Day pours out the word to day,
and night to night imparts knowledge. – Psalm 19.3
Sixteenth century contemplative St. John of the Cross, bequeathed to the Christian understanding of the spiritual journey through his life and writings, the profound and universal experience (and terminology of that experience), that he termed, the “dark night of the spirit” and the “dark night of the soul”. Dark nights are catalysts to deep, enduring life-transformation.
John’s method was highly poetic, in that much of his primary writing and guidance on this subject comes in the form of commentary on spiritual poems that he wrote, which he called the “spiritual canticle” and “the living flame of love.”
His ideas and understanding about the pattern of the spiritual journey unfolding through a progressive “undoing” of the self through various nights was revolutionary, foundational and continues to be an enduring witness of wisdom for countless souls going through similar experiences.
Helpfully and profoundly emerging from within this tradition, is twentieth century contemplative Bernadette Roberts, whose life and writings have been a living witness that John’s “nights” don’t end at Divine Union, but continue beyond that grace, into a mostly unknown, and less understood state of no-self.
As this relates to the lectionary reading for today from the Psalms, please notice the progressive nature of the nights: night to night imparts knowledge. In other words, the journey unfolds layer by layer through various nights, and the fruit of going through each night is a kind of intimate knowing, a deepening of the oneness-in-relatedness of that which is you, with that which is emerging in you, namely, Christ. The knowledge is Truth, and the Truth is the relational-love-and-life-of the Trinity.
While I don’t pretend to understand everything Bernadette writes or says, I do acknowledge that since I first read her books ten years ago, as I read them today, I understand them more than I first did, and cherish them all the more as wise yet confronting beacons of light from the other side of all the nights one might experience.
On a practical note, nights aren’t just for contemplatives. Nights are transformational experiences we all go through – sometimes they are very stark, other times more subtle. Little by little, dimensions of our “caterpillar” life is being changed into a new “butterfly” life. The caterpillar thinks its life is coming to an end. And then it becomes a butterfly. Be encouraged; there is always more going on than what we see, think or understand.
By way of further encouragement for whatever you might be experiencing today, don’t forget the first part of the Psalm either: Day pours out the word to day. Fill up on the Word during the day, when you can. Hide it in your heart. And this hidden Word will feed you during the nights.
If you are interested in Bernadette’s important witness that updates our understanding of the Christian spiritual journey, do begin with reading her three classic books on the subject:
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