The first rule of the Dark Night is that you don’t talk about the Dark Night. Or perhaps put more aptly, can’t. Indeed, St. John of the Cross makes it clear that part of the Dark Night is a failure or perceived failure in understanding – it will seem that one is going nowhere. Conversely, it is probable and possible that those most excited about the Dark Night are romantics and have not really tasted it – they are envious of those who have walked it and remain silent because they could never possibly find the words. Given these factors and my own misgivings, I don’t want to presume the degree to which I have experienced the dark night of the senses, let alone that of the soul; further, the fact that mental illness and the dark night are overlapping but distinct categories makes it even more difficult to tell. It is why, I think, John of the Cross presumes spiritual direction as a sine qua non – without it, we will get lost in the dark. This is why a theology of the dark night flourishes just to the degree it occurs within a strongly hierarchical ecclesial structure and disappears when the priesthood of all believers is interpreted as a mutually exclusive alternative to a magisterial hierarchy. If we are are compelled to undertake the spiritual equivalent of deep sea diving, we had best be sure the vessel connecting us to the surface is sound. But to return to my main point, a claim to personal experiential access to the intimacy that is the dark night would be foolish at best.
What I can do, though, is express appreciation for some of the most explanatory and powerful ideas of St. John. And so I shall begin. What is beautiful about St. John of the Cross is that he discovers space in the body of Christ for the rest of humanity. There are those who seem able to maintain a particularly affective engagement with Christ throughout their lives – their motto is “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” and they do taste and do see – and are often puzzled by those who don’t or can’t. Whether such ongoing affectivity is the result of particular blessing or spiritual immaturity is a matter best left to God, and I imagine it varies on a case-by-case basis. What I do know though is that it very often leaves others enormously confused. Not only those who are not at all Christian, but those who are but find their affective relationship with God difficult if not apparently impossible. An affective theological framework without the possibility of an apophatic counter will end up excluding such persons from the kingdom of God. They will fake it or fall away. And what might have been an opportunity to help someone encounter God in the night is lost – the person is implicitly if not explicitly dismissed as one who just didn’t try hard enough.
This of course is not to say that the rest of humanity are automatic participants in the dark night – indeed, far from it. As developed in my opening caveat, those most eager to embrace the theology of the dark night may be least prepared for it, and may have other things to work out. Indeed, there is a far more common dark night, the dark night of sin, and while there is always the hope of this being transformed into the dark night of the soul, this hope hangs on what must always and ever be the response to sin – repentance. But it must always be kept in mind that the efficacy of repentance cannot be gauged by the affectivity with which God encounters the penitents – for it is possible He may encounter them secretly and unknown in the dark night.
This no doubt all sounds cold and clinical, and indeed it would be were it not for the fact that this apparent non-encounter – this apparent absence – is somehow also supercharged with an unnameable and aching intimacy and love. God feels absent – and it is a dear absence we would not give for the entire world. It is the secret of the lover and beloved too delicate and interior to name. All descriptions of one’s spiritual life during this time sound plain and boring – because who would dare begin to describe it? It would be shameful and enticing and frustrating all at once – better to answer in boring monosyllables that contain some shadow of the semblance of the truth than to break out blushing and stammering. What happens amongst the lilies stays amongst the lilies. But others can sometimes tell – what has gone on in the absence sometimes makes us glow, and we know it not. Sometimes, what we may or may not know, may or may not have – all this blaze we are at the heart of – so bright it is dark – all this contagion, this longing – all this we know not of – kindles the tinder of the hearts around us – even if we know it not. What we know is darkness. But perhaps that is enough.