Reflections on the Dark Night ~ Part Two

 

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El Greco painting of the Carmelite Monastery in Toledo, where St. John of the Cross was kept prisoner (It has been proposed that the Dark Night of the Soul was composed while John was imprisoned in Toledo, between 1577 and 1579).

 

A Pure Heart Create in Me, O God (Ps. 51:12)

The purified heart has been finally and fully claimed by God can, paradoxically, become progressively purer and more fulfilled in him right till the moment of death. This is because God himself expands its capacity with his inpouring love, fills the enlarged space with more love, which expands it further—and so the process goes on. But never without our full consent. A helpful prayer is “My God, penetrate and possess me to the uttermost—and don’t take notice when I squeal in pain.”

It is fear of suffering that holds back so many from the unqualified gift of themselves to God, so that he can do whatever he likes with them. But has he not promised he will match every trial with enough grace to bear it? Of course this may well mean that part of the trial will be the experience of desperately needing more, and more, and more grace.

However, this in itself provokes a constant plea for what we know we cannot endure without. It engenders intimate knowledge of our own helplessness—“Without Christ I can do nothing” (cf. John 15:5)—coupled with a reckless confidence—“With God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27). “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.”

The truth is that grace can be flooding into us while we remain unaware of it and experience no comfort. This happens because we are only too prone to think, as soon as we realize we are over-coming, “Aha! I’m getting somewhere! I’ve conquered! How brave and strong I am! How far I’ve advanced in virtue! I hope everyone else is noticing this!”

Such self-congratulations and the tendency to various forms of self-exaltation arise from those buried roots that only the passive purgations can eradicate. So God’s work progresses in direct relation to our humble receptivity to grace, and humility, as is well known by the humble, comes above all through dire humilations. What appears to be the curse of being refused the grace we need is really the blessing of being given it in abundance, but minus the extra grace of the awareness to enjoy it. Being what we are, this last grace would engender pride. Only those with great humility dare say, “He who is mighty has done great things to me” (Luke 1:49).

 

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Art by Vesna Delevska

 


Candle and Pinecone Sequence

This flame’s shape is like a spear—
or else a dagger—leaving wounds concealed
behind the bulwark of the living flames of love,
which do not burn.

Lights illuminate our darknesses
and flames give warmth—though the uncircumspect
receive what could be stigmata, exposed
or else concealed in heart, or brain, or bloodless hands.

This flame’s symmetry is like a spear’s keen blade
or else a dagger, small but dangerous,
shaped to deal out penetrating wounds
mysteriously secret, all of them
deep buried in the heart’s blind fastnesses
spousal gifts from those living flames of love.

 

~ A reflection and poem by  Barbara Dent, O.C.D.S.

 

 

 

Reflections on the Dark Night

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St. John of the Cross in the Dark Night, art by William Hart McNichols 

 

The purpose of the dark night, according to St. John of the cross, is to lead us into the full day of perfect loving union with the Trinity. This means that we merge with Christ in all his resurrection glory and joy, though in this life these attributes will manifest themselves only intermittently and mutedly, for we are still confined by the limitations of our physical existence. Faith in the reality of this full union, hope that Jesus will lead us into it if only we follow him trustingly all the way to the tomb, and the unconditional love of our as yet imperfect hearts—these are the attributes that through the dark night “join Beloved with lover, lover transformed in the Beloved,” as John puts it in his poem, “In one dark night.”

During these necessarily passive nights, grace penetrates all levels of our inner being to eliminate every trace of sin. It invades—as long as we stay receptive—those deeply rooted, perverted tendencies for which we are not personally responsible, but which do influence our behavior and attitudes in numerous unloving and even evil ways (At this stage of the spiritual journey there is no deliberate evil action, but indeliberate blindness to others’ serious needs can well operate because of some hidden complex of insecurity, anxiety, or the like).

Pulling Up Roots

In the so-called “active nights,” we purposefully do what we can, with the help of grace, to accomplish the cleansing, and in fact we must persevere in such activity till death. In the passive nights, divine help and activity penetrate where we cannot to reach those stubbornly embedded roots of sin so that they are either wrenched out or dissolved away.

To use a gardening analogy—we can easily deal with bedding plants, whether flowers or vegetables, using handforks and trowels or larger forks and spades. If we labor hard enough, we can even dig up some of the bigger shrubs and small tress with perhaps a heavier shovel and fork and a grubbing tool.

But what do we do about an oak or pine tree? True, it can be cut down and the stump burned out, using more advanced power tools and a number of skilled helpers. But say for some good reason we want to have the whole tree taken out by the roots. In that case, outside help and implements like tractors, mechanical diggers, and maybe explosives, together with experts to use them, have to be employed. We can only stand back and let it happen, though it is true we ourselves have initiated the procedure. For whatever reason, we want it done.

Similarly, in the deeper passive nights, we have to invite God in to do the work for us, because our own tools and strength are inadequate. This invitation may itself be more passive than active, in that we may not clearly realize in the intellect what our heart is saying to God, but its motive is always love and only love.

This means we do not want to be cleansed just so we can self-righteously admire our own virtues and, satisfied with what we see, set about planning our exact place in heaven (near the throne, of course), much as we would choose prime site for our palatial new home with all modern conveniences. Nor does it mean our chief motive is an urgent desire to escape the pains of hell.

Rather, the love motive wants the ultimate cleansing for quite different ends. It longs to be used by God to give him honor and glory and to share in Christ’s redemptive work for others, to become perfectly adaptable tool for Jesus to use in his ongoing work in the world. It wants to be a channel cleared of all debris and pollution so that, through it, divine love can pour living waters into the world for healing of humanity’s wounds. It longs for every obstruction to this in-and-out flowing to be removed, if need be by divine force and through its own agony.

It wants to be made a kind of compelling advertisement for the power of divine grace over human weakness. In its humility and self-awareness of its own inadequacy and unworthiness, it wants others to see it as it is and exclaim. “If God can do that for her—and we all know what she’s like—then there is hope for me!” It wants these others to catch its own insatiable thirst for grace and so become reckless in their longing for God and their readiness to suffer all and even die in order to be purged and so reach full love-union with him.

~ A Reflection by Barbara Dent, O.C.D.S.

 


The soul cannot come to this union without great purity, and this purity is not gained without great detachment from every created thing and sharp mortification. This is signified by the stripping of the Bride of her mantle and by her being wounded by night as she sought and went after her Spouse; for the new mantle which belonged to the betrothal could not be put on until the old mantle was stripped off. Wherefore, he that refuses to go forth in the night aforementioned to seek the Beloved, and to be stripped of his own will and to be mortified, but seeks him upon his bed and at his own convenience, as did the Bride, will not succeed in finding him. For this soul says of itself that it found him by going forth in the dark and with yearnings of love.
(Dark Night 2:24:4).