Friday, October 12, 2018

In the Garden of Spirituality – Gerald May


The Wild Reed’s series of reflections on religion and spirituality continues with an excerpt from Gerald May's book The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth (2004).

In his book, May draws on the spiritual insights and writings of the two great sixteenth-century Christian mystics, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. He notes that for them, the soul is not "something a person has, but who a person most deeply is: the essential spiritual nature of a human being.


People would be surprised if they knew
what their souls said to God sometimes.

Centuries before Freud “discovered” the unconscious, contemplatives such as Brother Lawrence, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross had a profound appreciation that there is an active life of the soul that goes on beneath our awareness. It is to this unconscious dimension of the spiritual life that Teresa and John refer when they use the term “dark.”

When we speak of darkness today, we are often referring to something sinister, as in “powers of darkness” or the “dark side.” This is not what Teresa and John mean when they used the Spanish word for dark, oscura. For them, it simply means “obscure.” In the same way that things are difficult to see at night, the deepest relationship between God and person is hidden from our conscious awareness.

In speaking of la noche oscura, the dark night of the soul, John is addressing something mysterious and unknown, but by no means sinister or evil. It is instead profoundly sacred and precious beyond all imagining. John says the dark night of the soul is “happy,” “glad,” “guiding,” and full of “absolute grace.” It is the secret way in which God not only liberates us from our attachments and idolatries, but also brings us to the realization of our true nature. The night is the means by which we find our heart’s desire, our freedom to love.

This is not to say that all darkness is good. Teresa and John use another word, tinieblas, to describe the more sinister kind of darkness. There is no doubt about the difference. Teresa uses oscura in saying that the spiritual life is so dark she needs much patience “in order to write about what I don’t know.” But she uses tinieblas when she says, “The devil is darkness itself.” Similarly, John says it is one thing to be in oscuras and quite another to be in tinieblas. In oscuras things are hidden; in tinieblas one is blind. In fact, it is the very blindness of tinieblas, our slavery to attachment and delusion, that the dark night of the soul is working to heal.

For Teresa and John, the dark night of the soul is a totally loving, healing, and liberating process. Whether it feels that way is another question entirely. Nowadays most people think of the dark night of the soul as a time of suffering and tribulation – redemptive, perhaps, but entirely unpleasant. That is not always the case. . . . Liberation, whether experienced pleasurably or painfully, always involves relinquishment, some kind of loss. It may be a loss of something we’re glad to be rid of, like a bad habit, or something we cling to for dear life, like a love relationship. Either way it’s still a loss. Thus even when a dark-night experience is pleasant, there is still likely to be an accompanying sense of emptiness and perhaps even grief. Conversely, when a dark-night experience leaves us feeling tragically bereft, there still may be a sense of openness and fresh possibility. The point is, no matter how hard we try, we cannot see the process clearly. We only know what we’re feeling at a given time, and that determines whether our experience is pleasurable or painful. As one of my friends often says, “God only knows what’s really going on – literally!”

The only characteristic of the experience of the dark night that is certain is its obscurity. One simply does not comprehend clearly what is happening. . . . The obscurity of the dark night is so constant that I sometimes say, “If you’re certain you’re going through a dark night of the soul, you probably aren’t.” The statement is flippant, but in my experience people having an experience of the dark nigh almost always think it is something else. If it’s a pleasant experience, they may call it a mysterious breakthrough, a moment of unexplainable grace. If it is unpleasant, they tend to see it as a failure on their part: laziness, lassitude, resistance, or some other inadequacy.

If, as John maintains, the night is such a gift, why must the process remain so obscure? Since the night involves relinquishing attachments, it takes us beneath our denial into territory we are in the habit of avoiding. We might feel willing to relinquish compulsions we acknowledge as destructive, but anyone who has made a New Year’s resolution knows how self-defeating such attempts can be. And what about the attachments we love, the ones we honor and value? Would we willingly cooperate in being freed from drivenness to do good works or to care for our family, even though we know it comes from compulsion rather than love? Would we willingly join God’s grace in relinquishing attachments to the beliefs and images of God that give us comfort, security, and meaning, even if we recognize how they restrict and restrain us?

If we are honest, I think we have to admit that we will likely try to sabotage any movement toward true freedom. If we really knew what we were called to relinquish on this journey, our defenses would never allow us to take the first step. Sometimes the only way we can enter the deeper dimension of the journey is by being unable to see where we’re going.

John’s explanation of the obscurity goes further. He says that in worldly matters it is good to have light so we know where to go without stumbling. But in spiritual matters it is precisely when we do think we know where to go that we are most likely to stumble. Thus, John says, God darkens our awareness in order to keep us safe. When we cannot chart our own course, we become vulnerable to God’s protection, and the darkness becomes a “guiding night,” a “night more kindly than the dawn.”

Let me say it again: whether we experience it as painful or pleasurable, the night is dark for our protection. We cannot liberate ourselves; our defenses and resistance will not permit it, and we can hurt ourselves in the attempt. To guide us toward the love that we most desire, we must be taken where we could not and would not go on our own. And lest we sabotage the journey, we must not know where we are going. Deep in the darkness, way beneath our senses, God is instilling “another, better love” and “deeper, more urgent longings” that empower our willingness for all the necessary relinquishments along the way.

This transformative process – the freeing of love from attachment – is akin to the ancient biblical concept of salvation. Hebrew words connoting salvation often contain a root made of the letters y and s, yodh and shin. One example is the Hebrew name of Jesus, Yeshua, “God saves.” This y-s root implies being set free from bondage or confinement, enabled to move freely, empowered to be and do according to one’s true nature. In contrast to life-denying asceticism that advocates freedom from desire, Teresa and John see authentic transformation as leading to freedom for desire. For them, the essence of all human desire is love.

In their understanding, the blindness of tinieblas is enslavement to attachment and sin, an impoverishment of love. Being “saved from sin,” then, is synonymous with being freed for the fullness of love. John, in the theology of his time, saw the transformative process of the dark night as identical to what supposedly occurred in purgatory – only it was happening now, during this life.

The goal of the transformation, the dawn after the night, consists of three precious gifts for the human soul. First, the soul’s deepest desire is satisfied. Freed from the idolatries of their attachments, individuals are able to be completely in love with God and to love their neighbors as themselves. This love involves one’s whole self: actions as well as feelings. Second, the delusion of separation from God and creation is dispelled; slowly one consciously realizes and enjoys the essential union that has always been present. Third, the freedom of love and realization of union leads to active participation in God. Here one not only recognizes one’s own beauty and precious nature, but also shares God’s love and compassion for others in real, practical service in the world.

When we begin to grasp the breadth and depth of this vision, it becomes obvious that we could never achieve it on our own. It seems a miracle that it could happen at all.

Others highlighted in The Wild Reed’s “In the Garden of Spirituality” series include:
Zainab Salbi | Daniel Helminiak | Rod Cameron | Paul Collins | Joan Chittister | Toby Johnson | Joan Timmerman | Uta Ranke-Heinemanm | Caroline Jones | Ron Rolheiser | James C. Howell | Paul Coelho | Doris Lessing | Michael Morwood | Kenneth Stokes | Dody Donnelly | Adrian Smith | Henri Nouwen | Diarmuid Ó Murchú | Patrick Carroll | Jesse Lava | Geoffrey Robinson | Joyce Rupp | Debbie Blue | Rosanne Cash | Elizabeth Johnson | Eckhart Tolle | James B. Nelson | Jeanette Blonigen Clancy | Mark Hathaway | Parker Palmer | Karen Armstrong | Alan Lurie | Paul Wapner | Pamela Greenberg | Ilia Delio | Hazrat Inayat Khan | Andrew Harvey | Kabir Helminski | Beatrice Bruteau | Richard Rohr | Judy Cannato | Anthony de Mello | Marianne Williamson | David Richo

Opening image: Michael J. Bayly.
Book cover design: Noel Barnes.

1 comment:

Joel Watson said...

Thank you for this.