The Poor Clares: The healing night of the soul
Mystery. Beauty. Brilliant stars peering out of a dark vastness. Romance. Trust. Silence. Terrifying awe
Perhaps these are not the first words that come to mind when we think of the classic phrase in the spiritual life called the "dark night of the soul." Most likely, many of us dread those words when they appear in our spiritual reading; or perhaps in a haphazard moment of imperfect zeal, we tense up and brace ourselves for what we expect will be a gloomy trial of darkness that we just have to muddle our way through. But these attitudes hold us back from embarking on the most beautiful adventure of our interior lives.
A true and deeper understanding of the dark night of the soul, as taught by the mystic St. John of the Cross, takes us into the depths of the great abyss of God's mercy and prepares our souls for that which is beyond our greatest expectation or understanding – the divine impact of God.
Bear in mind that the journey through the interior life is a divine romance between God and the soul, interwoven with love and with pain. The Beloved, whom we are seeking union with, chose for Himself the marriage bed of the Cross. So it is in the crucible of suffering that God transforms our souls and draws us toward Himself.
This journey towards God begins with an encounter, and God is always the initiator. As St. John of the Cross pointed out, "If a soul is seeking God, much more is her Beloved seeking her." Working with the uniqueness of each soul, the Beloved uses a variety of means to initiate this encounter, and in it souls catch a glimpse of His beauty, and they thirst for more.
Such a thirsting causes a person to make choices of detachment from all that is not of God. Even in the face of good and spiritual things, the maturing Christian sees them in light of God and does not cling to them in themselves. They say, "No, I do not need this. I need You." The soul recognizes its absolute dependence on and need for God. Nothing else offers fulfillment, and the soul empties itself of these extraneous attachments to make room for God. The soul comes to see that it is indeed wounded, and that this wound is in essence the very need for God.
Knowing this utter dependence on God, shifting from the senses to the spirit, learning to go beyond oneself and choose the narrow way, and recognizing the value of this self-emptying – such is the remedy that St. John of the Cross offers to the wounded soul. In startling words, this Carmelite friar urges, "Always be inclined toward that which is harder, to what is less ... to wanting nothing ... longing to enter into utter nakedness, and emptiness, and poverty, for Christ." He is not saying, "Always choose the most unbearable," but rather, get to know Christ, see the value of poverty of spirit, and live it.
Dedicated souls may generously follow all these counsels of self-renunciation that originate in the Gospels' teaching. They feel they are giving to our Lord and eagerly long for Him to complete His work in them. But then something unexpected begins to take place – the very foundations a soul stands on seem to crumble beneath one's feet: A relationship falls apart and you feel rejected and isolated; an illness strips you of the strength and security you had at work; your faith that once brought you so much consolation suddenly brings you humiliation and condemnation in public; prayer no longer offers any feeling or inspiration. These events are not obstacles to prevent union with God, mere punishment for sin, nor hurdles to overcome.
In these security-shattering events lies the healing darkness offered by God, in which you come to the crushing reality that you are not in complete control.
In bewildering suffering that shakes the very center of a person's being, now the time is ripe and the space carved out for the impact of God to penetrate the soul's secret center as the Divine Physician. But at this point, it requires a response from the soul – a response of the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. This response of faith, hope and love defies the human instinct and erroneous impression that in the darkness of the spiritual night, God has become absent to the soul. On the contrary, St. John teaches that "because the role of these three is to withdraw the soul from all that is less than God, consequently they unite her with God."
God is profoundly present during this dark night of healing, but not in the way previously understood. He is beyond what the soul can comprehend, and in this dive of faith and abandonment, paradoxically, God communicates Himself to the soul in this mystery of faith, in this divine romance.
In this divine romance, in the dark night of the soul, St. John emphasizes God's Presence more than he focuses on mere suffering, and he assures us that any sacrifice is worth this Presence.
Imagine that you are standing at the edge of a dense forest. Compared to the spacious field behind you, the dark forest appears threatening, frightening and dangerous. What if you get lost? Then you see Christ standing a little bit inside the woods, His intention apparently to enter deep into the woods, but His face turned toward you in eager expectation as if to say, "Come! Follow me." You know the only way to go is through the dense and unknown surroundings, so you nervously take His hand. You will not see His presence in the same way as before, but you know in faith that He is leading you. When you rest in that faith, you will see the beauty that can only be found in the dark woods. Enjoy the journey, and believe firmly that the divine impact will take place.
Sister Mary Raphael of the Divine Physician is professed with the Poor Clare Nuns of Perpetual Adoration St. Joseph Monastery in Charlotte. Learn more about the Poor Clares at www.stjosephmonastery.com. This article is a reflection based on the book "The Impact of God" by Father Iain Matthew.