This week I was talking with a mentor of mine about a workshop he’s preparing. The topic is “The Dark Night of the Soul”. This concept originates from the classic poem written by St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish mystic who crafted his words as a way to depict a necessary and normal part of the spiritual journey. This field of spirituality, namely exploring our darkness, is actually a deep and wide area of Christian tradition and a consistent theme of scripture.
As we discussed what the workshop would include my mentor commented on how he wasn’t expecting a big turn out. He said something like, “The Dark Night is not very sexy”. Essentially, talking about our deepest secrets, doubts, insecurities, and darkness is not something most of us are likely to get excited about.
At some point in the conversation we reflected on this reality in our own lives and within the churches we’ve been a part of and the following concept came up:
“If you want a church to grow, then just give people what they want”
Unfortunately, I think the mentality captured in those words is often true. After many decades of decline, this revealing and gag-inducing quote is sadly at the heart of many modern church communities who are struggling to keep people coming back. So many have gone after what’s most marketable and glamorous, what’s attractive, and what puts butts in the seats. Flashy lights, polished lectures, hip branding, slick coffee bars, the coolest music, and triumphalism. That’s what sells, right?
Ironically, in my time in ministry, what I’ve found people to be most deeply craving is a space to be honest about their darkness, scars, doubts, struggles, and brokenness. When I sit down with folks to talk about life or faith, we almost never talk about the Sunday production. What does come up with consistent regularity is darkness. Addictions to porn, struggles with marriage, confusion about God, deeply held insecurities, sadness, loneliness, and depression. It’s universal in many ways, we’ve all got these areas of our lives, and we’re all longing for people to be honest with about them. Unfortunately, many churches don’t know how to market this stuff.
Thankfully, deep within the collective subconscious of Christianity are images, stories, metaphors, concepts, traditions, and places that invite us to break our addiction to the marketable warm-fuzzies of faith, and step into the spaces of our darkness. Lent is one of those. It’s a season where we recognize the brokenness of our lives and the world. As we remember Jesus’ time alone in the desert, confronted by temptation and evil itself, we go with him into this place of isolation, stripping ourselves bare of the noise and distractions that usually hide our darkness. In the desert we go without, and it’s just us. We stop pretending like our dark nights don’t exist, and we instead allow them to be. In the process we see that the divine does not require us to be marketable, but embraces us wholly as we are- dark nights and all. And in the distance we see the glimmers of Easter Sunday’s light.
It’s this lived experience that I’ve found to be pretty much universal. So many of us have felt like we’re alone and abnormal in our dark night and as we’ve encountered this space we’ve thought something is wrong with us. But we’re not alone and nothing is wrong with us. This is part of the journey. Just because faith communities have given us “what we want” in terms of triumphalism and flashy marketing, doesn’t mean that this is the whole story. We’ve all got scars, struggles, and sins. And it’s only when we can acknowledge the depth of our darkness that we can even begin to experience the infinity of Love’s light.
The Dark Night of the Soul
On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings–oh, happy chance!–
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.
In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised–oh, happy chance!–
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.
In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my
This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me–
A place where none appeared.
Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!
Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.
I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.