The Mystic Path: Dark Night of the Soul

Dark night of the soul

Waiting for the veil to lift

And new lights to see

Along this mystic path we have looked at four stages: awakening, purification, illumination, and union. In this format it looks like a fairly straightforward process. It is anything but! In actuality it looks more like a spiral, however, even that image may be misleading. In talking about the spiritual life, our language by necessity must include metaphor.

A spiritual experience that many who travel this path have undergone was called by John of the Cross, the dark night of the soul. Stated simply, in this experience, God is helping us to grow in love. We are learning to love God for God’s sake and not simply for the God’s blessings.

The dark night affects us in various ways. We may feel a loss of the presence of God. We may have an acute sense of our own imperfections. We may experience a kind of spiritual lassitude. Even our will power may seem diminished.

In the book of Job, Satan asserts that Job only serves God because God has blessed him. Take away those blessings, and he will turn away, so says Satan. (An aside: I believe the Book of Job is more parable than literal. After all, have you ever known anyone who argued back and forth in poetry!) In the end, Job endured, though not without a monumental struggle. And the light returned.

One of my favorite passages in the Hebrew scriptures is Habakkuk 3:17-18: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.”

In the dark night, our desires are being cleansed. It is not pleasant. It is not easy to

endure. But endure it we must, if we are to grow in love for God.

The Mystic Path: Union with God

We have noted the experience of awakening that often is the first step along the path. This can be followed by purification or purgation in which we acknowledge our sins and attempt, with God’s grace, to overcome the dark traits of our personalities. Next can come illumination in which we experience the presence of God such that we begin to understand more and more about who God is and what God desires for us. The final stop along the mystic path is called union.

On sweet occasions

Goal of Christian devotion

Union with our God

As might be expected, this stage can only be described by metaphor and symbol. Some mystics compare it to a transformation, e.g. wood becoming flame in fire, or a drop of water becoming wine when immersed in a great sea of wine. And, St. Paul wrote about being conformed to the image of Christ–becoming like Christ. Deification is a word the Eastern Orthodox Church has used for centuries. We do not become equal with God, but they affirm that we acquire the divine nature. In 2nd Peter, we discover that we can “become participants of the divine nature” (1:4).

Another favorite image among the mystics is spiritual marriage. It is a union characterized by love. The Song of Solomon is a favorite book for these mystics. Human love becomes a metaphor for the loving union of a person and God.

However it was characterized, the mystics all have had a burning desire to experience the fullness of God. They desire this more than life itself. So, they seek after God, and by God’s grace, they can have moments of true union. Only in the life to come, can the union become more permanent.

Union with God in this life and the life to come is characterized by 5 qualities.

1) It is marked by a union of minds. The mystic begins to share God’s values, ideas, and wisdom. Because of this union, they often understand intuitively what God would have them do different situations.

2) It is marked by a union of hearts. The mystic begins to love what God loves. The true mystic, united with God, has compassion for all that God has made.

3) The third mark should go without saying, but it is often not clearly understood. If we share God’s values and love what God loves, we will desire union with one another. To be united with God, one must in one way or another, be immersed in the life of the people of God.

4) The fourth mark is joy. One of my favorite mystics, Richard Rolle compared the person united with God to a music pipe always playing joyful songs of love to Christ.

5) The fifth mark is peace. One of my favorite hymns expresses this well. It is “Like a River Glorious” by Frances Havergal:

Life a river glorious, is God’s perfect peace,

Over all victorious in its bright increase;

Perfect, yet it floweth fuller every day;

Perfect, yet it groweth deeper all the way.

Hidden in the hollow of God’s blessed hand,

Never foe can follow, never traitor stand.

Not a surge of worry, not a shade of care,

Nor a blast of hurry touch the spirit there.

Stayed upon Jehovah, hearts are fully blest;

Finding as God promised, perfect peace and rest.

This is not the last thing I want to say about this beautiful mystic path, but perhaps that is enough for today. As always, if you find what I have written helpful, feel free to share it with others.

The Mystic Path: Illumination

Illumination:

Seeing God in all things

Desire is answered

Perhaps unsurprisingly the last post on “Purification” was the least read post of all that I have posted! Hopefully the title of “Illumination” will attract more readers. However, without the desire to be a better person reflected in the step of purification, the next rung of the ladder leading to illumination can hardly be climbed. One spiritual writer noted that a person cannot reach the top of the ladder without stepping on the first rung.

Perhaps to understand what the mystics meant by illumination we need to go back to the ground level where awakening occurs. Because of our awakening, a desire to draw near and unite with God is born within us. As the desire grows, more and more is revealed to us. The more that is revealed to us, the greater the desire grows. However, it is not as automatic as that makes it sound. I find that I often must pray for an increase in my flagging desire.

In this stage of mystic growth, we concentrate our will, intellect and feeling on God.  Good works or virtues are performed almost spontaneously. St. Paul might call this growing in the image of Christ. St. Peter named it acquiring the divine nature.

Evelyn Underhill noted that in this stage of illumination three elements may be found. The first, is a joyous apprehension of the Divine or God. The nearness of God is enjoyed. The second is experiencing an added significance and reality to all natural things. The Divine is seen in nature and/or in other persons. And third, a kind of spiritual energy is released that may result in visions, voices, etc.

One word of warning about the last one: visions and voices are never to be sought. If they come, they come. And if they come but do not increase a person’s humility and love, they do not come from God.

As always, if you find this post helpful, feel free to share it with others and encourage them, if they like it, to sign up to follow.

May God be more real to all of us this day.

 

 

 

The Mystic Path: Purification

Last time we considered the occurrence of awakening in the mystic path–that happening in our lives when we become awake to the divine or God’s presence all around us. Today’s topic is not as exciting, but I hope not to lose any readers!

According to the mystics once we are awakened to the glory of God, we can become aware of our own imperfections. The path to ultimate union with God leads through a period (or probably periods) of purification.

Some of our imperfections are caused by our environment. Another way to say that is that we are impacted by sin. On the other hand, some of our imperfections are the result of our own bad choices. Or, we commit sin, e.g. we nurture wrong desires or do wrong things.

Our imperfections may appear in a variety of forms. Not being able to distinguish right from wrong is an imperfection in our intellect. When we can’t seem to make a decision or stick to those resolutions we do make, this is an imperfection in our will. Regularly struggling with unhealthy feelings points to an imperfection in our emotional center.

I have largely avoided talking about ‘sin’ because the word has been wildly misused over the years. When I was a young person growing up in rural Alabama in the 50s and 60s, dancing was considered a sin in some circles! And going to the movies on a Sunday was a definite taboo.

Nevertheless, the word sin still has value when we consider the imperfections in our moral center. Jesus taught us to love one another, which means seeking the other person’s welbeing. When we fail to do that, we are imperfect or we are sinners.

Mystics have suggested a threefold way of purification that can help us along the path to union with God. First is contrition–a sense of sorrow for our imperfections or sins. Second is a full confession–acknowledging, at least to ourselves, that we are not perfect. Third is the resolve to change. Of course, for Christian mystics, all of this is done in the presence of God who is ready to forgive and to help us grow into the divine nature.

The Mystic Way: Awakening

The name of this blog site is Pathways to God. Today I want us to begin thinking about the Mystic Way. In the Christian context, three movements are usually affirmed: purification, illumination and union. However, two additional steps are sometimes mentioned. One may occur between illumination and union. It is traditionally called the Dark Night of the Soul. The other is prior to purification. It is awakening. And it is awakening that I want to think about today.

The experience of awakening can happen in at least two different ways. One is to experience the glory of God externally. Nicholas Hermann (popularly known as Brother Lawrence) saw a dead tree in winter and thinking about how it would come back to life, he was awakened to the greatness of God. It was life-changing. Men as different as St. Paul and Rulman Merswin saw a great light and they were never the same. Even Jesus heard a divine voice at his baptism and a ‘normal’ life was no longer a possibility.

The other way is inward. Richard Rolle felt a heat or warming in his heart. (I don’t think it was heat that Tums could ‘fix’!) Catherine of Genoa was struggling in a loveless marriage and perhaps with depression. She went to a priest for her normal Lenten confession, but wasn’t able to say anything. As she knelt, her heart seemed pierced by the love of God. In one moment she saw her own miserable state, but more importantly God’s boundless love. Both Rolle and Catherine became great affirmers in word and deed of a divine love that fills and overflows our hearts.

Awakening comes in different ways, but when it comes the person is never the same. The Divine becomes the ever present reality of their lives. They live for God and God’s will. They affirm the beauty and the love of God.

So, what can we do to be awakened? Perhaps nothing. It comes to irreligious and religious persons alike. We can’t make it happen. All I can suggest is to pay attention to life within and without. All life comes from God and perhaps if we pay attention, we are more likely to experience a moment of awakening that will last a lifetime.

Silent Night, Holy Night

Last month I promised to share some practices that have been used to polish the divine image or fan the divine spark within us. My problem was where to start. Truthfully, I could begin with almost any of the practices, but the Season made the choice for me.

In the month of December the song Silent Night, Holy Night will be sung, played and listened to throughout America and indeed the world. So, I begin this series writing about silence as a spiritual practice.

“For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.” Psalm 62:5 This is one of several passages of scripture that affirm silence, often as a sign of trust.

The value of silence is at least two-fold. It helps us to slow down; to recollect ourselves. It seems especially important now in the hectic Christmas Season, but also in the heated political atmosphere that we breathe everyday.

It also helps us to listen–to listen to God, to others, and to our own inner self. The one who talks much, listens little.

As a spiritual practice, silence refers to sitting in God’s presence in silence. If you’ve not done it before, try doing it for just 10 minutes. If your mind begins to wander, recollect yourself with a short prayer like, “I trust in you”.

In the Christmas carol, holiness is born in silence. If we are faithful to practice times of silence perhaps the light within will begin to burn more brightly.

[As always, feel free to share my blogs with anyone you think may profit and encourage them to become followers along with you.]

The Light Within

The medieval mystics called it a divine spark. The Quakers named it inner light. The Bible pictured it as the image of God. It is in all of us.

Some might want to argue this fact. How, they might say, can anyone believe this in a world dominated by hatred, violence, and darkness? Perhaps some, but surely not all, have something of God within them. Others might look at their own lives, shake their heads, and deny it could be true of them with all their insecurities and troubling doubts.

Still there are voices that continue to affirm the ancient truth. One is Pastor Steven Garnaas-Holmes who writes a regular piece under the internet tag “Unfolding Light”. Recently here is part of what he shared:

  • You are the living image
  • of the Lovely One.
  • God is the sun of love within you.
  • Vessel of divine light,
  • you bear this magnificence into the world.
  • This can’t be changed or diminished.
  • Let this be your confidence, your hope,
  • your courage

The problem most of us face is that the image is so faint or the spark so dim that we can hardly see it at all. And neither can those around us. So, the question arises: how can we polish the image or fan the spark? What can we do that will help the inner light or sun of love shine more brightly, not simply for ourselves, but for a world seemingly enveloped in darkness?

In the next few months, I hope to share about some practices or disciplines that I have found helpful in my own spiritual growth, but more importantly that have been affirmed by persons far more advanced than me in the spiritual life.

 

A Picture and a Plan

The picture for my new blog site is of a well-worn pathway leading into forest and fog. The fog reminds me of the devotional classic Cloud of Unknowing.  And in scripture the presence of God is often associated with clouds. This surely means any account of our experiences with God must be expressed with humility. God is far more than our little experience of God.

I have thought a lot about what I wanted to do in this space–even what I wanted to call it. I thought about using the words ‘spirituality’ or ‘mysticism’. But I was reminded of what an old professor of mind once said. He had for a few years offered a course entitled “Christian Mysticism”. Almost no one signed up. He changed the title, but not the syllabus. The new title was Devotional Classics. That change significantly increased the number of students who enrolled. So, I tried to find a name and a theme that would be more winsome.

Truth be told, I will be talking about spirituality (a much over-used word) and mysticism (a suspicious word), but it’s really about how we connect with God.

One final word today on the phrase “Pathways to God”. I believe that Christ is the Way to Life and Truth–the Way to God. But that Way can be found along many different paths. And whichever path we find ourselves walking, Christ will be with us.

Till next time, may God’s peace cover you like the forest along your path to God.

LaMon