Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Dark Night of the Soul

Imagine that it is night time and it is dark. You are standing alone on a platform in an empty circus tent. You cannot see anything around you. You don't know how high you are off the ground or how small the platform might be and you have nothing to hold on to. You only have your feet standing you up, suspended on this piece of wood in the dark. 

Then suddenly, the platform begins to tremble and sway. It is clear that you are going to fall and you are waving your arms around trying to prevent yourself from plummeting to the ground below, however far that is. Since you don't know, you fear the fall. 

After a few terrifying moments, you hear the swoosh of something flying past you in a flash and you realize that a trapeze has come out of nowhere. You have a few seconds to decide what you will do. You have a choice.

You can stand on this platform until it crumbles and fall to the ground with it or you can reach out into the darkness and grab the trapeze bar. You figure that either way you will probably fall, but at least the bar has something of a chance of survival. You hear the quiet swoosh of the ropes through the air and reach out your hands blindly. Almost loosing your balance, you stretch as far as you can stretch and SNAP! The bar lands perfectly into your palms and you grip it. 

The breeze is heavenly as you fly through the darkness and for a moment you don't fear what is coming because the miracle of this trapeze is still so fresh. Within seconds that wonder dissipates and you realize that you are going to have to grab for another trapeze if you want to keep from falling. You don't know if another one is being magically swung out to you or not. If you don't reach for it and try, you will swing back and forth until you are left dangling in the middle of an abyss where again, you will probably fall. You become aware that you have to keep moving or die. 

Then you hear it, another swoosh coming towards you and you know there is a chance for another trapeze. With the courage you have left, you let go of your bar and reach, once again into the dark for a new one that might not be there. Again you hear that hopeful SNAP! as your palms meet the bar and you are swinging through the darkness once more. This time, though, at the height of the swing your feet tap something hard and you instinctively let go of the bar landing safely on another platform. 

You delight in this incredible experience and rejoice that you have survived! Then once more, the platform begins to quake...

I read an excerpt very close to this in my my second level Spiritual Direction course. This strange metaphor is meant to describe the journey of life in faith. The darkness of the circus tent is everything that we don't know. There is so much information that is not available to us or that we have ignored. The platforms are our belief systems, the foundations with which we build our lives. The cycle of growth for a human beings comes down to the crumbling of those belief systems every few years. 

We have all experienced the quaking of our safe platforms before; the terror of realizing something big and usually out of our control is about to change everything we hold dear. Just like in the story, we have only two options. We can crumble with our foundation, our old knowing, or we can leap out in faith.

I believe this leaping is the work of the Holy Spirit because we have so little courage on our own. To even imagine that a trapeze bar might be swinging for us at exactly the right time is so unrealistic to our little, scared minds that we often miss this step. Those of us who have tried this leaping have found that indeed, a bar will swing out of the darkness and carry you to a new foundation. You will feel comfortable and safe there for a while, but it too, will crumble and you will face the decision to fall or to leap once more.

These moments where your whole world seems to be rocked are the moments we have come to call "the dark nights of the soul". You can stand on that crumbling platform for years before you finally fall or leap out into the night. These seasons can be heavy and hard but as believers, we have so much assurance that a trapeze will swing out of the darkness if we dare to reach for it and allow it to take us somewhere. 

We had a long discussion of this imagery in our class last fall. Everyone in the class could relate to this experience whether they particularly liked the metaphor or not. One classmate, while reflecting on the seasons of her life, recalled how her years in law school were the most difficult and agonizing that she can remember. But the fruit that came of those years so much later down the road, had changed her for the better and she wouldn't avoid that opportunity if she had the chance to go back. She called those hard years, "The  gray, bleak necessity". 

I have had many "gray, bleak, necessities" in my life. Each one was harrowing and each one shaped me into the person I am today which leaves me with nothing but...gratitude. 

Like I have said before, it is we who name the events and seasons of our lives as good ones or bad ones. What if they were all just seasons of our lives that have meaning for us? What if the crumbling of our foundations isn't a bad and scary thing but a wonderful opportunity to let go and allow God to provide with the deep, accurate, tenderness that He is so able and willing to give us? Wouldn't those moments of leaping feel like freedom instead of fear? Wouldn't these seasons of darkness become seasons of growth and life?

Looking once more at scripture, I remember another story about darkness. It starts in the Gospels and begins with the birth of a very important baby boy- Jesus. There were three men in the East, wise men, kings, astrologers. These three men longed for something more in their lives, for meaning to the seasons of star gazing that they had long encountered. Then suddenly, a star appeared, brighter than other stars, pointing to an event that was taking place that would change the history of the world as they knew it. So they did the only thing they could fathom to do- they followed it. In following that star they, of course, were able to meet the Christ-child and honor him with their gifts and lives. What is interesting about this story is that those wise men would not have ever been able to see the stars had they not first ventured out into the darkness. 

The word "dark" is one that we, humans, have sandwiched with the word "bad". Dark is scary because we don't know what comes with it, what's out there. Why do we need to know all the time? I think we must know so that we can avoid death. It is our ultimate fear and drives all of our worst vices. The Creator made both light and darkness and called them "good". Why don't we live with His labels and understanding?

Just like in "Rip Tide", we are designed by a loving Creator to swim into His current and allow Him to take us to the next safe shore. This is the cycle of living and we fight it so hard with our fears of pain and death. 

A few years ago, I attended an incredible week long class at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico called "Wisdom Begins with Wonder". A fellow pilgrim in this class was talking about the "Dark night of the soul" and left us with this image. She said that a broken heart is ultimately breaking you open. If you look at the image of a broken heart you will find that the halves of the heart actually look like wings. Wings that give you flight and free you.

In closing, I will leave you with these words, handed down from the prophet Isaiah, inspired by the words of the Creator.

Isaiah 43:2
1-4 But now, God’s Message,
    the God who made you in the first place, Jacob,
    the One who got you started, Israel:
“Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you.
    I’ve called your name. You’re mine.
When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you.
    When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down.
When you’re between a rock and a hard place,
    it won’t be a dead end—
Because I am God, your personal God,
    The Holy of Israel, your Savior.
I paid a huge price for you:
    all of Egypt, with rich Cush and Seba thrown in!
That’s how much you mean to me!
    That’s how much I love you!
I’d sell off the whole world to get you back,
    trade the creation just for you.


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