Over the years I received many requests to post the text of some of the sermons I have given at churches of my denomination. I've decided to go ahead a do that with a selection of my best pulpit work. The text of the sermon will be at the start of the Blog entry, and you will find service details (readings, prayers, etc.) at the end.
Endarkenment: Dark Nights of the Soul
by the Rev. Dr. C. Scot Giles at Countryside UU Church, September 3, 2006
I’m an optimistic and positive person. But like everyone, there have been times of emotional trouble. The sermon is about how I think of those times.
St. John of the Cross
His name was Juan de la Cruz, St. John of the Cross. He was a major figure in the Catholic Counter-Reformation. A mystic from Spain and a member of the Carmelite religious order. He is now numbered as one of the 33 “Doctors of the Church” whose thought helped heal it after the sundering of the Protestant Reformation, which eventually gave birth to congregations such as ours.
He was a close friend and confident of the woman now known as St. Teresa of Avila, and like her, practiced a spirituality that was passionate to the point of sexuality. The homoerotic imagery of his Stanzas of the Soul are obvious, and you can find similar passion in the work of St. Teresa, whose sculpture by Bernini in the year 1652 shows a woman, lying legs akimbo, writhing in an ecstasy that Art Historians long ago realized appears orgasmic.
Yet despite the passion of all Carmelite spirituality, St. John of the Cross is known for a concept called The Dark Night of the Soul.
I’ve had Dark Nights of the Soul, and so have you. These are times of Endarkenment, when our plans and hopes have unwound and failed.
The athlete faces a Dark Night of the Soul when the game has been lost, and the athlete realizes that if he or she had only played a bit differently the outcome might have been different.
The man or woman faces a Dark Night of the Soul when they sit home, holding the pink lay-off notice and realizes that plans for house, education and vacation are dashed; and it will be a strain to find the money for food as the dry time of unemployment awaits. Labor Day will bring no celebration this year.
The lover faces a Dark Night of the Soul when the email opens on the computer screen and he or she realizes that the person he or she loved and desired actually loves and desires someone else.
The comfortably-off person faces a Dark Night of the Soul when the stock report shows that half the value of a key investment has been lost and there is no way to recover.
All of us know times when light has died, when hope seems gone, where resources seem exhausted and we do not know how we will be able to continue. St. John speaks of the Dark Night of the Soul as having two parts: “The Night of the Senses” and “The Night of the Spirit.”
Ever notice how when things are going really well for you that the world simply seems more intense? Colors seem brighter, tastes more delightful, aromas, like a lung-full of autumn air, seem more grand? The mystics of all nations have spoken about “the Light” when things are in sync. I don’t think it’s a metaphor. We perceive things differently when happy. That is the Daylight of the Senses.
The Night of the Senses is when the opposite is true. When things seem gray and bland because emotional pressure pushes out he joy. But mostly St. John of the Cross is concerned about the Night of the Soul, when God and hope seem far away and spiritual distress comes calling.
I’ve had my Dark Nights of the Soul. So have you. They are one of the things that unite up into a human community.
The Critical Factor
I don’t know about you. But when hard times pass from my life and the day once again tastes sweet, I want to forget about the difficulty times and look ahead with optimism. That’s a whole lot more fun.
“But wait,” St. John of the Cross says. “Tarry!” His teaching is that if one looks back on the times of Endarkenment you can often see that they were not all bad. Often, they were actually the times that caused us to change. Often the very success we have later, comes from changes and understandings we gained during our Dark Night.
Far from being bad, St. John of the Cross proposes that our most difficult personal times are actually doorways that open us to improved functioning and greater happiness. While they are never fun, they may in retrospect be good.
That’s the key learning about life’s bad time. They are never fun, but they may be good. They become good if they motivate us to change our habits.
The human mind contains a function that hypnotists call the Critical Factor. It is a very old part of our consciousness. The job of the Critical Factor is to unconsciously set things up so the future will resemble the past. It wants the future to resemble the past because it knows we have survived the past, and if the future is similar, it figures we’ll survive that too. The Critical Factor resists all change--even good change.
And so the woman raised by an abusive father recruits someone just like him as a husband. The man whose mother was mean-spirited finds that only mean-spirited women seem attractive--at first. The person who grew up in a family where money was scarce finds him or herself drawn to jobs that continue a hand-to-mouth-lifestyle by offering no possibility for advancement.
The pain of the Dark Night of the Soul may be the only thing that can hurt us enough so we will ignore the Critical Factor in our mind and do things differently in the future.
The woman holding the layoff notice finds a way to go back to school. Skills improve, new skills are gained, better employment becomes possible.
The lover’s heart mends and with it the understanding that the woman who had been so beloved may not actually have been the best long-term partner after all. A new love is found and this time a more considered decision is made before love is given.
I am a specialist in working with persons who live with a cancer diagnosis. When the horror of 9/11 came onto the television screens of our nation, we had a whole nation of people who went into a sort of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Seeing that horror shook us, and changed us. But it didn’t shake the people who live with cancer. They already knew that bad things can happen to good people. The Dark Night of the Soul that opened for them when the physician gave them their diagnosis had changed them. They already viewed the world more realistically.
No one consults a helping professional, especially one who charges as much as I do, unless they are in a time of difficulty. The sun has set in their world and a Dark Night has come. They seek help.
Time and again I have witnessed in my own consultation room how people can cull from their time of pain and difficulty critically important insights about themselves that allow them to transform themselves in good ways. As the hindu Tantric Masters taught, sometimes a poison can turn out to be medicine.
The man who was born with the soul of a poet but become an accountant instead (because Father insisted it was more practical) finds poetry again and reinvents himself. The woman who was born to dance (but got a Master’s Degree in Counseling instead) finds a way to bring Dance Therapy into her practice.
In the late 1980s I faced a medical crisis that forced me to realize my time on earth was not without limit. With the help of a colleague I made an inventory of my life and realized that I had problems (one of my favorite quips about this time is to say that I realized I had a problem in only three areas of my life: my marriage, career and lifestyle. Everything else was okay). The realization led me to change, and those changes are among the best decisions I have ever made. My stress level dropped to a fraction of what it was and in response my health improved.
Yet I cannot honestly say I would ever had made those decisions if life had not kicked me in the keister on the morning when my doctor looked up from his lab report and said, “Scot, I don’t like what I see here.”
Often the darkest times in our lives contain the seeds that will grow into a better life for each of us. The Dark Night of the Soul is never fun, but it can be good--or at least good for us.
When I received my first Board Certification it was given at the 1993 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in Washington, DC. The keynote talk was given my a Connecticut psychiatrist I’ve long admired, M. Scott Peck. Some of you may have read his popular book The Road Less Traveled.
The very first sentence in that book is “Life is difficult.” And so it is. But, Peck went on to say, the reason for life’s difficulties is that life presents us with problems, but it is by solving life’s problems that we find life’s meaning. I agree.
His keynote talk was a plea with his psychiatrist colleagues to recognize that sometimes a temporary depression is actually a good thing--a Dark Night of the Soul--and if that patient just works through it, the patient may become a better person.
Not all depressions, he argued, should be medicated away. The medication is a blessing to those in pain, and they are always good if the depression is biological. But before reaching for the prescription pad, Peck asked his colleagues to wonder if perhaps the patient needs to learn something from the pain first.
Now, I’ve seen hundreds of people helped by anti-depression medication. I am not critical of the use of those drugs. But still, there is something to what Peck said. Even if the Dark Night can be lifted with a drug, there is still benefit in asking oneself what there is to learn from the fact that the Dark Night came upon us at all.
The Layered Brain
The Unitarian clergyman Ralph Waldo Emerson once taught that we didn’t need to read books as much as to read the “Book of Nature.” By that he meant that we need to look at the world and learn from it what God intends.
When I do this I like to look at the brain. It’s a wonderful organ. The brain is arranged in layers. The outermost is called the cortex, and it is the source of all higher thought. Beneath it is the limbic brain which governs emotion and memory. Sitting in front of that part of the brain is the amygdala. It is the size and shape of an almond. It tells us when to feel fear.
When something happens that causes alarm, the amygdala switches on. The center for emotion and memory activate so that we will not only respond to what we fear, we will also remember it so that we might avoid a problem in the future. In this state of mind we create memories differently. They have a special and deep power.
The aircraft we were on almost crashed. Now we have a phobia about flying.
One of my cats was terrorized by her former owner at a gang initiation, transported there in a pillowcase. She was rescued, and yet for the rest of her long and happy life (where she ruled over my professional office from her throne that used to be the IN BOX on my desk), she would run when she saw a pillowcase.
The one experience creates a powerful learning. No repetition is needed. This is how the memories of all trauma and all bad things are created. This is why we remember the bad times with special clarity.
Unfortunately, that can give the bad times a distorted importance in our mind, and we give them too much consideration in our future. In our fear we forget they may be useful to us.
For years now I have followed the work of a contemporary writer named Thomas Moore. I have all his books and love them. His best known book was very popular some years ago, called Care of the Soul.
Recently he published his inquiry into the St. John’s idea. He calls his new book Dark Nights (plural) of the Soul, because he wants to make clear that all of us can expect to have more than one of them.
But he’s got an interesting notion. He thinks a Dark Night of the Soul can be fun.
Well, not fun exactly. Drawing on the spiritual psychology of James Hillman, Moore argues that the fact that one has a time of Endarkenment--the times when it’s all fallen apart for us--means that one is a very interesting person.
Shallow people don’t hurt the same way deeper people do. The Dark Night of the Soul is the emotional heritage of only bright, self-aware people. When such people talk about their spiritual journey, they usually identify the dark times, not the bright times, as being the most transformative.
I get this. I know someone from my family who I swear will live forever. She has not a bit of stress. She has never had a self-doubting thought in her life. She is absolutely certain that she is right about everything. If confronted by incontrovertible proof that she has made a mistake, she will simply announce that it is someone else’s fault, and she will believe that to the very bottom of her heart.
She would not know a Dark Night of the Soul from a dust bunny, and you can probably imagine that she is a rather stimulating person to be around (when she comes to visit even the cats have the good sense to hide until she is gone).
Only sensitive and self-aware people can be shaken in the way St. John of the Cross proposes. If you have ever known a Dark Night in your life, it means that you are a more interesting person than you realize, and some time should be given to appreciating your own depth.
And now I’m going to talk about alchemy and medicine. Hang in with me. All this will make sense eventually.
Alchemy is usually considered the medieval forerunner of chemistry, but that’s not right. Psychiatrist Carl Jung in his great therapy based on archetypical symbols argued that Alchemy was actually the dark side of Christianity. It kept everything that Christianity had discarded in an effort to make itself nice and socially acceptable, after Charlemagne declared it as the state religion of the Holy Roman Empire in the year 800.
The medieval alchemists sought to transform matter. They tried to develop processes by which lead could be turned into gold. The sought to take dead matter and find a way to make it come alive. They attempted to compound medicines that would allow a person to live forever.
Along the way they discovered things that did in fact evolve into modern medicine and chemistry, but that was never their goal. Their goal was actually spiritual. The Alchemist sought to change the lead of personality into the gold of enlightenment.
The greatest alchemist was Philip Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, a name historians have shorted to Paracelsus. He lived from 1493 to 1541, a time that was one of the fulcrums of western civilization.
He was a physician whom the other doctors of the age hated. They hated him because his patients did better then theirs did. Way better.
At the time most physicians refused to touch their patients. Instead they dispensed medical advice based upon classical Greek texts by Aristotle, Hippocrates and Galen. The physicians of the age based everything they did on these texts, even when the texts were obviously in error about human anatomy (for example, Aristotle got the number of teeth a human being has wrong). The practice of dispensing medicines was left to the apothecaries, and surgery was left to the barber-surgeons. Both were considered low class occupations. Doctors never got their hands dirty.
Paracelsus got his hands dirty, and was scorned for showing disrespect for the classical texts. Today he is remembered as the father of modern medicine because he was one of the first physicians who actually examined his patients. Also, because he made his remedies from chemicals instead of herbs, he is also credited with being the father of chemotherapy.
Of course almost everything Paracelsus did was wrong. His patients did better because while mistaken, his methods were also harmless. People who went to other doctors did worse, because the other doctors were using methods that were not only mistaken but actively harmful (such as packing all wounds with batting, which always caused infection).
Goethe, in his 1801 drama Faust, has the physician of the age who had grown rich by dispensing harmful medicine, say while standing in a graveyard:
"That was the physic! True, their patients died,
But none ever asked them who was cured.
So, with a nostrum of this hellish sort,
We made these hills and valleys our resort,
And ravaged there more deadly than the pest.
These hands have ministered the deadly bane
To thousands who have perished; I remain
To hear cool murders extolled and bless’d."
Yet in his off-hours, Paracelsus was an alchemist, and he left behind texts which illuminate that discipline.
The alchemist used substances as symbols for people. Mercury was a symbol for men while copper stood for women. Other chemicals stood for concepts, planets and virtues. They mixed chemicals in crucibles heated in a special furnace as symbols of the kinds of relationship people could have. When they attempted to turn a bit of lead into gold they always failed, but the legends say that a few succeeded. Maybe they did in a purely spiritual sense.
At the end the alchemist would decant from the crucible that had been put through the flame a crude black stone, called the Lapis Niger. It was said to be an ugly thing.
But when held in tongs and struck with a hammer the skin of the Lapis Niger would shatter, and beneath it was said to be a nugget of gold, the color of warm butter.
Because of the fire and the struggle within the crucible, the alchemist said, a dark ugly thing was formed. Yet within it was gold.
The Dark Night Today
That’s sort of what the Dark Times of our lives can be like too. They seem so ugly and they hurt so much, but perhaps within them there is something important.
Perhaps they can be the stimulus to make a change that we need to make but were kept from making because of the inertia of life and daily responsibility. Perhaps within the ugly Lapis Niger, there can be a nugget of gold.
So when the Dark Night comes upon you. And they will come upon you if you are a sensitive and caring person. When your plans fail. When you are betrayed or scorned. When “someone done you wrong” and your optimism collapses, pause.
Before you lose hope, look at the circumstances of your life. Is the ugly thing you confront actually a Lapis Niger? Is there something within this time that you can learn from or be motivated by? Is the really a reversal, or is it a Dark Night of the Soul that will actually open to a future happiness.
The testimony of the mystic is that it often will be.
Call to Worship (Jacob Boehme, On True Resignation)
A [person] must wrestle till the dark centre,
that is shut up close, break open,
and the spark lying therein kindle.
Whatsoever things are true,
whatsoever things are honorable.
whatsoever things are just,
whatsoever things are pure,
whatsoever things are lovely,
whatsoever things are good,
if there is any virtue,
and if there be any praise,
think on these things.
from DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL, by St. John of the Cross (16th Century) This work is regarded by scholars as the summit of Spanish mysticism as well as one of the greatest works of Spanish literature.
STANZAS OF THE SOUL
1. On a dark night, Kindled in love with yearnings—oh, happy chance!—
I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest.
2. In darkness and secure, By the secret ladder, disguised—oh, happy
chance!—In darkness and in concealment, My house being now at rest.
3. In the happy night, In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught, Without light or guide, save that which burned in my
4. This light guided me More surely than the light of noonday To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me— A place where
5. Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the
6. Upon my flowery breast, Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him, And the fanning of the
cedars made a breeze.
7. The breeze blew from the turret As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck And caused all my senses to be suspended.
8. I remained, lost in oblivion; My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself, Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.
DURING the time, then, of the aridities of this night of sense ...spiritual persons suffer great trials, by reason not so much of the aridities which they suffer, as of the fear which they have of being lost on the road, thinking that all spiritual blessing is over for them and that God has abandoned them since they find no help or pleasure in good things…. they lose the spirit of tranquillity and peace which they had before. And thus they are like to one who abandons what he has done in order to do it over again, or to one who leaves a city only to re-enter it, or to one who is hunting and lets his prey go in order to hunt it once more. This is useless here, for the soul will gain nothing further by conducting itself in this way, as has been said.
Silent and Spoken Prayer
I have chosen a prayer today that sounds Christian, but it is not. The writer was the hindu poet Rabindranath Tagore. He was a member of Brahmo Samaj (the Unitarian form of Hinduism) and his reference to “Lord” and “King” is not to Jesus of Nazareth but to the concept of God in general. His words perfectly capture my theme of “Endarkenment” today.
Let us keep silence….
When the heart is hard and parched up, come upon us with a shower of mercy.
When grace is lost from life, come with a burst of song.
When tumultuous work raises its din on all sides
shutting us out from beyond, come to us, our lord of silence, with thy peace and rest.
When the beggarly heart sits crouched, shut up in a corner, break open the door, our king, and come with the ceremony of a king.
When desire blinds the mind with delusion and dust, O thou holy one, thou wakeful, come with thy light and thy thunder.
Show us the way. Amen.
Offertory (by Peyton Conway March)
There is a wonderful mythical law of nature that the three things we crave most in life -- happiness, freedom, and peace of mind -- are always attained by giving them to someone else.
For we shall go out in joy, and return in peace;
The mountains and the hills before us shall burst into song,
And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. (Isa. 55)