I recently finished The Dark night of the Soul, by St. John of the Cross. I have long heard of this work. I have heard people speak about going through their own personal “dark night”—times in which the presence of God seems all but removed. These are lonely, uncomfortable, sometimes painful times in our spiritual lives. Eventually, the “dark night” ends, and life returns to normal.
This is the popular understanding of what constitutes a “dark night.” While this is correct, for the most part, it doesn’t convey the fullness of what St. John of the Cross describes in his work. For St. John, the dark night is not so much defined by a sense of divine abandonment, as it is about divine stripping—what St. John calls “purgation.” The Spirit of God purges us from our dependence on the things of this world and the lusts of the senses. In the dark night, God removes our reliance upon that which we normally turn to for pleasure or satisfaction, both physically and spiritually. These “imperfections” at times block our spiritual progress, and thus “God leads into the dark night those who He desires to purify from all these imperfections, so that he may bring them farther onward.” We are purged from the imperfect so that we may more deeply long after the love and beauty of God.
What struck me, and what I was unprepared for, was St. John’s insistence that the dark night of the soul occurred for the sole purpose of moving one deeper into the love of God. This divine purgation, while uncomfortable at times, is essential for the understanding of, and union with, the love of God. St. John records that these times “cause the soul to journey in all purity in the love of God, since it is no longer influenced in its actions by the pleasures and sweetness of the actions themselves.” We are stripped of all our pretensions and self-efforts. These things give no life, and thus we are forced to uncover our fundamental need for the presence and love of God in our lives.
The Dark night of the soul is a work of grace.
It is for this reason alone that the dark night of the soul is not something we fight against. We do not aim to stop this experience. We look not for specific actions aimed at limiting or ceasing this purgation. Rather, within the dark night, we are called to allow the Spirit to do His work. We are called to passivity—a passivity that is founded on trusting in our eventual immersion in the Love of God. We can only do this if we see that the dark night of the soul is not a punishment, but a work of love designed to move us deeper in loving relationship with our Lord.
After reading this, and interesting question fluttered into my mind. Can the church itself experience its own dark night of the soul?
I haven’t thought this through, and I may just be thinking out loud, but what if the contemporary struggle with numerical decline, the lack of influence, the demographic shift, and our general uncertainty for the future, are not things we need to fight against? The internet is filled with blog after blog, after blog, after blog, after blog, all stating various reasons why the church today is in the state that it is in. Most of these blogs try to tease out some semblance of answer for how such trends can be turned around. I am not decrying these things, but what if these are but divine purgations, designed to move us into a deeper place of God’s love and grace? What if God is gracefully stripping the church of all the imperfect devices we use to define a ‘healthy’ parish, so that we can long more deeply for His spirit in our communities? What if God is telling us that we should stop focusing on the ‘pleasure and sweetness’ of our actions—as well intentioned as they be—and simply allow the Spirit of God to work within us? What if the state of the church today isn’t defined by a sense of ‘absence’ but of a deep, deep work of grace?
Like I said, I am just thinking out loud. This may or may not be what is going on. But even if it is not, maybe it is true that all the stuff we employ in vain attempts to increase attendance, define our mission, get more young people, or stay relevant are just complicating the matter. Like an individual’s dark night of the soul, maybe our journey into the love of God occurs out of passivity. Maybe we are called to stop seeking new and fancy activities and stratagems, and look solely to presence of God as the source of our life and health. St. John writes “It is just as if some painter were painting or dyeing a face; if the sitter were to move because he desired to do something, he would prevent the painter from accomplishing anything and would disturb him in what he was doing. And thus, when the soul desires to remain in inward ease and peace, any operation and affection or attentions wherein it may then seek to indulge will distract it and disquiet it.”
If we are disquieted with the church today, perhaps this means we are called to simply trust that God is working within us, and then let God do that work of grace. Yes, this may mean lonely, uncomfortable, and frustrating times for the church, but ultimately—like the working of any dark night of the soul—it may that which opens the church to further experiences of the deep and unyielding love of God.