02 September 2007

O, guiding night -- Wisdom Sunday

The recent reporting (here and here, for examples) of old news concerning Mother Teresa’s struggle with doubts in her sojourn in this world, reminded me of a chapter in Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline (a classic on the spiritual disciplines), the chapter on solitude. In this chapter he discusses what St. John of the Cross called The Dark Night of the Soul. I don’t know that Mother Teresa’s experience was the “dark night”, but it certainly sounds like it from the descriptions I’ve read.

Foster explains what it means to encounter the dark night of the soul:


[A]t some point along [our] pilgrimage [in the disciplines] we will enter what St. John of the Cross vividly describes as “the dark night of the soul.” The “dark night” to which he calls us is not something bad or destructive. On the contrary, it is an experience to be welcomed much as a sick person might welcome a surgery that promises health and well-being. The purpose of the darkness is not to punish or to afflict us. It is to set us free. It is a divine appointment, a privileged opportunity to draw close to the divine Center.

[…]

What does the dark night of the soul involve? We may have a sense of dryness, aloneness, even lostness. Any overdependence of the emotional life is stripped away. The notion, often heard today, that such experiences should be avoided and that we always should live in peace and comfort, joy, and celebration only betrays the fact that much contemporary experience is surface slush. The dark night is one of the ways God brings us into a hush, a stillness so that he may work an inner transformation upon the soul.

How is this dark night expressed in daily life? When solitude is seriously pursued, there is usually a flush of initial success and then an inevitable letdown – and with it a desire to abandon the pursuit altogether. Feelings leave and there is the sense that we are not getting through to God….

[…]

During such a time Bible reading, sermons, intellectual debate—all fail to move or excite us.

When God lovingly draws us into a dark night of the soul, there is often a temptation to seek release from it and to blame everyone and everything for our inner dullness. The preacher is such a bore. The hymn singing is too weak. The worship service is so dull. We may begin to look around for another church or a new experience to give us “spiritual goose bumps.” This is a serous mistake. Recognize the dark night for what it is. Be grateful that God is livingly drawing you away from every distraction so that you can see him clearly. Rather than chafing and fighting, become still and wait.
CAVEAT LECTOR: I imagine many Christians, because they experience boring sermons, weak hymn singing, and dull worship services, think they have been blessed with a visitation of the dark night. Most likely it is the sort of life most Christians live Sunday afternoon to Saturday night that is the real problem. I mean lives full of noise and frantic activity. If we are not driving hither, thither and yon, we have a radio on, or a dvd playing, or (good heavens) a video game being played – on top of work, or school (or both), children, spouses—you get the point.

And then, let’s face it, there’s the fact that most of us “show up” for church thinking that, like everything else we do, there should be something in it for us. Never mind that worship is something we are to give (i.e., to God, in case you were wondering). If we do get anything from it is his gift to us that we do. (So if you think worship is dull, perhaps there is Someone more disappointed in it than you are!)

Against the backdrop of such a life it ought to be no wonder if sermons are boring, hymn singing weak, and worship dull. Most of us live on a non-stop adrenaline rush all week long. And the adrenaline is still pumping madly on Sunday morning. That would make just about anything boring. And no wonder churches are trying to be more entertaining: it’s tough to compete with adrenaline.

So don’t flatter yourself: you probably are not going through your own dark night of the soul if you are finding sermons boring, hymn singing weak, and worship dull.

You don’t need a new church, or a new pastor, or different music, or a more energetic worship service…probably. You probably just need to re-evaluate your life.

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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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