I’ve learned that all of us face dark times. I wish that weren’t the case; why wish anyone to have to experience difficulties in life? In my role as a priest, I hear the stories and sometimes have the honor of walking with people through their dark nights. These words are for them and for the others who fear they have been abandoned by God.
A sermon based on Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Psalm 22.
“If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.” These words of Job tear at our souls. Here he is desolate and alone, fearing he has been forgotten by God. We hear these words echoed in the cry from the Psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Both are in what St. John of the Cross calls “the dark night of the soul.” And neither of them wants to be there in that seemingly God-forsaken place. Afraid and alone and overwhelmed.
Job’s entrance into this dark night came for no good reason other than Satan wanting to make Job into a plaything. Satan comes before the living God and asks to test Job, and God agrees as long as his life is spared. Job has the most terrible horrible no good very bad day that you could ever imagine, losing his wife and his kids and his house and all his possessions and everything that he had ever worked for. All of it gone in a matter of hours. His entire world is ravished and caught in a vortex.
As it does when we sit in the doctor’s office getting the diagnosis, or answering the phone call that delivers incomprehensible news. We enter this dark night when our children travel a path of destruction, or we bury our parents. The dark overwhelms us when we lose our jobs or face unscalable financial mountains. Immense grief floods us at the loss of a spouse or standing at the grave of a child. “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him.” “My God, my God.”
St. John of the Cross was a 16th century Spanish mystic, of the Carmelite order. He pushed for reformation within the Roman Catholic church, wishing for change to be brought from inside the church rather than separating from the church like the protestants. He longed for deeper spiritual connection with God, and an eschewing of the predominate culture of excess. However, his desires for reform were met with strong resistance by his Carmelite brothers. These friars opposed to reform came on night and imprisoned him in the monastery.
St. John subsisted on a meager diet of water, a little bread and tiny pieces of fish. He was tortured, beaten and tormented by his brothers. This trial went on for nine months when John was finally able to escape.[ref]Taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_of_the_Cross Accessed on 10/8/2015[/ref] He eventual was nursed back to health, but his experience became the foundation for his writings, including The Dark Night of the Soul.
In that work he writes, “During this time, then, of the [extreme dryness] of this night …, spiritual persons suffer great trials, by reasons not so much of the aridities which they suffer, as of the fear which they have of being lost on the road, thinking that all spiritual blessing is over for them and that God has abandoned them.”[ref]St. John of the Cross. The Dark Night of the Soul. (Catholic Way Publishing, 2012), Kindle Edition. Chapter X.[/ref] Overwhelmed, we fear that God is no where to be found. We join with Job in lamenting God’s absence at the time when we needed God most.
Mary Swander wrestles with this in her memoir, The Desert Pilgrim. Swander had severe spinal chord injuries as a result of being hit by a drunk driver. In the course of coming to terms with her depression and grief, she travels to the American desert southwest and meets Father Sergei, an Eastern Orthodox priest. She asks him, “What if you can’t hang on to hope? What if you sink down into depression? … How do you pull yourself out?”
“Why force yourself out? Why not just stay there?” he replied. “‘Oh, because it feels awful.’ ‘So are we talking about despair?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘A despair that’s so black that you feel like you’ve been abandoned by everyone including God?’ ‘You’ve got it.’ ‘Aha! Then we’re no longer talking about mere depression. We’re talking about the “dark night of the soul.”’”
They discuss St. John and the pain he suffered. Then they delve into how one can endure pain from the hands of others, and Fr. Sergei suggests forgiving. “‘We must literally forgive and not go down the path of hate in the first place. St. John forgave his tormentors even while they imprisoned him. He is a model for all of us. Does forgiveness carry you through the dark night?’ ‘Forgiveness allows you to fall deeper into the dark night.’ ‘Deeper?’
‘I told you that you want to sink down into the dark night and stay there,’ Father Sergei said. ‘You are fighting so hard to get out. You must enter into that void, because then you make the great discovery that God is the void, God is the dark night.’ ‘How could God be the dark night?’ … ‘You’ll find the Divine in paradox, in contradictions, in the moment of surprise. You’re not going to find the Divine in some safe, cozy little apartment where everything moves along at a predictable pace.’
‘You can get through the morass,” Father Sergei reassured me. ‘St. John understood that God is the abyss, the dry desert. When you abandon yourself to this dark presence, this inner guide, you are led to the other side. You persevere.’”[ref]Mary Swander. “Fall Deeper into the Dark Night” from http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/2003/08/Fall-Deeper-Into-The-Dark-Night.aspx?p=1#W8HMkhv6lK1ZAOHj.99 Accessed on 10/8/2015[/ref]
And when you persevere, you find Christ more fully than you ever have before. God does not cause our pain or our suffering, rather God remains with us—he is Emmanuel, God with us—he stays with us through it all.
In a world of great suffering, that is tremendously good news. In a week when we read about yet another shooting at a college campus, and an explosion in Turkey, and the bombing of a humanitarian facility in Afghanistan, and the many hurts and pains in our own lives that will never be front page news but will devastate all the more, we uncover hope in the darkness.
Because that, friends, is what is true, hope can be found. In the midst of this dark night, Job doesn’t say God doesn’t exist, but rather that God has been hidden. He questions God’s motives, of course—who among us who has traveled through the dark night hasn’t done the same? And yet he continues on, going deeper into the dark. He eventually is lead through to the other side. He perseveres.
For those in the midst of the dark night those words of hope may be very hard to comprehend. We want desperately to pulled out from the darkness, to have everything become instantly better—or at least more bearable—to experience the beauty of light. But God is in the darkness. God permeates the darkness in order to draw us closer to God’s love. When we open ourselves up fully before God, scared and alone and overwhelmed and naked, God reaches out to us in love. God floods us with compassion and grace, bringing us healing. But it means letting go of the need to control, and to fully trust.
One of the verses we didn’t read from this passage of Job describes it beautifully: “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold.” (Job 23:10) God abides. God will bring us through the dark night, and with God’s grace we too can come out more beautiful than when we entered radiating the brightness of God’s deep love. We’ll see that in Job’s story next week. But much like Good Friday, we cannot jump to resurrection too early. We must hope and trust that St. Paul’s words are true that nothing, not even the darkest night of the soul, will ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.