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Category Archives: Dark Night
Note: This blog is adapted from my book What Would I Believe If I Didn’t Believe Anything?: A Handbook for Spiritual Orphans (Jossey-Bass, 2004).
The dark night of the soul has a long history. It is especially linked with the fifteenth century Spanish mystic John of the Cross, whose childhood poverty contained a seed of his suffering and genius. Young John worked in a hospital and went to school by day. He would study late into the night. Thus as a youth John had already made “night” his friend. Scriptures and science shed light on the dark night.
“Moses entered the thick darkness where God was,” says the Torah in Exodus 20. Right after receiving “light” in the Ten Commandments, Moses enters the dark via negativa, hiding out in the shadow of the divine wing, close but unable to see directly.[i]
Nicodemus came to see Jesus by night, when Jesus told him, “You must be born anew.”[ii] The Apostle Paul, after encountering Christ, retreated at once to Arabia, then to Syria. Only after a three-year “blackout” period did Paul contact the establishment church in Jerusalem.[iii] Plotinus, Denys and Gregory of Nyssa in the early church spoke of the abyss of God’s love as a “dark ray”—which we now know scientifically as black light.
“An unanswered question is a fine traveling companion. It sharpens your eye for the road.” —Rachael Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom
Our culture programs us to value answers. Yet scientists will tell you that empty space (the Greeks called it kenosis) can be essential for discovery. The poet John Keats gave us a fine phrase that’s now found its way into science and literature and spirituality.
In a letter to his brother dated December 21, 1817, Keats referred the state of unknowing as “Negative Capability.” He tells how he was walking home from a Christmas drama with two friends. Keats describes one of them, Dilke, as a person who has “already made up his mind about everything”: he would never learn anything new. In a moment of irritation, Keats’s insight dropped in.
“Several things dovetailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a [Person] of Achievement, especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when [one] is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without an irritable reaching after fact & reason.”
In Lake Wobegon, says Garrison Keillor, “All the Norwegians were Lutherans, of course, even the atheists—it was a Lutheran God they did not believe in.” The theism a lot of atheists reject describes a God I cannot believe in either.
Many grew up, as I did, with an emotionally or physically absent father, at the same time hearing of God mainly as a male figure, so God seemed distant. Images and language skew our attitude toward the Sacred. Lots of religious words make spirituality seem irrelevant. The word repent is one such example.
Desmond Tutu tells of brutal killers in South Africa who had slowly cooked people alive at one end of a campsite while enjoying a barbecue at the other end. Later in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, these perpetrators would confess without emotion that they were sorry. They might be staring across the room or down at their shoes as they spoke. But if the victim’s family member would say, “Turn to me; now say what you just said.” Then the confessor would be deeply moved, hardly able to gasp the words.