Ordinarily, we don’t speak about saints and a pandemic in the same breath! They seem miles apart. But it occurred to me that the great mystic St. John of the Cross can help us to see what we are going through in a different way.
St. John was a contemporary of St. Teresa of Avila in 16th century Spain. He helped her with the reform of the Carmelite Order by working on the male side of that austere religious group. He has been called the first psychologist in history because of the penetrating insights into the mind and the soul of the human person.
One of the lasting contributions to the analysis of how God works in the soul is what he calls the ‘Dark Night’. In one sense, this teaching is not new with him. It had been around hundreds of years before he lived. But in his books “The Ascent of Mount Carmel” and “The Dark Night”, he explained in a definitive way the path that we all travel to become unified with God. Classically, it was often referred to as the ‘Three Ages of Man’. But first through his poetry (he was the first important poet of the Spanish Language), and then through the works explaining that poetry, he was able to clarify and deepen this spiritual teaching.
When we awaken spiritually (often referred to as Being Born Again), we begin a path of purification or purgation to separate ourselves from sin, evil and the devil. This purification is both active (the things we choose to do or forgo) and passive (the things that God asks of us). This is the first dark night: The Dark Night of the Senses.
After walking in this path for a while, we finally enter the second Age of Man—the Illuminative stage. Suddenly, everything becomes clear and all coheres in an amazing way. The lights get turned on and we see life as we never saw it before—as God sees it.
But then comes a night more terrible than the first night: The Dark Night of the Soul. While in the previous night, the Dark Night of the Senses, all the sense perceptions and comforts that we depend on are taken away from us. In this second Dark Night, that of the Soul, even the joys of the spiritual realities are taken away from us. We feel abandoned by God and we have no spiritual gifts to help us get through. In this dark night, we have to keep going, onward and ahead, even as our exhaustion permeates us. Faith alone is our support; a faith we cannot feel. Doubt surrounds us, but we still go forward trusting in God, even when every gift that He gave us is taken away. Mother Teresa of Calcutta went through years in this night! But
what awaits us at the end is stupendous: union with God, with Love itself. This can never be taken away from us.
God purifies us and makes us strong through these nights, so that we can love the Giver and not just the gifts.
I think that this gives us an interesting frame of reference as to what is happening to the world during this Pandemic. Like in the Dark Night of the Senses, many of our cultural, sportive, social and entertaining events have been stripped away. True, there is always the TV and the computer, but with time we will tire of them and want something more. This is a lot tougher than giving up chocolate for Lent! God has asked us to give up a lot more than that. We do it for each other and for God. That is when we make the requisite sacrifices in the right way. I have seen such beautiful sacrifices health care people make as they extend themselves. We just keep making the sacrifices as God leads us forward to illumination and acceptance.
The Dark Night of the Soul occurs when people confront their lack of belief or the thought that God has abandoned us. What St. John makes clear is that we are called upon to still believe, still do works of charity, still follow the guidance of the Lord. It takes a lot to do it without the reward of good feelings, but it also purifies us and asks us to do the right for the right reasons: Love of God and Love of Neighbor.
This is a time of testing and a time to keep loving and keep caring and keep sacrificing. Walking in the Dark Night is not easy, but St. John says that we must follow the warmth and light of our hearts to find our way to God and to each other.