Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Learn to be at home in the darkness

"Central to all Carmelite teaching on contemplation is the haunting image of the dark night described by John of the Cross, taken from one of his most famous poems, called: ‘One Dark Night’. Most of his writing, in one way or another, is a commentary on this poem. John uses this powerful symbol of night to describe a time of great personal crisis in prayer and in one’s life in general.

Contemplation may be, as he has described it, ‘an inflow of God’s love into the heart’, but this inflow is as much a source of pain as it is of light. At a certain point on the journey, the lights go out, the spring runs dry, the engine grinds to a halt, the centre cannot hold, the honeymoon is over ... whatever image you wish to use. God is healing and freeing the soul; the light, which in itself is not painful, blinds the soul, causing darkness, pain and confusion.

John’s advice is clear and has a universal relevance: darkness is part of the human reality. We need to let go of our accustomed ways of seeing and doing, and enter into a different landscape; sometimes it takes darkness to bring us alive. The poet David Whyte captures this beautifully in his poem ‘Sweet Darkness’:

It is time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes to recognise its own;
there you can be sure
you will not be beyond love;
the night will give you horizons
further than your eyes can see.

Which is exactly what John of the Cross is saying: learn to be at home in the darkness, do not run away from it, do not fight it or even try to understand it, embrace it -‘the night has eyes’. A new and different world is being born, what seem to be death pangs are in fact birth pangs, the soul in darkness is being renewed and transfigured; a new and terrible beauty is born. Painful though it may be, there is in fact no other way except the way of trust and surrender, and ultimately of belief in the creative and transforming power of love. John’s invitation to accept ‘the dark ray of contemplation’ may not be easy, but there is no other way."

-- Contemplative Prayer in the Carmelite Tradition by Fr Eugene McCaffrey, ocd

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