From John of the Cross
The way of nada is the way of the night, the way of faith. The word “night” is perhaps one of the most powerful in John’s teaching and yet it can be off-putting. The night is not a denial of life, but rather through the night we seek a way that will lead to union with God, the Beloved. This is a union that can best be described as a Mystical Marriage. Night stands as a symbol for purification, for escape from all that is negative, and it is also a place where true light is encountered. Again, to understand what is really meant by night in John’s writing then the reader must see what is implied by faith.
Faith, for John, was part of our deepest self that is willing to accept truths revealed by God, truths that transcend natural light and exceed human understanding. In a multi-faith society, the question can be asked, Whose revelation do we accept? This book is based on the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the tradition that also formed John. However, that in no way means that other traditions are to be dismissed. John believed that faith was a gift by which God allows us to go beyond reason into the reality of the divine, and that gift is received through praying the scriptures and living in the community of the church. Faith is a personal, loving relationship with God, and becomes the bond that links us to other believers. While it is beyond reason, faith, through theology, can be articulated in a coherent manner. But because it does go beyond reason, faith is like a light that is brighter than anything we know.
The way into the experience of the night is the way of nada. While John talks about the night under a fourfold division, everyone experiences the night in their own personal, special way. The night can be seen as a path we join as we journey to God, a path which could take us all our middle life. As Dante wrote in The Divine Comedy, “In the middle of life I found myself in a Dark Wood.” For Dante, the end of his journey was at the core of Paradise.
The night can also be likened to kenosis – the self-emptying of God in Jesus. When God sent his son into the world he was willing to empty himself of all that was special and lived as we do, entering into the world of faith, traveling through the night of misunderstanding. Eventually he came to the ultimate night, the darkness of the cross, where his obedience brought him to the deepest sense of desolation, when he felt abandoned and cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
John’s teaching on the dark night is found in The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night. His inspiration for writing these commentaries had been the way he saw so many people who were supposed to be wise guides being far from helpful, not recognizing where people were at nor giving them the necessary challenges.
The most straightforward part of the journey is the active night of the sense. This involves facing up to ourselves and, because we want God to be the focus of our lives, becoming open to change. This is not a question of personal willpower, rather it is a willingness to recognize what has to change so we can grow as a person. We need, as The Book of Common Prayer expresses it, to be willing to acknowledge “the devices and desires” of our heart. These “devices and desires” can include all the games people play, ranging from power games to procrastination, or the way we misuse sexuality. Another aspect of facing up to ourselves is acknowledging our feelings, seeing what they are telling us and using them positively. It is well-nigh impossible to grow as a person if we allow our feelings of anger, jealousy, or whatever to tick away inside us like a time bomb. Facing up to our feelings and taking appropriate action is a positive way to change and to grow as a person.
The active night of the sense also involves being honest about relationships. Positive relationships are good, but so often we can be possessive or destructive in our treatment of people. A true respect for human dignity will ensure that people are not used and abused. Even more negative is the way people can be idolized so that they feel trapped. The person who has put them on a pedestal is really signifying their own immaturity, as that sort of relationship diminishes both parties.
If a person is willing to be realistic and to allow growth, it is also necessary to face up to one’s shadow side. John of the Cross would not have known of this technical term (one which features prominently in the psychology of Carl Jung), but he would recognize the concept easily. All during our life we have pushed underground aspects of reality either because we were told to keep quiet or our super ego was conditioned to behave in certain ways. Often this was to please people, to be correct, to be seen in a good light. We perform, live the roles but can never feel comfortable or really at ease. Anger, frustration and longings simmer away and we can pass a lifetime like this. Brave faces and bleeding hearts! Part of the resolve of the passive night of the senses would be, with the help of wise guidance, a willingness to face up to this baggage, this shadow side. It often means letting go of conventions, it can lead to confrontations but it does mean a healthier and more honest approach to life.
The active night of the spirit is again an area where the individual is involved in making choices that open us up to a more authentic union with God. John is conscious that people can relate more to a concept of an image of God than the very person. He is asking those who have experienced conversion, who have been drawn to God, to take steps to deepen and mature their faith. I believe in our own day John has an important message to those who have experienced a conversion and perhaps are living on a spiritual high. This can be seen in many groups but especially those of a Pentecostal or Charismatic nature. Such groups are found in all the mainstream churches and often in independent churches. At the point of conversion and for an indefinite period afterwards it is possible to feel great satisfaction in the new relationship with God. The fellowship of the group is vital and certain ways of praying and worshiping take on great importance. It then becomes possible to go to services, to engage in devotions because they are satisfying and become an end in themselves. For Catholics, there is also the bias towards visions – apparitions and certain places can be invested with immense importance. Also, ways of prayer becomes “canonized,” and the day is incomplete without having said this or that prayer.
John does not see this type of prayer life as deepening faith or bringing a person out of themselves so that they can be touched by the flame of the Spirit’s love. What he proposes at this stage is a willingness to give up reliance on what the individual does and begin to practice contemplative prayer, which consists of a trusting waiting on God. John would also want us to move towards a willingness to be still before the mystery of God. John, in stressing the scriptures and inner peace, was going back to his Carmelite roots and to the traditions of prayer that had come down through the reading of the scriptures. It is likely that he would have known of the exercises of Saint Ignatius as he had attended a college directed by the Jesuits, and by 1580 Ignatius’s methods would have been widely diffused. John, however, would have seen the exercises as a step towards contemplative prayer, vital for beginners, but too systematic for the vision he had of a deeper immersion into the mystery of God.
John’s attitude to a great deal of piety was firm. While he would have understood the value of popular religion, he was against the one-upmanship that went with running after the latest vision, miracle, or whatever. He had nothing against people having a favorite image or finding a certain place helpful for prayer, but all these things were in the end relative.
The passive night of the spirit and sense can seem daunting, and I believe it is important to see the end they are meant to achieve. This purification is a gift from God and enables us to reach a closeness to God that is beautiful and beyond our human conception. This stage in a person’s growth is therefore, like anything to do with faith, a gift. It is a time of longing for God,filled with a sense of absence. It calls to mind the words of the Psalm:
As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul long for you, O God. (Psalm 42:1)
John’s experience of the night occurred during his imprisonment and when he came close to God in an amazing union. So John is not retailing some system but making sense of his own life and hoping that what he has to say will benefit others. Also, it must be noted that each of us will make our own journey according to our unique being.
The passive night affects the whole of the person, and John asks that we trust in what is happening so that God can be God for us. The way into this period is a time when prayer becomes almost impossible. It can feel that God is abandoning us and the pain for feeling you have lost the Beloved becomes almost unbearable. Peace and joy depart and are replaced by depression and loss of self-esteem. As in any state of loss, we can feel bewildered and wonder just what has gone wrong. This is the time when we are being asked to share with Christ in a death by which we say yes to God in an unconditional way. In the dark there is a light, but as yet we are unable to grasp what is beyond our comprehension. John is, as it were, displacing death and its fear from its usual biological moment to a place in the life of faith. He is reminding us of the theme of John’s gospel, that to believe in Christ is to have eternal life. The act of belief for John is radical, the consequence is to taste now the beauty of the fullness of life.
What is interesting about John’s experience of night is that it occurred when he was being persecuted, misunderstood. He became powerless on every level. John was imprisoned because in the midst of an all too human tangle, his goodness became threatening. John was in fact trying in all simplicity to live an ideal, he was wanting to be prophetic and faithful to the gospel. His predicament reminds us of so many great figures in Christianity who have suffered for their love of God either through persecution or being misunderstood. Titus Brandsma and Edith Stein, both Carmelites, were people of faith who were overwhelmed by the darkness of the Nazi ideology and yet through the cross they achieved a marvelous union with God. But what about the many others who have suffered at the hands of the church because their message was not understood, because they were pioneers. In our own century, figures like Yves Congar and Bernard Häring spring to mind. Again, the diaries of Anne Frank and many of the Beirut hostages show journeys akin to the dark night. In particular, Brian Keenan’s book An Evil Cradling tells a story that John would have understood.
The night, then, is a time of powerlessness and with a sense of the gulf between oneself and God’s holiness. The feeling of isolation and of seeming failure makes the figure of Job seem an apt comparison. How could anyone love this wretchedness and failure?
John, however, would not want us to see this process as some terrible ascetic ordeal. One thing must be clear – the passive night is God’s action and the key is to trust and wait and believe in the dawn. We live in the hope that God will possess us.
The way of nada has then been well-trodden through the experience of the night. The journey has been freely entered upon and the motive for the journey has been love. We know that nothing can take the place of God in satisfying our needs and the night has shown the deep caverns of our being that only love can fill. And the experience of the night has been the end of false gods. We recognize the aching and longing which only God can satisfy.