Monday, August 22, 2011

Strength in Darkness


The Catholic Company has brought me Strength in Darkness: Wisdom from John of the Cross. How appropriate. The editor's opening line is: "Have you ever had that abiding sense that you just can't get through something?" Why, yes! Yes, I have!

What follows are simply excerpts from the writings of John of the Cross, the great Carmelite reformer, a doctor of the Church, and friend of Teresa of Avila (note: friendship with a saint sure helps in becoming a saint yourself).

As someone who has struggled with depression recently, however, I would offer a word of caution. John may not be the man to read at the moment when that "abiding sense" of despair is strongest. Ask your confessor or a trusted friend first, because John's Dark Night can seem so challenging and so full of confidence that we less hardy souls may read him, shrug our shoulders, and abandon his way.

John encourages us that in darkness, we have received an invitation to go deeper and to go through whatever it is we are facing. The dark night is the only preparation for total union with God: "Furthermore, in this union for which the dark night is a preparation, the soul in its communion with God must be endowed and filled with a certain glorious splendor embodying innumerable delights. These delights surpass all the abundance the soul can possess naturally, for nature, so weak and impure, cannot receive these delights, as Isaiah says, 'Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered any human heart what he has prepared (Is 64:4).' As a result the soul must first be set in emptiness and poverty of spirit and purged of every natural support, consolation, and apprehension, earthly and heavenly. Thus empty, it is truly poor in spirit and stripped of the old self, and thereby able to live that new and blessed life which is the state of union with God, attainable by means of this night."

This, as the apostles said, is a difficult teaching. Who can bear it?

For the soul struggling with depression or intense suffering, John can be either the dearest friend or that well-meaning, but obtuse, well-wisher who stops you after Mass and says, "I've heard you're having a tough time. Don't worry, God sent you this for a reason."

I would save John of the Cross for a dark night that has begun to fade into morning: Once the worst has lifted (even if only for a moment), once you have a friend to read him along with you, then John's teaching has no compare. He can convince with the language of the heart: "In the first place it should be known that if anyone is seeking God, the Beloved is seeking that person much more...."

Once your heart is ready to accept this, then John of the Cross becomes the great spiritual director. He is able to prepare you for future suffering and give you hope that the dark nights you have known were not suffered in vain.

This review was written as part of the Catholic book reviewer program from The Catholic Company, and the reviewer received a free copy of the text in exchange for her opinion. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on Strength in Darkness. They also have great resources on the new translation of the Roman Missal!