Earlier this week, our Lenten exploration of mystics looked at the Dark Night of the Soul as it was originally articulated by St. John of the Cross. In reading John’s poem, it became clear that he wasn’t talking about the Dark Night as a time of redemptive suffering or of testing by God, but that the stripping away of spiritual consolations that the Dark Night entails is a gift that allows the soul to unite with God without distraction or attachment.
This is a helpful idea for a lot of us, who have experienced times of desolation and feeling like we’ve lost our way and like we’ve lost God in the process. But I think we’d be making a mistake if we were to insist that what St. John of the Cross talks about is a universal phenomenon, or a mandatory part of spiritual growth. The Dark Night is descriptive, not prescriptive. It is a very common way in which God leads us to union with God, but not everyone will experience a Dark Night, and, perhaps more importantly, no two Dark Nights will be exactly the same.
In my own story, there is much from my crisis a decade ago, which I’ve previously described on this blog, that fits St. John’s paradigm: It was an experience of extreme desolation that eventually led to a deeper love for God. But there is also much from it that doesn’t seem to fit: I had to step off of the path I was on for a time, it was far more dramatic than what St. John describes (it was not just a dark night but a ‘dark and stormy night’), and so on. In reading his commentary again this past month, I couldn’t help but notice that there are even some ways in which my life of faith now more closely resembles John’s description of the Dark Night. (I’ve just become better, I guess, at walking in the dark.)
My point in bringing up my story again isn’t to navel-gaze, but simply to point out that every journey of faith has its own path, its own terrain, its own territory. No two people are starting from the same place and we all have our own strengths, weaknesses, traumas, pain, infirmities, and struggles to work through. As much as I can talk about the map not being the territory, really, there is no map at all. The maps we have — words of guides and teachers — can only take us so far. They can perhaps tell us that to get from the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains you need to pass through the Prairies, and tell us what the major routes are — and this is unquestionably helpful and necessary information. But our starting and ending points won’t be the same, and the season and weather conditions and social and political realities of the day will necessarily impact our journeys. The maps reflect the mystics’ and saints’ own experiences, which are, by definition, not ours.
This is a hard thing, perhaps. It would be nice to know that if we just do A, B, and C, we’ll find our way, but life isn’t that simple. It’s a challenge to be sure, but it’s also a great opportunity to engage our life of faith with hope, trust, and creativity. The journey is long and hard, and our maps are helpful but not definitive.
We simply have to journey one step at a time, no matter the conditions, whether it’s day or night, winter or summer, clear or stormy. And really, this is St. John’s main point: the heart’s own light is the only light we need to find our way.