We do not like to talk about darkness. It makes us uncomfortable. It troubles us and even frightens us. We quiver as we try to figure out what goes bump in the dark or what might be lurking in our closet or beneath or bed. We worry and we wonder about what might happen in the dark. The prospect of spiritual darkness is even less palpable. But, it is a very real part of the spiritual journey of many of us. Over the past seven plus years as your pastor I have shared stories emerging from my battle with a catastrophic illness. It is easier to talk about the time in the coma, the weeks in ICU that followed, the battle to reclaim my body through physical therapy, and the support I experienced from those who stood with our family and those who stood by me in prayer because these stories are hopeful and happy. Still, there is another part of the story that I have struggled to share because it is so intense and spiritually painful. I wondered how God might redeem and use that part of my story. Only recently I have begun to discover that it speaks into moments like this one when we peer into the darkness.
You would think that the day I came home from the hospital after 100 days in captivity I would sing and celebrate. My family did everything they could to make the day special. There were balloons, welcome home banners, and even a special meal to mark the occasion. I wanted to celebrate with them. It was good to be home but the house had become strangely unfamiliar and I discovered that I had embraced the security of the hospital where there were trained personnel available at the push of a button if something went wrong. I found myself unsettled and unsure. But most surprisingly, I found that I felt nothing. I felt no joy, no sadness, no exhilaration, no excitement, nothing. It was hard on my family. They wanted the old me – the excited, optimistic, energized me – back. But, instead there was nothing. I am sure that part of that experience was some depression. The medical journey had been physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually exhausting. But there was something much deeper than that at work. I found myself wandering in the spiritual darkness longing for the light of God. I did all the things I was supposed to do. I did my devotions, read my Bible, offered prayers, sang songs, and when I was physically able I returned to church. While others around me celebrated the divine miracle that pulled me from the edge of death to life again; I found myself struggling – feeling my prayers bounded off the ceiling. The darkness was deep and the sense of spiritual isolation was unmistakable. So I did the only thing I found I could do - I waited; finally realizing that only God could pull me from the darkness into His light and joy again. I was reminded of this season of struggle only a couple of weeks ago. On the first day of the trail I had to sit and listen to the plaintiff tell stories of endless surgeries and the demands of physical therapy and her story struck deep in my heart. I felt it blow by blow but I could not react. I was pulled back into my season of the dark night of my soul. It broke with pain in the depths of my heart. I remembered, but this time the lessons from my earlier walk in the darkness carried me toward healing and hope.
(Shift to pulpit) In the 16th Century a mystic Catholic priest named John of the Cross wrote a poem and a follow up treatise entitled, The Dark Night of the Soul. His poem narrates the journey of the soul from its bodily home to its union with God. The journey occurs during the night, which represents the hardships and difficulties the soul encounters in detaching from the world and moving toward a full and complete life with God. Christian theologians and counselors have used the image of The Dark Night of the Soul to describe a spiritual crisis or a season of spiritual difficulty in one walk with God.
From the Old Testament we hear this morning a story from the life and ministry of the great prophet Elijah. Many of you remember the story of Elijah’s mountaintop contest with the prophets of Baal. We laugh when we remember how he mocked them when after all kind of gyrations and incantations their pile of wood and their sacrificial bull stood untouched. Then Elijah, in a grand act of faith, douses his wood with water three times and then God publically demonstrates his power by sending fire that consumed Elijah’s sacrifice and the drought that consumed the land was broken. You would have thought that this moment would define the rest of Elijah’s life – that he would be secure in the presence of God, the provision of God and the power of God. But soon after this mountaintop experience the Queen, Jezebel, threatens him and he runs away in fear. The fear, not his mountaintop experience, seizes and defines him. In a time he should have been relishing in the power of God, he instead finds himself in the dark night of the soul. The glory and power of God seem distant. He finds himself struggling, sitting beneath a lonely tree, waiting to die alone. An angel comes and attends to him and directs him toward a cave where he might have a fresh encounter with God. Elijah listens for God in the loud roaring of the wind and hears nothing from God. Elijah experiences the rolling and jolting of an earthquake – the raw power of God on display and hears nothing from God. Elijah sees a roaring fire – a symbol on unrestrained purity and hears nothing from God. So he sits and waits in the dark night of his soul and finally in the “sheer silence” God speaks. Into his fears God speaks. Into his darkness God speaks.
In this Holy Week as we walk through the streets of Jerusalem with Jesus, we witness Jesus driving the money changers from the Temple; we listen as Jesus teaches and preaches and we relish in the beauty of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and sharing the Passover feast with them. But as Jesus breaks the bread and lifts the goblet and talks about the breaking of his body and the shedding of his blood for the forgiveness of the many we realize something drastic is about to happen. We follow Jesus into the Garden and we see him sorrowed and troubled and we listen as he proclaims, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” We like the preaching, healing, teaching, and loving Jesus. It is hard for us to look at his face and see the Man of Sorrows. But we have to look and we have to listen. Jesus is preparing for a dark night of the soul. So often in Holy Week we focus on the physical suffering of Jesus. It is unmistakably there. But, the physical suffering is only a part of the story. The dark night of the soul will demand that Jesus bear the pain and the weight of the shame of the sin of the world alone. The dark night of the soul will demand that in his agony he will experience isolation from the Father – that the Father will turn His back on Jesus – that Jesus will become abandonment for us. In everything Christ understands us, even the moments when we fill like our “soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”
A time in the dark night is not a sign of spiritual weakness. It is a part of the Christian walk. Some were shocked to read about Mother Teresa’s struggle with the dark night of her soul. They had seen her as so self-sacrificing and so pious, they could not imagine any spiritual struggle or doubt in her life. But, as a part of her canonization by the Catholic Church scholars looked at every letter and journal entry from her to get the best understanding of her. “In a letter estimated to be from 1961, (Mother) Teresa wrote: ‘Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—the place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—when the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God. … The torture and pain I can't explain.’”[i] From her darkness and willingness to follow God even when she did not feel the warmth of God’s light, she became light for those she served. In the midst of her own spiritual pain, she was able to reflect the depths of God’s love and grace. Her dark night of the soul does not make me appreciate her less, but instead it causes me to be thankful for her life and faith all the more. Her night dark of the soul makes her more human, more accessible than almost mythical paragon of virtue, self-sacrifice, and servanthood she had come to represent to the world.
The dark night of the soul is hard, but it is a vital part of the Christian journey of faith. It is a place where we learn the power of the longing for God. In the great devotional classic, Mu Upmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers anticipates that darkness as a part of our walk and teaches that when in the darkness, don’t speak, listen; don’t act, wait on God.[ii] While I believe he is right, waiting in the darkness is hard and in those moments my soul longs to cry out to God, to cry out to someone for help. The dark night of the soul is hard, but it is a time when God refines and redefines us. While we may feel broken and isolated, God does not abandon us. He is there in the darkness with us, even in the moments we may feel God is far away. It is in the walk through darkness where we learn to cherish the light of God’s presence and the warmth of God’s love in a very deep and personal way.
Some of you worshipping here this morning find yourself living in the midst of the dark night of the soul. Hear that you are not alone and God has not forgotten you. Be still. Listen. And wait on God. God has not forgotten you. God has a plan for you. In some way, all of us here this morning must walk through the dark shadows of the Garden and the cross, where pain and agony claim the day. We must go there because it is at the heart of the gospel story. We cannot fully embrace the depths of God’s light and love on display on Easter morning without understanding the power of the darkness of sin and soul it shatters. We go into the darkness but we do not go alone.
[i] Shona Crabtree, “Book Uncovers a Lonely, Spiritually Desolate Mother Teresa,” Religion News Service, available online at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/augustweb-only/135-43.0.html?start=1 on 3/28/2012.
[ii] Oswald Chambers, “January 19” My Upmost for His Highest, (Discovery House-Thomas Nelson Publishing, Nashville, 1963, 1992).