Distant Light

The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing and St. John of the Cross writing of The Dark Night of the Soul allude to the same reality: that is, that God is unknowable and all our ideas about God, all our feelings about God, all our intuitions of God can only ever give us the vaguest knowledge of who and what God is. Whatever image of God it is that we hold between our ears is therefore largely the product of our rational, intuitive and affective imaginations. Paradoxically however, God calls us ever Godward and seeks us out. We are called, drawn to God and we make steady progress along the path to God and our knowledge of God, imperfect and fragmentary though it may be gets steadily clearer. As we progress along the narrow road that leads to life, there comes a point when we draw close enough to God that we must finally leave whatever it is we think we know of God behind. Like Reepicheep in The Voyage of The Dawn Treader, we get to the point where the ship of all our theology and concepts and experience of God will take us no further and we must leave them behind and go on all alone towards the utter East. We then enter the cloud of unknowing or the dark night of the soul. At first this place is frightening. It is a blank place where there seems to be no direction or way points, but if we persevere long enough we recognise it as the darkness of that death without which resurrection is impossible. The cloud of unknowing can never lift, at least not in this life, but it does prove to be filled with life and subtlety and light that becomes, paradoxically, more knowable as we learn to let go of all knowing.

Which all sounds very high falutin' and spiritual I am sure. The dark night of the soul sooner or later becomes the lived experience and the great blessing of anyone who follows the way of silence, but it is a spiritual principle which has far wider application than just silent prayer. The dark night of the soul, or something like it, will need to be traversed whenever we seriously seek God's will. Often we will go to God in prayer, seeking God's approval for some scheme or other we have dreamed up, and come away from our prayer time buoyed up with the enthusiasm which generally precedes the disappointment of our plan's eventual failure. Invariably, if we are truly listening, we will need to enter a space that seems full of confusion and doubt and uncertainty. This is inevitable when you think about it: before we can be empty enough to receive God's ideas we have first got to let go of all our own old ones.

This dark night of the soul is seldom comfortable. We will  often describe it to ourselves as a lack of vision or of imagination; as writer's block or confusion; perhaps as doubt or lack of faith; and it is usually at this point that we chicken out and dash back to the familiar comforts of our own reason and to things that we have tried or read about or dreamed up before.

I think the church in general is poised on the brink of such a dark night. Trusting that God is leading us onward into whatever it is that lies ahead of us, perhaps the prayer of  our hearts needs to be not so much for certainty and direction, as for the trust (i.e. faith) to face and enter the darkness which must always precede the dawning of the distant light.


Eric said…
Thank you very much for that, Kelvin. As always your words trigger many thoughts, but what comes to mind is the writing of the Carmelite, Ruth Burrows. She has a Beautiful illustration which stands I think for much of what you express here on the personal and corporate level.

She speaks of fashioning a life like a beautiful vase and ascending the mountain of the Lord to present our Treasure to Him.

Only to find at the summit, that He is not there. We discern that He lies on the far side of the mountain the path down is steep, perillous and dark.

It can only be navigated safely by letting go of the vase.

This venturing in and retreat from the dark night is True 'mountain top experience'. The gospel readings these past two Sundays exemplify it, as does that of the Rich Young man.

Travelling Light or Travelling in the Dark - perhaps it is one and the same.
VenDr said…
Thanks Eric. I've not come across Ruth Burrows before and will certainly look out for her work
ElizH said…
Thanks for this BLog. It is the first creative,sensible and inspiring thing I have heard said about the "church in general" for a long time.
Anonymous said…
"....that God is unknowable and all our ideas about God, all our feelings about God, all our intuitions of God can only ever give us the vaguest knowledge of who and what God is."

It's true that the mind of man cannot embrace and control the truth that is God, but let's be wary of selling the pass on divine revelation, given by Our Lord Jesus Christ and enshrined in the Scriptures. God is Love, God is Light, God is King, God is Father, God is our Rock, God is Spirit, God is holy, God is tri-personal, God speaks - there's plenty here to keep us absorbed in our earthly pilgrimage until faith is swallowed up in sight. Of course the infinite God cannot be "known" as an object can, but He is known *personally, through His revealed word and His incarnate Son (Heb 1.1-3). This is a point that Calvin was at pains to express, recogbising that while God's *essence is unknowable, personal knowledge is His gift to us.
Anonymous said…
Thank you Kelvin,
You've expressed so well, a summation of the ultimately inexpressible.
Laurie said…
I HAVE been through a "Dark Night of the Soul". On my return from my tour of duty as an Army chaplain to Singapore and Vietnam I abandoned my clerical office and the Christian faith -- in black despair. A search for academic distinction, sex, and popularity, filled my life. It did not work and I was "saved" (I use the word in its Catholic and Biblical sense) by she who is now my wife and vicar.
I was familiar with the 16th century mystic, St John of the Cross, but his self-absorption did not help me. What did grasp me was a renewed encounter with a Risen Lord, who through His Spirit releases "the Jesus Way" through his church into the community.
For me "spirituality" is the reality of inter-personal loving service. Perhaps, as a stroke victim (one of the lepers of the 21th century) I do not understand fully this quest for spiritual betterment among the clergy of this diocese. But I think -- and Anglicanism is a thinking church -- the real need of the church is the marshalling of selfless service, in "the Jesus Way", of communities that can make a difference to those lost in neo-poverty and whithout hope.
I do not see a new Dark Age descending on the church but rather a new opportunity to enthuse and transform a self absorbed generation.
After the dark night of the soul I see now the Easter dawn.
Anonymous said…
Laurie - encounter each day with the Risen Lord Jesus who loves us and beckons us forward into the heart of His Father - yes.
People transformed by a love and joy that the world cannot give - absolutely.
A church that lives these ways has nothing to fear.

I have experienced this dark night several times in my walk of faith, when I felt emptied and without vision. More recently, I was in Big Sur, up on a ridge at night, looking at the Milky Way, and I had a profound sense of vertigo from the spaciousness which seemed to cut me loose in both space and time. This sense of being lost to become Found is preparation, I believe, for Gifts which God gives to us, as we learn to bear them and our hearts become increasingly surrendered. Nearly each time I have experienced this, even my prayers seemed blocked, and I could only ask the Holy Spirit to pray for me, Thy Will Be Done. But in each case, the sense of darkness preceeded something I was given, the receipt of which required a losing of my Self to embrace. Gift. Jesus calls us his friends and exhorts us to "Seek and ye shall find; ask, and it shall be given unto you." Though the darkness may overwhelm our perception, I believe it is to prepare us to Listen with our hearts to the call of Love, such that when the call comes, we might hear its music. For music of this sort can only ever be heard with the heart.