What do Advent and the Dark Night of the Soul have in common? From the Latin Adventus, Advent refers to the arrival, the coming of the Incarnation as a child. During Advent, we also reflect on the coming of Christ at the end of time and in our hearts.
Christians are an Advent people, but human beings are a now species. We want the light right away. Advent teaches us about the holiness of waiting. St. Augustine’s famous refrain that ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, oh God’ is echoed by the Advent call: Come, Lord Jesus!
Yet, there is another, perhaps deeper, meaning to Advent, the Latin verb Advenio means to develop. Thus Advent is also the slow ripening of God in each of our lives, even during times of apparent absence. For some time now, especially since my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, I have wondered how a spirituality of darkness can contribute to our spiritual development. Our ability to trust times of spiritual dryness, or even trials to open us to God’s mysterious grace at work within our lives.
Darkness in the Liturgy
Darkness and light are also important aspects of the Daily Office, or Liturgy of the Hours. The prayers we say in the morning, afternoon and evening all mark time. The daily office plays with the hinges of the day, and the interplay between light and darkness. Physical darkness can be unnerving, or make it difficult to read, but it can have profound effects on our prayer life if we let it.
Another example from the liturgy of the Eucharist, why do many traditional churches orient along an east west axis? We face eastward during mass to anticipate God’s coming, Adventus. Mini-Advents each day, mini-Easters each week. The rising of the sun and its setting are essential sacramental signs of Gods promises. God comes to us in the Eucharist, and we anticipate Christ’s coming at the end of time. When we adore the Eucharist, we bask in the sun of Christ’s presence, and when we reserve the host, we dwell on his mysterious but hidden presence among us.
In the Northern Hemisphere, Advent is the liturgical season of darkness. But during Easter too, we play with light and dark as we enact the death and resurrection of Christ on Holy Saturday, light candles and stand vigil at the tomb of Christ awaiting his resurrection. The liturgy of the church is like a deep breath. Advent is an in breath. We are holding our breath for the coming of Christ. The Hero of the story arrives at the darkest hour of the year.
Darkness in the Scriptures
Darkness is commonly and clearly a symbol for folly and sin, and I do not dispute this. 1 Thessalonians 5:5 states, “For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness.” In the Canticle of Zechariah, or Benedictus prayer said during Morning Prayer, (Luke 1:68-79) we read:
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Yes, light is a powerful metaphor for knowledge, understanding, presence, grace, wisdom and spiritual growth. And darkness can represent ignorance, sin, helplessness, evil and vice. So how can we possibly develop a spirituality of darkness? First, it is important to remember that metaphors are just that. And metaphors or whiteness and lightness have been used to devalue people of color. So there’s that. But there is also a deeper meaning to darkness than meets the eye.
Darkness and Knowing God
Because God is beyond human understanding, it can be said that God dwells in darkness. This will become very much evident when we look to the mystics, but it is also present in the scriptures. In Psalm 97:1-2 we read:
The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad;
let the distant shores rejoice.
Clouds and thick darkness surround him;
righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.
Yahweh was often imagined as a cloud rider, and he dwelt among the clouds, enshrouded in mist. On Mount Sinai, Moses encounters God in a thick cloud. In Deuteronomy 5:22 Moses is speaking after he has recited the Ten Commandments. He says:
These are the commandments the Lord proclaimed in a loud voice to your whole assembly there on the mountain from out of the fire, the cloud and the deep darkness; and he added nothing more. Then he wrote them on two stone tablets and gave them to me.
God delivered the law to the people of Israel shrouded in a cloud on top of a mountain. Of course, the mystics got a hold of these references and began to notice how they gave words to their experience of God as mystery beyond human knowing. Both clouds and mountains are powerful analogies for mystical encounter, contemplation and the spiritual life as a whole.
Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (5th or 6th century) was a major proponent for what we call Negative Theology. When all names are negated, “divine silence, darkness, and unknowing” will follow. Walter Hilton (14th Century) a British Augustinian monk, spoke of entering the ‘spiritual night’ on one’s path to God. And of course, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing (14th Century, Anonymous monk) developed his method of Christian meditation with the cloud of darkness at the center of his paradoxical understanding of what it meant to encounter God.
For when I say darkness I mean a lack of knowing: as all that thing that you know not, or else that you have forgotten, it is dark to you; for you see it not with your spiritual eye. And for this reason it is not called a cloud of the air, but a cloud of unknowing, that is between you and your God. (The end of Ch. 4.)
Nicholas of Cusa (15th Century), a German theologian spoke of mysticism as a learned ignorance. In his book The Vision of God, he often uses the metaphor of Divine sight and wrote that “Thou in Thy goodness dost let the blind speak of Thy Light” (XV).
The Dark Night of the Soul
When you hear the term Dark Night of the Soul, what comes to mind? In the popular idiom, a Dark Night of the Soul is a hard time, a trial period. But it’s so much more than that. The spiritual life is about light, it’s about loving God, and deepening our awareness of God’s presence in our lives. Along the way we get encouragement through graces, blessings and charity. These are what we might call consolations, signs of God’s presence. But we will inevitably pass through times where we also feel God’s apparent absence. These are called periods of desolation. It is what we decide to do with these times of spiritual dryness or darkness that determines whether or not the Dark Night of the Soul will benefit us spiritually or not. However, to be clear, I am not talking about God putting us through endurance trials, causing suffering, or punishing us for our sins.
The term dark night (noche oscura) comes to us from the exquisite poetry of San Juan de la Cruz, Saint John of the Cross (16th century). Juan was a reformer of the Carmelite Order who was enlisted by the brilliant Teresa of Avila. His fellow friars didn’t like the reforms, and tried to suppress them. Juan was brutally imprisoned and tortured by his confreres and kept in solitude in a dark room for many months. It was during this time of imprisonment that he penned the words his famous mystical poem, The Dark Night, which makes no mention of God of Jesus Christ, yet is packed with theological significance.
Juan has a reputation for being obtuse and austere. But Juan’s poetry is packed with sensuality and love for creation. He can also come across as dualistic, seeing the body as less than the soul. However, read in its proper anthropology, Juan sees the body and the soul deeply connected with God. He wrote: “The center of the soul is God.” And before we go on, let me quote the poem in full through John Frederick Nims’ translation.
Once in the dark of night
when love burned bright with yearning, I arose
(O windfall of delight!)
and how I left none knows—
dead to the world my house in deep repose;
in the dark, where all goes right,
thanks to the ladder, other clothes,
(O windfall of delight!)
in the dark, enwrapped in those—
dead to the world my house in deep repose.
There in the lucky dark,
none to observe me, darkness far and wide;
no sign for me to mark,
no other light, no guide
except for my heart—the fire, the fire inside!
That led me on
true as the very noon is—truer too!—
to where there waited one
I knew—how well I knew!—
in a place where no one was in view.
O dark of night, my guide!
night dearer than anything all your dawns discover!
O night drawing side to side
the loved and the lover—
she that the lover loves, lost in the lover!
Upon my flowering breast,
kept for his pleasure garden, his alone,
the lover was sunk in rest;
I cherished him—my own!—
there in air from the plumes of the cedar blown.
In air from the castle wall
as my hand in his hair moved lovingly at play,
he let cool fingers fall
–and the fire there where they lay!—
all senses in oblivion drift away.
I stayed, not minding me;
my forehead on the lover I reclined.
Earth ending, I went free,
Left all my care behind
among the lilies falling and out of mind.
The Poems of Saint John of the Cross, 1989, Translated by John Frederick Nims.
For Juan and so many others, we were created from love for love, and created with a longing for God. But we get bogged down by addition, distraction, habits, vice, sin and ignorance. Or, we become attached to our consolations, our ideas about God. The Noche Oscura is then the process by which we are reunited with God through our progression along the spiritual path.
There are two stops on the way to union with God: Purgation and Illumination. They are not necessarily definitive, or final. It is a process of deepening. The Dark Night is the inflow of God into the soul. In the active mode we strive to purify our hearts, and detach ourselves from the vices and passions. In the Illuminative phase we receive wisdom, insight, consolations. As we advance in virtue, we might even get attached to our own rightness. Even our attachment to ideas about God, cane become idols.
Thus, during the Illuminative phase, we also see two kinds of ‘Dark Nights:’ the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the soul. These dark nights are characterized by spiritual dryness or a sense of God’s absence in spiritual matters. They are not simply feeling depressed or sad, but reflect our attitude toward holy things.
These two dark nights are not necessarily a type of test, but a type of purification of the heart. After receiving the consolations of a pure heart, and an active prayer life, we need to learn how to love God for God’s sake, not for heaven, or warm fuzziness, or blessings. Loving God without reward is a way of purification that deepens our sense of God’s presence, love and grace. Both nights are about purification; both are about God’s grace.
But the tricky thing is that a dark night might not feel like grace. We often feel the apparent withdrawal of God’s presence. This is where we often give up, lose interest or grow bitter. But if we push through the darkness, we will feel more deeply his presence and grow into new ways of being. We are guided by God, even in times of apparent absence. We realize that we cannot do it alone. That we are in God’s hands.
Surrendering to the dark night of the soul, the dark night of faith, allows God’s grace to work in us, regardless of how well we think we are doing in the spiritual life. Desolation in and of itself doesn’t do anything. It’s choosing to love God in that desolation.As Gerald G. May, a psychologist and spiritual writer argues in The Dark Night of the Soul, the process of our slow transformation happens in the dark because we are so adept at sabotaging our own growth and development. May writes, “Sometimes the only way we can enter the deeper dimensions of the journey is by being unable to see where we’re going” (72).
Again, I am not talking about indulging our sin, or ignorance or romanticizing depression, which many people struggle with. John and Teresa make a helpful distinction between oscuridad and tinieblas (both mean darkness). The noche oscura seeks to liberate us from spiritual tinieblas, the darkness associated with our rejection of God’s will and grace.
In many periods of my life I have simply given in to the tinieblas, to attachment, to stories about myself, to depression, to what Sue Monk Kidd calls our neurotic suffering rather than creative suffering. As I have recounted elsewhere, my Pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago was among other things, a sort of dark night of the soul.
This is why I think Advent and the Dark Night of the Soul have such resonance. We really do feel something different between God’s absence and presence and we make it felt during the liturgy, but even the darkness God is present. One of the monks of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey spoke eloquently on the liturgical seasons and the dark night of the soul during my dissertation research; he said:
And that’s the lovely part of when you experience the cycle of the seasons, because you get to experience that, and you begin to more deeply understand when you talk about the ‘dark night of the soul’ what we’re talking about is appearance; because, see it appears that everything is so dark, it appears that Jesus is not with us, but he is. So the seasons to me are so representative, not just of life but of spiritual life, not just of bodily life but of the spiritual life, because in the spirit we’re never static. You go up or down that ladder you don’t stand on the rung. You have your spring, everything is so absolutely beautiful, and you come to your summer which is nice and it starts kind of drying out, but then you have the aging beauty of the autumn, and then you have the death of winter. But it’s not over, it’s not over, that’s not the end, there’s a spring that comes after.
In the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan the Lion, is not always easily seen by the characters. And some characters are too self-absorbed to see him at all. In A Horse and His Boy Shasta walking up hill alone after warning the king of an impending invasion of the Calormenes. Adam Walker paraphrases this scene well:
And being very tired and having nothing inside him, (Shasta) felt so sorry for himself that the tears rolled down his cheeks.
What put a stop to all of this was a sudden fright. Shasta discovered that someone or somebody was walking beside him. It was pitch dark and he could see nothing. And the Thing (or Person) was going so quietly that he could hardly hear any footfalls….
…The Thing (unless it was a person) went on beside him so very quietly that Shasta began to hope that he had only imagined it….
…So he went on at a walking pace and the unseen companion walked and breathed beside him. At last he could bear it no longer.
“Who are you?” he said, barely above a whisper.
“One who has waited long for you to speak,” said the Thing. Its voice was not loud, but very large and deep… (Paraphrased by Adam Walker)
In what felt like Shasta’s darkest hour, Aslan was felt before he was seen.
Lastly, we must of course mention Saint Teresa of Calcutta who has been called the Saint of Darkness because of her experience with an intense dark night of the soul. Thérèse of Lisieux, Teresa namesake, called her experiences of the dark night ‘nights of nothingness.’ However, Teresa of Calcutta’s dark night was extreme in that it lasted for nearly 50 years with only brief periods of respite. She wrote of this experience in her letters to her spiritual director, which only came to light after her death:
The longing for God is terribly painful and yet the darkness is becoming greater. What contradiction there is in my soul.—The pain within is so great…Please ask Our Lady to be my Mother in this darkness. The place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me. In the darkness…Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me?… The one You have thrown away as unwanted—unloved. I call, I cling, I want—and there is no One to answer—no One on Whom I can cling—no, No One. Alone. The darkness is so dark—and I am alone. Before I used to get such help & consolation from spiritual direction—from the time the work has started— nothing.
The Fecundity of Darkness
As I stated at the opening, another image that is quite appropriate to Advent, is the Advenio, the root of Adventus, to develop. In her book When the Heart Waits (1990) novelist and spiritual writer Sue Monk Kidd suggests that in addition to purification or preparation of our hearts to love God, the dark night can be likened to a kind of incubation. In fact, as she points out, most living things incubate, or gestate in darkness.
In the New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes of our impulse for impatience: “[we] will run away from the darkness, and do the best [we] can to dope [ourselves] with the first light that comes along” (New Seeds, 37, Kidd, 146).
Passing through a particularly harrowing dark night of the soul, Kidd suggests that we need to learn to live the questions and hold the tensions a little better. Learning to settle into the darkness just a bit more. Not as a kind of masochism, but as a kind of spiritual gestation.
This image of gestation is also evident in the scriptures. John 1:18 says that Christ was in the bosom of God from all eternity. This has also been read as the womb of the Father by many eastern Christians. In John 3 Jesus speaks of how must be born again:
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.
All our lives we are called to give birth to our true selves, to realize our true nature, to accomplish our purpose in life. The dark night of waiting, is also the dark night of gestation. Romans 8:22-23 speaks of the whole of creation gestating Christ.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.
Eckhart von Hochheim, OP (13th Century) or Meister Eckhart spoke of becoming mothers of God ourselves.
We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us” (Original source uncertain).
The French Jesuit Jean-Pierre De Caussade, SJ (17th Century) writes of allowing ourselves to sink into what he calls the “sacrament of the present moment.” And he has one of the most powerful images of the fecundity of darkness (because it’s about trees). He writes:
Do You not give fecundity to the root hidden underground, and can You not, if You so will, make this darkness in which You are pleased to keep me, fruitful? Live then, little root of my heart, in the deep invisible heart of God; and by its power send forth branches, leaves, flowers and fruits, which, although invisible to yourself, are a pure joy and nourishment to others (54).
Darkness and Resurrection
Darkness is not the end of spirituality, but the process by which God enters the soul. Desolations in itself is not good. It is when we chose to love God through our spiritual desolations, through our dark nights of the soul that we are able to make progress. This process of birth, growth, death and resurrection is at the heart of the dark night of the soul, and it is at the heart of the Pascal Mystery. In Gerard Manley Hopkins poem ‘Wreck of the Deutschland’ he writes of the death of some Franciscan Sisters in a shipwreck, and uses Easter as a verb. He writes: “Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-crested east.” Christ is coming; Resurrection is coming. Advent is about the three-fold arrival of Christ: As a child, at the end of time, and into our lives. The Sign of Jonah, who spent three dark days in the belly of a whale, was the sign of Christ’s resurrection and points to our own every day resurrections. (Matthew 12:38–41). Kelly Postle McLellan a Christian Yogi blogger wrote this Advent that “Our God does not look past, or avoid, dark and messy places. It is in those exact circumstances that God chooses for his Love to be born in the world.”
Lastly, I want to end with this hopeful yet challenging quote from Thomas Merton, in a Letter to Czeslaw Milosz. Merton was deeply concerned about the Viet Nam war, about nuclear weapons, and about the surge in racism and violence in the United States. In our own days, as we pass through what feels like a Dark Night of Civilization, A Dark Age, we can look to Advent and Easter for the long arc of history toward justice and life.
Life is on our side.
The silence and the Cross of which we know are forces that cannot be defeated.
In silence and suffering,
In the heartbreaking effort to be honest
In the midst of dishonesty (most of all our own dishonesty),
In all these is victory.
It is Christ in us who drives us through darkness
To a light of which we have no conception
And which can only be found by passing through apparent despair.
Everything has to be tested.
All relationships have to be tried.
All loyalties have to pass through the fire.
Much as to be lost.
Much in us has to be killed,
Even much that is best in us.
But Victory is certain.
The resurrection is the only light,
And with that light there is no error.
(Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, Pg. 187).
Advent and Easter of deeply interconnected. They are the same Feast. Incarnation is Salvation. The Dark Night of the Soul is ultimately about light.