Referring to Saint John of the Cross’ poem, Dark Night of the Soul, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” (The Crack Up) This is a funny thing.
It’s funny because something about three o’clock in the morning is always funny in some sort of macabre way, but also because the statement reflects the cynicism of our day, and cynicism seems to have become that big cardboard soul, that tempera painted replica of the real thing that somehow is able to ease the realities of our unmet desires and hopes by presenting our expectations as pipe dreams to begin with. Ha! What did you expect? We laugh because we know better now. Not only has The Lord not returned, he hasn’t bothered a whole lot with us to begin with, at least when it comes to fiddling around with our messes.
In Dark Night of the Soul, St. John is describing a cyclical thing that happens to the faithful, much like the changing of seasons and the opening of living things, that then fall back, once again, to a place of cursory belief when the ground becomes heavy and cold. It has been my impression that it is in this necessary darkness that a person reacts to their own soul—the reality of who they are—to either become or not, to give way to the God of seasons and joy, or become nothing but the soil itself.
While the initial experiences of a new Christian tend toward plenty of aha moments, when the world is coming alive, and we have just held out our sorry hands to take that beautiful thing called salvation, it isn’t long before we feel ourselves approaching night. Is it dusk? Am I real and is he real? Have I dreamed this new salvation up?
What I do with what God has given me has always been the question I wrestle with. This would include talents and biblical knowledge and relationships, and all of that, but it would also include—and perhaps most importantly include—the crud. It has been my experience that those most faithful are those most honest about how they interact with the inevitable darkness that comes with the broken world we live in.
My husband wrote a book called A Million Ways to Die, which has sold terribly. Fitting, he would probably say, as the book outlines the glory that can come when the Christian leans into the inevitable “deaths” that are experienced in a harsh world. It’s a simple equation: Death + Faith = Life.
It has been at different places within this equation that I’ve found myself for years. I experience a “death” of some sort; a creative failure, a missed opportunity, the death of a loved one. I claw at my own faith; where is God? What do the scriptures say? What is he doing? I begin to see life; a simple scripture verse gains new meaning, I know the love of God in a more intimate way, the future is transformed into a place of great hope.
The last words Christ utters on the cross are “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In an infinitesimal way, I have followed Christ to that place. Hells if I’d ever want to go there again, but still, I did get a tiny crumb of the horror he must have felt, and with it a glimpse of the transformational power of the cross.
The irony of the cross blows my mind every day. I will never understand it. Romans 11:33 says, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”
I love that there will always be things that I don’t know. There will never come a time, even after death, when I will have discovered everything there is to discover. We are infinitely un-knowledgeable. Round earths, and beating hearts, and seasons, and the parietal lobe of the cerebrum, that if poked in certain places with a surgical instrument, will move a hand or just one finger depending on the stimulation, and stars, and rocks, and craters, and the masterful evolution of this world, and whole realizations of hope in the next; we are destined to never know it all, and I am absolutely okay with that.
So I write what I do know, which hints at the cavernous volume of all that I don’t, and it is here in this place of ignorance that I have to echo whole-heartedly the words of Saint John of the Cross, who, when reveling in his dependence on God, writes, O guiding night!/O night more lovely than the dawn!