I and many others who have or are walking through the dark night of the soul have experienced – spiritually anyways. In fact, following along with her cleanse induced suffering and redemption made me think this was a pretty darn good way of understanding the dark night of the soul experience.

The dark night of the soul is a phrase coined by John of the Cross who wrote a poem by that name and a book explaining it back in the 16th century in Spain after experiencing it himself. Today the phrase gets tossed around a lot to describe almost any particularly difficult spiritual phase – particularly one which involves spiritual dryness or a sense of separation from God. According to John, there are actually two dark night experiences which some Christians may experience.

The first is the dark night of the senses. During this experience, any sensual experience of God is removed from the person. That “Spirit raining down/God moved/presence” experience which many of us have during worship, prayer or particularly profound moments just disappears. And it takes comfort, peace and security with it.¬†(I wrote about this experience here.) This is very confusing for many people because no matter what you try – more prayer, worship, fasting, service, confession, spending time in nature, meditation, fellowship, etc – it doesn’t help the person going through it to re-connect with any sense of God’s presence or Spirit moving.

The dark night of the senses is a weaning process which prevents a person from being dependent on and greedy for spiritual experiences which bring pleasure and comfort. This happens so that we can learn to receive and experience God more directly. When a person comes out of the dark night of the senses, they are left with an ability to sense God’s movements in a more subtle, refined and interior way, even in the absence of any sensual experience of God.

The second, far less common experience is the dark night of the soul is best understood as a process of purification and purgation of the soul. John of the Cross says, “The dark night is a certain inflowing of God into the soul which cleanses it of its ignorances and imperfections; habitual, natural and spiritual.” It’s like a juice cleanse for the soul. And it will make you just as sick.

In his explanation of the dark night of the soul, John goes into great detail about the process of this inflowing of God and the cleansing of the soul. The end result is that the soul is perfected and purified to such an extent that it is able to be united completely with God. Being united with God is the ultimate goal of any serious spiritual seeker. Yet the dark night of the soul, properly understood, is granted to relatively few people. Most likely because there are relatively few people who are willing and able to endure it.

By all accounts it is one of the most horrible, desolate, hopeless experiences any human can walk through. In fact, when John explains how to discern if someone is having a dark night of the soul experience, the checklist of symptoms can basically be summed up as “are you seeking God desperately yet weak in spirit, faith and body, completely crushed, desolate, without hope, unable to be comforted and so miserable that you would rather that God allowed you to die than to continue going through this . . . and do you still want God desperately despite all of it?” Spiritually speaking, it is as close to experiencing the journey of the cross as any human can have.

The reason for this, it seems to me, is much the same as the reason my friend’s juice cleanse made her sick; while being fed only what is good and pure, the soul releases its toxins and makes you miserable and sick. John puts it this way: “the divine fire of contemplative love . . . expells [the soul’s] impurities, blackens it and obscures it, and thus its condition is apparently worse than it was before, more impure and offensive. For while the divine purgation is removing all the evil and vicious humours, which because so deeply rooted and settled in the soul, were neither seen nor felt, but now. . . are rendered clearly visible . . . the soul – though not worse in itself, nor in the sight of God – seeing at last what it never saw before, looks upon itself as not only unworthy of His regard, but even as a loathsome object and that God does loathe it.” In other words, the person going through the dark night experience becomes extremely spiritually sick.

Like the toxins being purged from my friend’s body when she did her cleanse, every dark and ugly thing in the soul is exposed and pushed to the surface during the dark night of the soul. The common experience of thinking that we are suffering because God is angry with us or disapproves of us is intensified. A soul going through the dark night experience is already suffering and now, seeing so clearly their faults, limitations and sin nature, they can hardly imagine that God wouldn’t and hasn’t utterly rejected them.

When my friend did her juice cleanse, the release of toxins which made her feel so sick happened when her body was deprived of anything except nourishment which was completely natural, healthy and pure. If she had cheated and snuck in a snickers bar, her body would have absorbed the refined sugars, chemicals and hydrogenated fats to replenish their stores and re-establish a more comfortable equilibrium. She would have felt better in the short run. But her body would not actually be able to rid itself of its toxins completely enough to no longer be dependant on them. It is very much the same thing with the dark night of the soul.

One of the characteristic traits of a dark night of the soul experience is that nothing brings comfort or life to the person having it. It’s as if the person going through it is deprived of any spiritual sustinence except for that unsatisfying, dull manna that I wrote about last week. Often this happens because every creature and worldly comfort is withheld from the person due to circumstances – ie life just goes all to hell. (John of the Cross was locked in a tiny room with a small window, too high up to look through, with no change of clothing or light and fed a starvation diet for 9 months when he had his dark night of the soul experience.) When things which would normally bring comfort and a sense of life to the person do appear, they are unable to take any comfort or joy in them.*

It’s a perfectly miserable experience. And generally not one which we can get through without some “cheating”. As John explains, people going through a dark night of the soul will sometimes experience a reprieve from the suffering. It feels like being able to breathe fresh air after being locked in a stuffy, humid room or feeling sunlight on the face after years in the dark. In their excitement at their release from the dark night, the person usually thinks (and hopes) that they have reached the end of their suffering. That God has completed his work in them. But really, this reprieve is a lot like being allowed a Snickers bar and a ham sandwich with an extra serving of manna.

Some people who have suffered through all the purgation they are capable of enduring and consenting to will not go back into the dark night. They will be much improved by their experience, but the work will remain incomplete. Their union with God will be partial and still subject to the vagaries and frustrations of life. Other people who are able and willing and who God has determined to purify completely will be put back on their manna diet and plunged back into the suffering of purgation.

My friend was apparently able to de-toxify her body in 10 days, without cheating. But it seems that our souls carry a lot more toxins than even the average American’s body does. The dark night of the soul experience can take decades to complete, although it’s often measured in mere years. Most people who enter into the dark night never do complete it in this life time. But for those who are able to endure to the end, the promise is the soul’s most ardent desire: complete union with God, complete peace and joy and our full restoration to our true identity.

*A dark night of the soul experience should not be confused with clinical depression. Nor should clinical depression ever be explained away as a dark night of the soul experience. An inability to enjoy good things in life can be a sign of both depression and the dark night of the soul. In fact, sometimes they can happen at the same time. In my experience, on of the main ways to tell the difference is that clinical depression is almost always accompanied by distorted thinking and obtrusive, unwanted thoughts. In a dark night of the soul, the thinking is so clear that every blemish is seen and every excuse is wiped away. There is an absence of obtrusive, unwanted thoughts and instead one’s ability to think things through or reach conclusions is often quite diminished. Clinical depression can and should be treated. The dark night of the soul can only be endured.

I Think I’m About to Lose a Bunch of Readers

I have been having a hard time writing lately in part because all I have say is, “I’m miserable and I’m dying and why doesn’t God care about me and I’m miserable and I’ve been abandoned and I’m being ground up into dust and Jesus Christ on the cross – this is never going to eeeeennnnnnddddd!” But really, I’ve said it all before and who wants to hear (or write) that crap over and over again?

Well, this morning I came across a blog post written by Frank Viola in which he shared a message for Christians in the wilderness. There are A LOT of us in the wilderness right now. I know that a lot of you are in the wilderness. In fact, I could be way wrong, but from where I’m sitting, I would say that it seems like the better part of the body of Christ that is faithful to Jesus’ way (as opposed to faithful to their theology) are in the wilderness at the moment.

So Frank said something in his message to those of us wandering in the wilderness which frankly, I had never heard before. He said that there is always a price to pay in order to leave the wilderness. Often it is, as he put it “an obscenely high price”:

We have a biological drive for God’s house. We have a spiritual taste for it. We have a longing, a biological instinct, if you will, driving us to our destiny. And we will never be satisfied until we make the decision, no matter what the cost, to be part of God’s building work.

That cost may involve the loss of friends. It may mean harassment or shunning from religious leaders. It may mean vicious and ugly rumors, slander, and gossip. It may mean walking in the steps of Abraham, who left all and headed for a city that he could not see.

It may involve selling our comfortable home and leaving our present job to relocate to another city where there are living stones who are being assembled to form God’s house. (I’ve moved in the past for this. And many of my friends have as well.)

It may involve gross misunderstanding, criticism, and perhaps thornier problems like persecution.

(You should go read the whole thing when you’re done with this!) Like I said, this is a new idea to me. Continue reading