By Karyn L. Wiseman.
All you have to do is turn on the news to hear desperation, fear, anger, and hatred. We find it in our politics and in our public discourse. We find it in our churches and in our homes. And it happens all the time. But it also happens in the private moments of individuals. Desperation can be found all around us.
Recently, a friend emailed me that their twenty-three-year-old son had attempted suicide. The young man had been found fairly quickly, but due to the nature of his attempt and his severe depression, he is now in a psychiatric ward in a hospital. My friend asked, “How did it get so bad and I didn’t know?” She is trying to process guilt and anxiety about what might have happened. Her son is getting the help he needs, but it’s a long journey back to health and wholeness for the entire family.
I called my friend after receiving the email and we talked for over an hour. Basically their child was in the midst of a “dark night of the soul” from which he saw no escape. The young man’s response to this place of darkness was to end his life. Thankfully, that is not how this particular situation ended. But it easily could have.
The phrase “dark night of the soul” comes from a poem written by Saint John of the Cross, a 16th century poet and mystic. In it he describes the journey of a soul and the unknowable nature of God as “the dark night of the soul.” My friend’s son could not find a way out. He told his Mom that God was absent from him. He felt desperate, lost, and afraid. He found out through the suicide attempt and his hospitalization that he had serious depression.
But for Saint John of the Cross – the dark night was not about God being absent. We often need to experience the dark night in order to truly see the light of the new day. The poem was about the joy we find in the journey to unite with God. It is about the fact that God is present all the time but we go through a time of purging and illumination to find that union. We may not feel it, but God is there. Always.
We have altered the meaning of this “dark night” from the original intent to suggest a period of failure or being in the midst of difficult circumstances. It has also been used to describe a spiritual crisis.
Have you ever had a “dark night of the soul”? Have you ever felt so low that you were not sure you could make it back up? Have you ever thought that you’ve hit rock bottom? Have you ever felt like your life choices left you hopeless?
Many of us have had these kinds of moments – maybe related to an addiction, relationships, the health of someone you care about, or your family’s finances. Maybe your dark night was a lack of self-confidence or insecurity about your future. Or maybe your deep hole was when you tried something and failed miserably.
Whatever brought you to that dark moment – the question is “What brought you back?” If you are back, yet.
This passage is familiar to many. Jesus has come to the shoreline where the disciples have had a frustratingly bad night of fishing. And for fishermen, that’s not good news. They weren’t sure what was next for them so they returned to their original profession to support themselves. After spending an entire night out on the water with nothing to show for it had to have felt like failure.
They were experiencing a dark night – maybe not as dark as you’ve felt or as dark as my friend’s son felt – but it was a dark night for them. Jesus was gone, they were alone, and they had failed to catch anything all night.
And along came a “stranger” who asks if they’ve caught anything. They respond, “No.” Then he tells them to go back out and drop their nets on the right side of the boat. (Why the right side? That’s not the direction most fishermen threw their nets – right over left is more natural so they typically threw the net to the left side of the boat.)
“Excuse me! Are you serious? We just tried all night and caught nothing. Nada. Who do you think you are?” This could have been their response, but they go back out. Desperation leads to strange behavior at times. And they cast their nets to the right side – the wrong side for most net casters.
When they take up their nets this time, the haul is immense. The nets are overflowing with fish. More fishermen have to head out to the boat to help them bring in the catch.
When they return to shore they figure out that the “stranger” is actually Jesus. They were in the midst of an unknowable moment. They could not “see” but they followed anyway. And in that journey of affirmation and acceptance, they met the Lord once again.
In the midst of a dark night, they receive instruction and take it. And in the presence of Jesus their circumstances are transformed. In the presence of the Lord, all things can become new.
The disciples come to shore and Jesus has made breakfast for them.
The final section (vv. 15-19) is also quite familiar to readers of this chapter of John. This is the moment Jesus asks Simon Peter three times if he loves him. And three times he challenges him to take care of his flock (whom Jesus calls sheep twice and lambs once). It is reminiscent of the threefold denial of Jesus by Peter after the crucifixion. But clearly Simon Peter, in his own “dark night of the soul” when he denied his Lord, has been forgiven. And he is being given new responsibilities by Jesus to tend to his followers.
The women in the video attached to this post have found themselves in the depths of despair and have found hope in the Magdalene and Thistle Farms opportunities offered to them. In the middle of their “dark night of the soul,” hope has come in the morning.
For the disciples – hope came in the morning, in the presence of Jesus, in following Jesus, and in being given the charge to keep on following.
Fortunately, my friend’s son failed in his suicide attempt. But many in the midst of personal, psychological, and spiritual crises succeed in giving up and handing over their lives to despair and addiction.
Unfortunately, many have this same kind of despair right now. They feel lost, alone, neglected, and hopeless. They feel the sting of rejection and prejudice. They cannot see any light at all and have no desire to wait for the morning.
Here’s where it is hard.
In the midst of the dark night – I still believe that God is there. It is often only after the darkness that we can distinguish the light of God in our midst.
When we think we are alone – God is there.
When the soul feels numb and nothing is going right, maybe tossing your net to the right side – the other side – is what you need to try.
When you can’t see Jesus on the shoreline, remember that even his closest followers didn’t recognize him in the beginning.
When you believe you have hit rock bottom or think you’re on your way there, seek the help you need to get out of the darkness just as my friend’s son is doing.
When you think you’ve denied Jesus too many times, remember that even Simon Peter got another chance to serve God.
When you can’t do anything else but sit in despair, please know that you are not alone.
The “follow me” is not about simply walking the shoreline with Jesus – it is a long term commitment that is transformational. It is a life changing kind of following.
When in doubt – Jesus says, “Follow me.”
The morning is coming and hope is there.
Bible Study Questions:
- What does “dark night of the soul” mean to you and when have you experienced it?
- What brought you back from the brink? A person, your faith, an intervention by others, or hitting rock bottom? How will you react the next time you experience this kind of darkness?
- How can you “follow Jesus” to help those who have lost their way? How can you “follow Jesus” even when you feel doubts and fears yourself?
For Further Reading:
“Dark Night of the Soul,” Saint John of the Cross
“Three Truths about the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’” by Chuck DeGroat – Christianity Today
The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connections Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth by Gerald G. May (Harper One, 2005)
Dr. Karyn L. Wiseman is the Associate Professor of Homiletics at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. She is an Elder in The United Methodist Church and has eighteen years of experience pastoring churches. Her degree is in Liturgical Studies, with major study in Preaching and the Emerging Church. She is especially interested in engaging the 21st century church for vital ministry, equipping established communities to take on new models for church, and employing postmodern ideas to reengage younger generations in preaching and worship.
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