Tuesday, 22 July 2014
Passing through Spiritual Darkness
Drawing from the ‘Book of Job’
Concerning those souls whom God has chosen to exalt to the heights of perfection through the trials of spiritual affliction, aridity and darkness.
When one is passing through the night of darkness, one can draw consolation and wisdom from the Divine Lesson hidden behind the lattice of the ‘Book of Job’. For in times of great illumination, spiritual consolation and great sensible fervor, one resembles Job as he is presented in the beginning of the Book; when he was without trouble and was wealthy and renowned in all the land. Since in the light of day the soul is merry; it is wealthy in the Wisdom of God, in the knowledge, in the consolation and in the virtues it has built for itself by God’s grace; and in this wealth the soul is secure and thus loves with great ease. Wherefore we come to an understanding of the words of King David: “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’ By thy favour, o Lord, thou hadst established me as a strong mountain.” (Ps 30:6). For indeed the soul feels as though it were a mighty mountain, filled with the riches of copper, iron, silver, and gold. Yet as it is written: “every mountain and hill shall be laid low” (Is 40:4a); and indeed the Lord does this to those souls whom He has established as firm mountains –that is those who have been set firm in the ways of righteousness, honesty and trust due to coming to self-knowledge. However these ‘mountains’ the Lord must lay low because such souls are but infants in the spiritual life, mere seedlings, and their self-knowledge and love of God are both imperfect. Such a soul whom God chooses to lay low in the sense we are speaking, are they whom He is calling to a deeper intimacy with Him; yet such intimacy cannot be had except for those who prove to be faithful. For indeed does not a righteous man seek a bride who is a virgin and who is modest in her dress? For such a man desires a bride who will be faithful to him, not adulterous or disobedient in lust. Likewise does a pure woman seek a righteous man, one who will be faithful to her, and she will only marry a man who she knows is going to be faithful. The man and woman who seek a spouse, seek one who is going to be faithful. How then may they test such faithfulness? Through waiting and steadiness; for anyone who is ruled by lust will not be able to bear the yoke of patience which authentic love alone can bear. So it is with God; who permits the soul to be cast into a seeming abyss of darkness, casting her from the mountain’s height to the valley’s depth; and here He leaves her to bear the yoke of patience in order to refine her love for Him and to test her love for Him. And what is the need for patience here in this place and state of affliction, wherein God may occasionally reveal his face, yet generally remain hidden (not that He hides Himself literally, but that the soul perceives it as if God is hiding Himself)? The patience of enduring with one’s own wretchedness and misery, and seeing no progress in one’s spiritual life, nor the possession of that union with God for which the soul longs for; and indeed this is a most heavy Cross to bear, the heaviest of them all besides that Cross of Perfect Love of God, which is heavier yet sweeter to the taste.
This ‘laying low of the mountain’ –in the sense we have been speaking –God so did to Job by permitting Satan to afflict Him, and this God does also to the soul, primarily through His Divine workings within her, and secondarily through permitting Satan to tempt, afflict and assault her in many varied ways. God strips the soul in this state of all that He was giving it, by making a void and distance (not actual distance but a distance in 'feeling') be felt between herself and God. This seeming cruelty is actually the greatest grace that such a soul has received in her life yet; for this pang of bitterness is the beginnings of a new birth in the Spirit, of sanctity and intimate union with God. Of course such a soul is oblivious to this reality, and even if she intellectually understands this to be true, so afflicted is she in this darkness–more so at certain times and less so at other times –that she has no certainty except that obscure certainty which is obtained through faith and blind trust in God and His Merciful Love.
The grief and shock of the onset of this darkness is spoken of by David when he writes: “thou didst hide thy face, and I was dismayed” (Ps 30:6b). The soul in such a state of aridity and dryness, without the ability to pray as she used to in easy and fluid meditations, and without the soft pillow of self-satisfaction in doing good, is now truly impoverished. Like Job such a soul is no longer renowned in all the land, since she feels dumb and has not the words to articulate but the smallest portion of that Wisdom hidden deep within. A Wisdom once easily comprehended as it frolicked in the open fields of her soul, but which having begun to burrow itself deeply into the very substance of her soul has become incomprehensible to her intellect. Like Job she shall lament and complain saying: “I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul. I will say to God, ‘do not condemn me, let me know why thou dost contend against me…Thy hands fashioned and made me; and now thou dost turn about and destroy me.” (Job 10 1-2, 8). Yet the soul does not understand in such a state, and nor can it in its poverty of spirit, except through blind faith, that its sufferings of dryness and seeming privation are a means of exalting it to new heights. For the deeper one descends into the valley of darkness, the valley of one’s own wretchedness; the higher does one ascend towards perfect union with God, since “every valley shall be exalted” (Is 40:4a); and thus the deeper the valley of one’s soul becomes, the higher shall one ascend.
Although Job was content before his descent into the valley of darkness, because he was wealthy and felt secure in God’s Love; he was made even more content after the horrors of the night, since after having endured this night God made him twice as wealthy as he was before (Job 42:10). So it is with the soul who has undergone the pangs of the Dark Night. For prior this night she is filled with the riches of consolation, yet following this night she is filled with the riches of her Spouse in perfect union with Him. Yet just as Job repented to God for having claimed to know God and His Unfathomable ways by saying: “Therefore I have uttered what I did not know…I had heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees Thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:3-6); so too must the soul repent of clinging to the wisdom, knowledge, consolations and virtues that it possessed beforehand, as if these treasures were the total of God’s bounty, or as if being stripped of these things were an act of God’s wrathful punishment. For indeed the soul must die to what it has and is, in order for the bounty of God to increase within it. When Christ says: “If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor” (Mt 19:21a) He speaks of giving up not only temporal possessions but spiritual possessions also. Not all are called to give up their temporal possessions, save those called to be religious, yet indeed every soul is called to forfeit the spiritual possessions God gives, so as to share them with others and to return to God the property and thus the glory He is owed. “Give to the poor” can refer to our sharing the graces we have been given with those who are spiritually poor such as those who do not believe in God (i.e. in praying on behalf of those who do not pray). To hold unto the spiritual possessions or graces that we have been given, is to bury the talents that we have been entrusted with, and it is to be selfish in a lust for an inauthentic self-sanctity. “Many are called, yet few are chosen” (Mt 22:14), many are called to perfect union and intimacy with God, yet few are especially chosen for such union and intimacy. For indeed were not all of Israel called to be in union with Jesus? But was not our Lady especially chosen, and St. Joseph? Indeed all are called to this perfect union we are speaking of, and the wealthy man to whom the words were addressed: “If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor” is representative of every soul. For indeed in one sense it can be said that every soul is wealthy, for every soul possesses the ‘possessions’ of an intellect, memory and will; and these very possessions almost all souls are loathed to ‘sell’ in passive surrender to the demands of the Will of God: of which the primary demand is the demand of Divine Love to drop the selfishness of lustful pride, in order to take hold of the selfless cross of purity and humility.
The response of the wealthy man –who turns his back to the radical demands for perfection in favour of spiritual minimalism –is a typical response given by the majority of the faithful. It is a response of fear of losing what one has, and of distrust in the generosity of God. The reason why most allegedly devout souls give this ‘unspoken no’ perpetually to God, is because quite simply they do not love God with a pure heart, but rather they love the graces of God, that is, they love the gifts more than the giver. They love the feeling of being holy from consolations, rather than the God who is Holy. They love the dazzling insights of wisdom more than the God of Wisdom. They love the benefits they get from God, rather than the God of Benefits. They love praying more than they love the One to whom they are praying. They love their fixed and comfortable idea of God, rather than the God who is beyond all ideas. They prefer their way of serving God, yet seek not to serve God in the manner that He would prefer. These souls are good and even holy in many respects, yet because of their inability to surrender totally to God in trusting submission, they shall never attain that perfection in this life to which God has called them. However those souls whom God has not only called but has chosen, will like Job be stripped of all their wealth, mainly spiritually yet temporally also. God is wise, for He knows who it is that He can test in the fire so as to exalt them to perfection. Yet He does not test those who will be overwhelmed and consumed by this fire, and thus lost for all eternity; and in this manner God restrains Himself from perfecting those who will not trust Him enough; even though this is a great suffering to Him for He yearns all to become the diamond He has created them to be. So although God has created all to become diamonds in various degrees, He leaves some souls to remain as semi-precious stones, not because He desires not their perfection, but because He knows they would be obliterated from the suffering pressures necessary for perfection. It is thus that God will water such souls very slowly and gently –fearing that they should drown –since without much trust they are only shallowly embedded in the soil of His Love; and indeed these souls develop spiritually, yet unless they are watered more they will never become perfect but merely good and decent. Whereas those souls who trust much in Him have deep roots and are thus secure in the soil of God’s Love; and God will water such souls with torrents and floods; and these shall advance with great haste in the ways of holiness and shall surely attain (after much struggle and many or few years) that perfection to which they are called in this earthly life.
Before the soul was thrust into the thickets of contemplation, she at first like Job, knew of God only through the hearing. Since it is written: “I had heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear” (Job 42:5a); which implies that at first one hears ‘of’ God but not God Himself. In other words, at first one comes to know God indirectly and imperfectly, through ones ear of self-understanding and self-wisdom. It is thus that such a soul is rich in grace just as Job was in the beginning; yet such a soul remains imperfectly and partially rich, even though like Job she thinks herself to be secure and wealthy. It is only after the soul has passed through the pangs of birth in the terrors of the night, that she can exclaim: “but now my eye sees Thee” (Job 42: 5b), for at last through pure faith she sees God as He really is, even though she cannot fathom with her souls sight the fullness of God who is beyond all comprehension. One may rightly ask: “How could she not see her God before? Did she not always have her eye as she did her ear?” Yes indeed, she always had her eye, yet with her own knowledge and understanding of God, which she had received through the ear of her intellect, she was rendered blind; and this is why she went through a time of darkness, because until she was healed of the scales of imperfect wisdom and understanding of God, she could not see God. She was blind in the beginning yet knew not until she was healed, since she knew not what ‘to see’ even meant. Stripping her of all that her intellect told her ‘of’ God, she thus ceased hearing ‘of’ God, and was left hearing God in the silent obscurity of darkness. Without the imperfect voice of her intellect, she could thus finally begin to journey into the valley of darkness; and she only knew the way because she knew through faith that the silent voice of the Good Shepherd was leading her on. Concerning such a soul our Lord exclaims: “And I will lead the blind into the way which they know not: and in the paths which they were ignorant of I will make them walk: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight: these things have I done to them, and have not forsaken them.” (Is 42:16). The soul herself having grown to trust her invisible guide will exclaim as she walks through the valley of aridity and darkness: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod [of Wisdom] and thy staff [of Understanding], they comfort me.” (Ps 23:4). Since no longer does such a soul rely on the feeble straw of her own wisdom and the flimsy stick of her understanding, for now she has come to rely on God and the rod of His Wisdom and the staff of His Understanding. Concerning this total trust in God which such souls much strive for and indeed do attain through their pilgrimage of spiritual bitterness it is written: “Have confidence in the Lord with all thy heart, and lean not upon thy own prudence. In all thy ways think on him, and he will direct thy steps.” (Pr 3:5). Once such a soul has passed through this night, where prayer is among the most painful yet irresistible of labours, the soul shall exclaim: “He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. And he put a new canticle into my mouth, a song to our God.” (Ps 40:2-3a).