The Dark Night of the Methodist Soul

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We have cried.

We have lamented.

We have ground our teeth and spat invectives at one another, arguing like children over a tattered toy.

We have shown ourselves to be more antichrists than little Christs.

And we have placed ourselves on the brink of destroying our current part of a heritage that has existed for going on three centuries.

We have come to a dark night of the United Methodist soul.

But do we really understand the dark night? Is it really what we think it is?

Since it was first penned by a Carmelite monk in the 16th century, the phrase ‘dark night of the soul’ has come to mean that period of deep, dark personal and spiritual difficulty. Quite often we come to take the meaning of this to be a dire, painful dreadful thing to simply survive. Dark nights of the soul abound for people who have been hurt, abused, scarred, damaged by the pain and misery inflicted on them (us) by people who have themselves been subject to these things. The truth of the matter is that sometimes that is the case, the dark night is simply a thing to survive because sometimes survival is the necessary first step to healing.

But perhaps we have read the words of St. John of the Cross in the wrong way. Perhaps we have seen darkness when there was light. Another truth may be that the dark night is a time to be embraced, a thing to be celebrated, a place to run freely without feeling the weight of judgment from those around us. The dark night may be the place of freedom to truly embrace God.

In the first part of his Ascent of Mount Carmel, St. John of the Cross writes,

In order to expound and describe this dark night, through which the soul passes in order to attain to the Divine light of the perfect union of the love of God…[1]

Notice those words, “this dark night, through which the soul passes in order to attain to the divine light of perfect union of the love of God…” Hear this idea, the idea that the soul passes through this to find true and perfect emotional and spiritual connection (union) with God. In this case, the darkness is not a thing to be feared but a thing to look forward to, to lean into. As I read the stanzas of St. John’s poem, to me sounds less like someone going through a hellish circumstance and more like someone sneaking out through the night to meet with their beloved. The poem reads like this:

On a dark night, kindled in love with yearnings — oh, happy chance! — I went forth without being observed, my house being now at rest.

In darkness and secure, By the secret ladder, disguised — oh, happy chance! — In darkness and in concealment, my house being now at rest.

In the happy night, in secret, when none saw me, Nor I beheld aught, without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.

This light guided me More surely than the light of noonday, To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me — A place where none appeared.

Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn, Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast, kept wholly for himself alone, there he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him, And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret as I parted his locks; with his gentle hand he wounded my neck and caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion; my face I reclined on the Beloved. All ceased and I abandoned myself, leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.[2]

Notice that St. John calls this a “happy night,” a “night that guided” him “more surely than the noonday sun.” These do not sound like the words of someone writhing in agony; to me they sound more like the words of someone running through the darkness in anticipation, words more akin to the Song of Solomon than the Book of Job. This poem speaks to me of yearning and desire, of seeking out and abandoning ourselves in the presence of God. This is a giving over to the Spirit of God to work in and through us, to change us within and without.

These thoughts led me to some questions:

What if these words have meaning for the current landscape of the United Methodist Church?

What if we are seeing only the destruction of a man-made structure, the end of something that may well should never have been?

What if we were to empty ourselves of ourselves to be filled with the Spirit of God, giving up our desires to maintain the current system and embrace a fluid, dynamic movement of the Spirit of God in its place?

What if this were the beginning of something that transcended things like denominations, organizations, and embraced people in their context?

I believe something good can come of the mess we created. In the same way a painter can overpaint a canvas, God can clear away the debris of our brokenness and remake those faithful to the vision of scriptural holiness and personal transformation into a new work of art. But I believe it will take a kenotic willingness, a pouring out of self to make room for the Spirit of God so this can happen. We will have to give up what we know and be willing to embrace the unknown, to walk on apophatic shores at the edge of a vast sea unseen to us.

Without it, we will be left with only the darkness of night.

[1] St. John of the Cross. The Complete Collected Works of St. John of the Cross (Illustrated & Annotated) (p. 5). Christian Books Today. Kindle Edition.

[2] ibid

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