In the Christian tradition, there are two symbols which recur frequently in the literature of contemplative prayer: the symbols of Desert and of Dark Night. The Desert symbol spans the spiritual history of the people of God from Abraham’s movement into unknown territory, through the wanderings in the wilderness, the desert movement of the early church, to Charles de Foucauld and the revival of desert spirituality in the twentieth century. It stands for the realities of purity, of simplicity, of conflict, and of revelation. The Dark Night, a term popularized by St John of the Cross, takes up the symbolism of darkness from the eastern tradition of negative theology. It stands for the life of faith, and specifically for the point in the journey when words and concepts have run their course, and one enters a dark night. Together the symbols of Desert and Dark Night accurately represent the spiritual path beyond the limitations of language, a path calling us to a radical purification and to an encounter with darkness.
— Kenneth Leech, Spirituality and Pastoral Care
What do you think Ken Leech means when he speaks of a “radical purification”? I don’t think he’s calling for some sort of interiorized piety, where I selfishly engage in some sort of internal self-restraint in order to present myself without blemish to God. That’s how it seems so many people understand “purity” and “purification” which have all but become code words for sexual abstinence. I think Leech is after something more holistic in its fidelity to the fullness of Christ’s teachings: loving God and loving neighbor. I think such a purification is not just about our relationship with our bodies, but also our relationship with our neighbors (all our neighbors, not just the ones we like!), with money, with material goods, and with privilege.
Seen that way, such a “radical purification” sounds like an utter dying-to-self. Which, after all, is what we signed up for in our baptism. I’m not trying to preach here so much as trying to confess my own timidity and resistance to where the love of God might be calling me. Such a call, frankly, frightens me. The desert and the darkness, after all, are scary places. And yet part of the reason why it scares me so is because I recognize that this is precisely where I am called to go. “Take up your cross.” May God help us as we respond to the call to enter these places of utter transformation.