God is Mystery and not any “thing” we can wrap our little brains around.

The Dark Night of the Soul is something many of us will have heard of and likely experienced. The phrase originated with the writings of 16th Century mystic St John of the Cross and still holds true today. Father Richard Rohr – a 21st century mystic – has recently explored the Dark Night in his Daily Meditations and I want to share some of his insights with you here.

God is Mystery and not any “thing” we can wrap our little brains around. Brian McLaren shares how he realised this during a time of deep doubt and perplexity in his life:

A verse I had memorised in my childhood came to mind: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” [Proverbs 3:5]. For the first time, it dawned on me: there’s a difference between doubting God and doubting my understanding of God, just as there’s a difference between trusting God and trusting my understanding of God. Would I be able to doubt my understanding of God while simultaneously trusting God beyond my understanding? In a strange way, that question for the first time in my life allowed me to see God as a mystery distinct from my concepts of God.

It’s wonderful to be blessed with such a clarifying insight! Yet, it sometimes takes a longer and more painful “dark night of the soul” to free us from our inadequate concepts of God. Author and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor, another good friend, explains:

John of the Cross says that the dark night is God’s best gift to you, intended for your liberation. It is about freeing you from your ideas about God, your fears about God, your attachment to all the benefits you have been promised for believing in God, your devotion to the spiritual practices that are supposed to make you feel closer to God, your dedication to doing and believing all the right things about God, your positive and negative evaluations of yourself as a believer in God, your tactics for manipulating God, and your sure cures for doubting God.

All of these are substitutes for God, John says. They all get in God’s way…

Yet it would be a mistake to attach the promise of more spiritual benefits to a night that is designed to obliterate them. Those who have come through dark nights of their own, not just once but over and over again, often cannot find the words to say why they would not trade those nights for anything. Yes, they were nights of great loss. Yes, the soul suffered from fearful subtraction. Yes, a great emptiness opened up where I had stored all my spiritual treasures, and yet. And yet what? And yet what remained when everything else was gone was more real than anything I could have imagined. I was no longer apart from what I sought; I was part of it, or in it. I’m sorry I can’t say it any better than that. There was no place else I wanted to be.

Richard again: This description of the “dark night” as a gift can be misleading because such times of unknowing are almost always endured more than enjoyed. However, the experience of mystery, paradox, and not-knowing brings to our lives a rich and unexpected grounding.

I know for me that although my path has led through many dark nights and painful times, I would not trade any one of these times for an easier, more comfortable life. Great love and great suffering are the doorways that lead to great transformation and ultimately a much richer, more grounded-in-God and content life. I can truly say that my Dark Nights have been a path to so much more than I thought possible. They’re not easy at the time, they are loaded with mystery, provoke many questions alongside a deep unknowing but as the light comes again it is clear to see that the place you end up when the dawn breaks is indeed more spacious, loving and abundant than what went before. 

For more on The Dark Night, James Finley is currently offering a wonderful podcast on St John of The Cross – Here.

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