Today is the feast day for St. John of the Cross – one of the great mystics of the Christian tradition. The mystical tradition has been of great help to me in my journey of faith. Even if you haven’t read much of John’s poetry, you may have heard the phrase, “dark night of the soul”.
Thomas Merton writes of John:
No one can become a saint without solving the problem of suffering. No one who has ever written anything, outside the pages of Scripture, has given us such a solution to the problem as St. John of the Cross. I will not speculate upon his answers. I will merely mention the fact that they exist and pass on. For those who want to read it, there is The Dark Night of the Soul. But this much must be said: Sanctity can never abide a merely speculative solution to the problem of suffering. Sanctity solves the problem not by analyzing but by suffering. It is a living solution, burned in the flesh and spirit of the saint by fire. Scripture itself tells us as much. “As silver is tried by fire and gold in the furnace, so the Lord trieth hearts” (Prov 17:3).
Sanctity does not consist in suffering. It is not even directly produced by suffering, for many have suffered and have become devils rather than saints. What is more, there are some who gloat over the sufferings of the saints and are hideously sentimental about sufferings of their own, and cap it all by a voracious appetite for inflicting suffering on other people, sometimes in the name of sanctity.
I have often said to congregants, friends, and anyone else who will listen: “there is no extra credit for suffering”. I believe this with all my heart. God is not the author of our suffering and there is no heavenly reward for doing things the hard way. Not for us and not for Jesus. But that does not mean that we will escape suffering. All human beings suffer, in one way or another, be they saints or sinners. It is the human condition to suffer. But suffering is not pointless. Suffering is a primary portal for spiritual growth. How we “solve the problem” of suffering defines us in many ways. It will also lead us towards making for ourselves an earthly heaven or hell.
If you find that you are living in that “dark night of the soul”, could you simply sit with the source of your suffering and wait for the “light” that burns within your heart? Can we wait for God to come again together? Is it possible for us to stop inflicting our suffering on others and instead recognize that we all suffer when any one of us suffers?
Here’s a lovely musical version of “Dark Night of the Soul” by Loreena McKennitt: