I woke up this morning feeling a bit melancholy. A touch of soul-sadness, the cause of which I could not and did not even want to try to pinpoint.
I say that “I did not even want to try to pinpoint” because I have learned over the years that more often than not, my conclusions about “why” I think I am feeling blue are either downright false or hopelessly myopic. So I don’t do that much anymore.
My first real experience with God came when I was 16 or so. In my bedroom, on my knees, like a flash of light, God caused God-self to erupt into my soul. Of course I had had many “experiences” with God before this – felt the presence of God here and there, loved Jesus, had people prophesy over me and so on – but this was different… like fire and wind. And it eventuated in a year or so of general spiritual euphoria for me…
…which abruptly ended sometime during my senior year of high school. I went into a period of darkness that was at times suffocating, honestly feeling at times like God had abandoned me. I didn’t know what to do. I vividly remember praying and praying and praying that the sadness of soul, the feelings of abandonment, would simply “lift” and that I would be able to feel God’s presence again. I wanted to be restored to my previous state. I wanted the sadness to go.
And it would… sometimes… and then it would return. I came to the conclusion several years later that these feelings probably had less to do with my “spiritual state” or the status of my “relationship with God” than they did with the cycles of seasons (deep winter’s tough psychologically in the midwest) and various other truly physical/psychological things going on with me. In other words, that these seasons of feeling emotionally out of whack were very normal and probably weren’t a reliable index on how “close” I was to God.
Which was INCREDIBLY freeing – an enormously important conceptual bridge to cross, for it allowed me to cease and desist from trying to “fix” myself when periods of sadness would descent, or – even worse – panic about the sadness. Instead, I could just let it be what it is while I kept doing what I needed to do. I didn’t need to let it become a distraction (which would invariably become an obsession) as so often it had in the past. The cycle of “feeling sad” and then “feeling sad about feeling sad” was broken.
That was a BIG move for me.
But there were more moves to come. The biggest one being a gift I received from the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross.
Now everyone these days it seems knows about St. John, who was famous for coining the term “The Dark Night of the Soul” – which for him was a state of deep emotional sadness, a sort of dying, that purified the heart of faith. “The dark night of the soul” for many has become shorthand for talking about being in a spiritual trough or valley.
Which is fine as far as it goes. The trouble is, there’s more to tell of the Dark Night in St. John’s thinking. What is not usually mentioned in the popular descriptions of his perspective was that for St. John, the Dark Night was to be celebrated BECAUSE it provided a sort of spiritual “covering” for lovers – the lovers in this case being God and the human soul. For John, the Dark Night was a place of intimate communion. A place at once of purifying but also of stillness and rest, and – paradoxically I suppose – of passion and fulfilled desire. Listen to these lines from his poem “The Dark Night of the Soul”:
There in the lucky dark,
none to observe me, darkness far and wide;
no sign for me to mark,
no other light, no guide
except for my heart–the fire, the fire inside!
That led me on
true as the very noon is–and truer too!–
to where there waited one
I knew–how well I knew!–
in a place where no one was in view
O dark of night, my guide!
night dearer than anything all your dawns discover!
O night drawing side to side
the loved and the Lover–
she that the Lover loves, lost in the Lover!
There’s really a lot to observe here, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll limit my observations to three:
1) He feels fortunate to have this darkness, calling it, among other things “the lucky dark” and a “night dearer than all your dawns.” For St. John, this experience was nothing to be wished or willed or prayed away, but to be celebrated and entered into! And why? Because…
2) GOD WAS ALREADY PRESENT THERE! As he says, his heart “led” him “on, true as the very noon is–truer too!–to where there waited one I knew…” And what was the result?
3) God and his soul experienced a sort of spiritual consummation of their union. The night, as he says, “draws side to side the loved and the Lover”, creating space where “she that the Lover loves, lost in the Lover.” For St. John, the darkness was a place of spiritual abandonment, a going-outside yourself, a getting-lost in the soul’s Lover.
The paradox that I’m learning is that I can – if I wish – embrace my moments of melancholy and sadness as blankets of intimacy with God. And it is not as though I need to INVITE GOD INTO THEM. It is more profound than that. God is already present in the very deepest places of my sadness. Which means that I can take hold of them as blankets of intimacy with God. They are places of fellowship and nearness. And in that way, they are certainly not panicked over, much less “wished away” – instead, they are coverings.
As John (the Gospel writer) puts it:
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. (John 20)
I love that. Doors locked. Darkness. Fear. Anxiety. Grief.
And the Risen Christ finds a way in. He speaks his peace, he shows his wounds, and joy results.
May you know the presence of Jesus in your sadness.
Peace be with you.