In the wake of the Pennsylvania Sexual Abuse report and the former Cardinal McCarrick’s dark revelation, I have received a multitude of emails, social media messages, and phone calls from people who just want to vent. As a new priest, I am trying to do the best I can to keep up with the deluge of frustration I am receiving from people. Also, as a Carmelite Friar some of these conversations have turned to the topic of the spiritual life, and many folks have asked me if the Church is going through a “dark night” as taught by St. John of the Cross. I write these thoughts in hope that I can address some of the concerns about a possible dark night in the Church considering that such horrid abuse has occurred at the hands of her priests and has been covered up by her bishops.
A vignette about the dark night
The dark night experience as taught by St. John of the Cross is, in a way, a twofold event. These events/experiences are moments within the spiritual life when God chooses to act in a specific way to free and purify the soul from any deep-seated attachments that may still have a hold on the human heart. There are actually two dark nights: of the senses and of the spirit. Each event is like a liminal moment meant to lead a soul along the way to the peak of Carmel, which is union with God.
In his spiritual masterpiece, The Dark Night, St. John of the Cross writes that the dark night of the senses is like contemplation and causes a purifying darkness (book I, chapter 8). This night is meant to purify the senses in a spiritual person. This is a common experience that happens to many and is like a bridge for a person to move from the purgative to the illuminative state. This first night feels bitter to the soul. Why? Because the Lord is beginning to feed the soul in different ways that leave the senses dry. Children of God are not meant to live merely on the milk of His consolation. His children are called to walk the pathway that will take them through the Cross to union, and thus the spiritual person will grow through the solid meat that he receives in and through the desert.
The dark night of the spirit, as noted by St. John, is for the very few who are proficient in the spiritual life. It is a moment when God chooses, metaphorically, to thrust His hands into the soil of the human heart and pull out any remnant of attachment to things that may lead a person away from God. Both dark nights are moments of freedom. God is freeing the soul from bondage so a person can walk with Him in the darkness of faith, fueled by love, while strengthened by the aroma of hope that is like the morning air before a new dawn.
The possibility for a community
St. John of the Cross uses strong personalistic language in writing about these two possible moments within the spiritual life of a person. Hence, it is hard to say that the Church as an institution is in a dark night. His work also contains writings that put forward the possibility of a communal dark night experience, but I am not yet sold on these thoughts as related to the Church as a whole, especially when one looks at the language used by St. John of the Cross. There is also one more reason I prefer not to speak about this moment as a communal dark night for the Church. St. John of the Cross makes it clear that these moments come about after a person has given up the works of the flesh and the mortal sins that accompany them. It is in this area that I think he can give us some guidance on how we may understand and respond to the presence of terrible mortal sin in the life of Church now.
Pride as a danger for our times
In book I of The Dark Night, St. John spends the first seven chapters addressing the necessity of the night of the senses by analyzing the seven deadly sins. He invokes the need to reflect on these things because Christians are called to walk the narrow path which is engulfed in darkness. These sins tempt us to settle at points along the narrow way. Why? To keep us from union with God, the goal of our spiritual lives. For the sake of brevity, I will only mention St. John of the Cross’s thoughts on Pride, since I believe this to be one of the primary agents that have led to the horrid abuse in the United States.
St. John mentions that the devil likes to use Pride to entice the soul into a state of fervor for acts of greatness in the Church. For Jesus? No. For themselves? Yes. About these people St. John writes, “Some of these persons become so evil-minded that they do not want anyone except themselves to appear holy …” (book 1,ch. 2, par. 3). After reading parts of the report from the DA’s office in Pennsylvania and statements about many of the abusive priests’ public lives and demeanor, I was not surprised to see the predominance of this sin. Disgust only begins to describe how I felt.
A final thought regarding the question of whether or not the Church is going through a dark night. I do not believe this is the case because of the passivity required by the human person during this moment. God is the acting agent during the dark night. However, I do believe the Church is going through a purgation, that is, a time of purification demanded by God and made concrete through the actions of the Church’s leadership and lay faithful. This time of purification, I believe, will only be realized fully when the cries for justice and openness made by the lay faithful are heard and acted upon by the bishops. The process of openness and investigation with strong and necessary lay engagement will allow the shepherds to once more be heard by their sheep.
Also, during this time of purification, I think St. John of the Cross can be a good guide for us. His insights may help us to understand some of the deep-seated darkness that has shaped men in such a way that they felt the liberty to act out such wickedness in the world no matter who it would hurt. I do not wish to leave you on this sour note, so I offer you two incredible insights from St. John of the Cross:
“The devil fears a soul united to God as he does God himself” (The Sayings of Light and Love, #126).
“The soul that journeys to God but does not shake off its cares and quiet its appetites is like one who drags a cart uphill” (Ibid., #56).