Faith United Methodist Church
October 11, 2015
20th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Kristabeth E. Atwood
Scripture: Job 23:1-9, 16-17, Hebrews 4:12-16
Sermon: Dark Night of the Soul
Have you ever experienced a ‘dark night of the soul’? Maybe it was brought about by difficult life circumstances ~ death of a loved one, divorce, a medical diagnosis ~ or maybe it came out of the blue. One day you were feeling fine and the next you were plunged into a tunnel of darkness and despair. One day you were able to experience God’s presence and then next you felt bereft and alone, wondering, ‘Where is God?’
The phrase “dark night of the soul” comes from a poem by St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish Carmelite monk and mystic. His eight-stanza poem outlines the soul’s journey from the distractions and entanglements of the world to the perfect peace and harmony of union with God. The phrase ‘dark night of the soul’ is generally understood as a period of spiritual hopelessness suffered by a believer, in which all sense of comfort and presence of God are removed. It can last a short time or a long time, one night or many nights. A ‘dark night of the soul’ doesn’t follow any set rules.
You may be thinking that this ‘dark night of the soul’ thing sounds a lot like our medical and cultural understanding of depression. Yes and no. Depression may accompany a ‘dark night of the soul,’ but a ‘dark night of the soul’ is not necessarily depression. It may simply be a time of loneliness or searching. Someone experiencing a ‘dark night of the soul’ may still be able to be productive and enjoy life in general, yet be unable to find pleasure in the things of God that once brought comfort and joy.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta is modern example of one who experienced a ‘dark night of the soul.’ After her death, when the content of her personal journals was released, it was hard to reconcile the hard working, compassionate woman we thought knew with the despair that poured out of her heart and onto the page. In her journals she wrote of disconnection with God, feeling alone, and a longing to experience God’s presence in her life. Some have wondered if Mother Teresa was depressed. Could she have benefited from an anti-depressant medication? Perhaps. Yet others have suggested, based on the productivity of her life and her seemingly endless energy that she was not clinically depressed, that what she experienced was a very long ‘dark night of the soul.’
Like many of you, I have experienced depression. I have been in that place where life feels purposeless, where it is difficult to even get out of bed and, once I do, all I can think about was returning to bed. During that time sleep was my only reprieve. Depression robed me of the ability to enjoy the things I once loved. I couldn’t summon the motivation to play with my dogs or clean my house or cook dinner. I didn’t remember what it was like to have fun. Thankfully I was able to get help. With the love and support of friends and family, a doctor who helped me find the right anti-depressant medication, and a skilled therapist my depression slowly lifted and I was able to reengage with the world.
And, like many of you, I have experienced a ‘dark night of the soul.’ During my ‘dark night’ it felt like life was pretty much the same as always, but one thing was missing. It seemed that God had disappeared. Where once I had a lively and reciprocal relationship with God, God was suddenly silent. My conversations with God became one sided, to the point where I said, “Okay God, if you’re not going to speak to me, I’m not going to speak with you.” So, for a time, God and I were not on speaking terms. I did my usual things and went about my life in a pretty normal way. And I waited. I waited for God to show up. And, slowly, God did. It’s hard to explain but one day I just realized that God was back and it felt like the old days, yet better because I could appreciate God’s presence more since I had experienced God’s absence. In this sense, St. John of the Cross called the ‘dark night of the soul’ a happy night or a night more lovely than the dawn because it, ultimately, drew one closer to God. The last stanza of St. John’s poem reads:
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.
Today’s Old Testament lesson is from the Book of Job. Job is a book we don’t read all that often. The Lectionary invites us to visit with Job for a couple of weeks every three years. Yet Job is one of the better known books in the Old Testament. We often connect with Job when we are going through a tough time. When one painful thing piles on top of another and we wonder why, we think of Job. When someone deals with difficulty after difficulty we may say, “She has the patience of Job.”
Job, though, wasn’t all that patient. After losing his children, his livelihood and his health Job cursed the day he was born and questioned God with harsh words. He yelled at God for 37 chapters. In our reading from chapter 23 Job declared, “Today, also, my complaint is bitter.” As we learned in our adult study last spring, Job didn’t hide his dissatisfaction with God. He wanted to bring his case before God and be acquitted, but the problem was, he could not find God.
Perhaps you can relate to Job’s complaint, “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.” Job, who was accustomed to having a close relationship with God, found God to be suddenly absent. Perhaps this is the first recorded experience of the ‘dark night of the soul.’
The Bible is full of references to light. The Lord is my light and my salvation. In God’s light, we see light. So how, in a world that equates light with God and darkness with evil, do we deal with the ‘dark night of the soul?’ Do we run from it? Do we deny it? Or do we, like Job, give voice to it? Name it?
If you name your ‘dark night of the soul’ experience perhaps you can help someone else who is also going through a ‘dark night of the soul.’ As good Christians, we don’t like to admit that God feels far away, that Jesus hasn’t walked with us for a while. Yet when we do admit it we may find that we are not alone. In a couple of weeks we will hear how God did, finally, respond to Job. For now, though, don’t be afraid of the dark. As the great preacher and writer, Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us, “God comes to people in dark clouds, dark nights, dark dreams and dark strangers in ways that sometimes scare them half to death but almost always for their good—or at least their renovation. God does some of God’s best work in the dark.” Thanks be to our God of both darkness and light. Amen.