Sept. 17, 2016: What 'Night' means
What 'Night' means according to St. John of the Cross
The word ‘night’ means ‘I know what you’re going through’, but also ‘. . . and it is important to respond in the right way’. John’s concern is not just to condole, but to help us bear pain creatively.
We saw that the experience of our weakness can lead us to an admission: that we are not our own saviours. Then, following the broad pattern of the books of Night, we saw that darkness can herald the approach of God, cleaving us off ourselves, opening us to himself. That can apply in prayer, and at depths of intensity we might scarcely think possible. But the pattern fits well too around the irritations that tense the most everyday lives. These experiences are painful, confusing, feel unacceptable, and such feelings can be rightly owned. But, for night to be dichosa, blessed, there needs also, at some level, to be a ‘yes’.
To get a sense of this, we might think, on the one hand, of a tendency from which we have longed to be free –those ingrained weaknesses which Night so skilfully exposed. It might be anger; or a crippling shyness; or a distorting lust; or the constant referral of everything to myself as the centre of pity or praise. We beg God to set us free. ‘But I know he won’t; it is too deep, and it has swooped up from nowhere too often before.’ Change feels impossible, and the hope of release can just tail off into despair.
On the other hand, we might think of negative happenings, which grate or sting or ache. They are not our doing (they come like night) and they together comprise the downside of life: embarrassments, insults, a put-down; the company of people who excel at the one thing I felt good at myself; the humiliation of failure or rejection. These are disconcerting, and if we joked them off at the start, and felt strong enough to ride them, we can come to feel crushed, with the risk of growing bitter.
We put a lot of emotional energy into those two areas: personal weaknesses, from which we long to be free; negative situations which come uninvited upon us. Left like that, they are a recipe for despair in the weakness and resentment at what hurts us. To leaving it like that, ‘night’ suggests an alternative. When the negative comes upon you, then remember your desire to be free –free from the personal weakness which was crippling you. It is here that God is doing it, and it is important not to panic, or run away.
Suppose, then, we get no thanks after going out of our way to help. The spontaneous reaction is to sting inside and make that ‘the last time I ever do anything for them’. That is a time to recall the longing we may have had to grow out of our narrowness and sensitivity; and to thank God for this.
It is right of course to grieve, to take a stand, and to seek a remedy. But it is important too not to miss the God-content in the darkness. On offer is freedom from ourselves, for a God who fills. To trust –that God is present in this –can turn the pain, where there has to be pain, from death-throes into the pangs of birth.
Trust is the key to growth. One of John’s images for growth is a mountain climb –The Ascent of Mount Carmel. But close reading reveals that his mountain, like Elijah’s Carmel in Israel, like Moses’ Horeb in Sinai, is a religious mountain. It speaks of communion, where the goal is not to sink a solitary flag-pole into the summit, but to ‘make an altar of oneself’ there for ‘a sacrifice of love’.
-Fr. Iain Matthew, OCD
THE IMPACT OF GOD: Soundings from St John of the Cross