Weeds: Our dark night of the soul

Daughter Abby spent summer 2013 in Toledo, Spain. She was part of a University of Minnesota program studying Spanish culture and language, cementing a relationship with both for Abby. We took the family to visit her. It was good timing before our kids were too far down their own life’s paths.

I carried my Ultimate Guide to Travel in Spain wherever we went as we touristed around. The family teased me for that. It’s there in every picture. Hey, I like knowing stuff.

One day, I was sipping Sangria at a sidewalk café, paging through my book. That’s when I saw that St. John of the Cross was imprisoned in Toledo when he wrote “Dark Night of the Soul.” To a Catholic, that’s like a baseball fan finding out they are at a ballpark where Babe Ruth played.

St. John of the Cross, “Dark Night of the Soul,” right there in the city I was in! A young priest happened to be walking by. I took the chance he knew some English. I fear I nearly accosted him to ask where that had taken place. He was understanding of my fervor and pointed on a map to the place a small plaque marked the spot John was held captive.

John was born in a nearby village in 1542. When he was three his father died, and the family fell into deep poverty. Despite deprivations, he grew to be a devout young man. He came to study at a Carmelite Monastery and became a novitiate to that Order.

This was a turbulent time in Church history, and Spain was the epicenter of struggles within the faith. John became acquainted with Teresa of nearby Avila. Teresa was a Carmelite sister who had undertaken a great reform in that group, attempting to move it to deeper holiness. John was inspired to the same.

By 1577 tensions led to a split among the Carmelites, and the factions became violent. John was kidnapped, dragged to Toledo, and thrown into a windowless cell above the Tajo River. There he was for months, tormented by his captors to give up his crusade.

In that dim, cold place that John came to face his inner self. Stripped of everything, he was forced to confront the deepest, darkest parts of his mind and soul. It was here he crafted his epic poem, “Dark Night.” From that loneliest and lowest point, John was drawn to God, the true light.

John, one of Spain’s greatest poets, ends the Dark Night joyfully as he finds God, his beloved:

Oh, night that guided me!

Oh, night more lovely than the dawn!

Oh, night that has united the lover with the beloved!

We were staying in the old part of Toledo, which looks much like the medieval city of John’s time. I could retrace John’s steps he trod at night after his escape. It turned my vacation into a small pilgrimage.

“Dark Night of the Soul” is an important work in theology. John’s journey to the depths of his being has counseled believers for centuries. Many of the saints had similar experiences when they came to find the light, when they came to God.

The notion of a dark night spread to the larger culture. You don’t have to be religious to have an existential crisis. Minnesota writer F. Scott Fitzgerald penned this line, “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” As someone who finds myself awake in the dark when I’m dealing with stresses, I can relate to that.

I’ve been drawn to John of the Cross since I learned his story. When I’ve hit my own bottoms, my own metaphorical nights, I’ve thought of John in that prison, tortured as much by his own mind as the guards. I wish I could say that each of my bottoms ended in joy and light. Sometimes it took a while to just crawl out of the hole I was in, only to find it was cloudy.

M. Scott Peck began “The Road Less Traveled” with this: “Life is difficult.” One might add, life is short. Life is a struggle. Sometimes it just sucks. We will all have troubles; we will all have despairs. None of us purposely seeks those out, but they will find us.

Something about the dark night speaks to the human condition. All of us will know pain. It is part of occupying these earthly vessels we take at conception and abandon at death. It would be easier if there weren’t so many types of pain. Physical pain is obvious. But emotional pain can be as searing, as intense. Spiritual pain comes when we struggle with our purpose and the meaning of this all.

I have known people who suffer from chronic depression. For them, the dark night can be never-ending. The sun doesn’t come up. God doesn’t make himself known. That can take years to overcome, if ever. Then, you have to be lucky enough to have help available through therapy or medicine. Friends and family can be an aid. Having those are not to be taken for granted.

Even if we don’t have the diagnosable condition of depression, we will have depressing episodes. In the worst of those, we are alone. We might be surrounded by people, but at our lowest moments we feel as alone as John in his windowless cell. Terrible thoughts can creep in our heads. There is danger there. When you are with someone who is in one of those episodes, you pray you find the right words to help. Or at least not make it worse.

I remember conversations when I was young with friends who found themselves going through a hard time. The hot years of teenage and young adulthood are especially ripe with emotions anyway. Lower lows and higher highs mark that time.

Regardless of the age, we should look around and see if someone near us is in their dark night. Unfortunately, there are constant messages from the world to suck it up. Buck up, fight through it, be tough. There is nothing wrong with encouraging resiliency with people close to us. But then, be there with an open hand and a soft word.

Right now, as this pandemic fades slowly away, I fear there will be more than the usual opportunities to help someone who is in a sad and lonely place. The isolation, the stress of the disease, and the increased number of those who have died have doubtless had their impact. There will be works of kindness and understanding we are called to as we come out of this together.


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