I spent a great majority of my time in seminary reading outside material. I went to a protestant seminary and there I read a great deal of stuff in class that was heavily focused on sophisticated intellectual concepts and the emergence of psychology (especially the theories of co-dependence) as a way to encounter Christian “spirituality”.
Naturally I pretty much abhorred it all.
Instead, I read deeply in the mystical traditions of the Christian faith. What did the tradition have to say? I desired to look into the past of the church, back to an age when liturgy, spirituality, theology, even ethics were not segregated enterprises. I drank deeply (and rather profitably) from the wells of Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton. Through them I learned about Saint Gregory of Nyssa, (Saint) John of the Cross, and the Desert Fathers. And there I have remained, lo all of these years since.
It is in these writers, especially Saint John of the Cross, that I learned about the dark night of the soul. I am not going to burden this reflection with the theological and rational points where Saint John and the Orthodox Church diverge. Instead, I am going to reflect on this dark night idea and what I mean by “living in the Mean Time”.
The image of the dark night is a largely familiar one. Saint John refers to it with respect to the long and desolate journey one’s soul must endure on its way to union with God. It is a journey fraught with peaks and valleys, with glimpses of hope and of despair. It is not a journey for the easily dismayed.
It starts with an awareness. You realize that there is something deeper, something more enriching, something more important, something more holy than the every-day, mundane life that we would normally live. It may come in the form of some divine revelation. It might come from some conversion experience. It might come from a near-death experience. It may come from witnessing the miracle of childbirth. In whatever form it comes, it makes you aware of God: the Source of everything, the End of everything. Your soul is for but a moment filled with an awesome and terrifying sensation of God’s presence. You catch a glimpse. Maybe only just that.
All too soon the feeling starts to fade. The echos may still catch your ear, the brief traces of the last rays of the Light start to fade on the far horizon. And then, it’s gone. All that is left is the memory, the retelling. And that is when the night begins.
Your soul has been given a foretaste. It yearns for more, but it can find nothing in this world that will sate its hunger. It remembers, so it remains restless. It longs. And so, the night begins.
The world offers many things of saccharine substitute to quench the soul’s hunger. One may be tempted to try such things: lust, power, material wealth, opiates. All are hollow. All are, in the end, completely unsatisfactory.
But it is here where we now live. And this is what I mean by the Mean Time: We live in a time of the “now” and the “not yet”. We are aware of God, in some ways profound, and in other ways phantasmic. We have a sense of things, but as the Apostle says, we see through the mirror dimly. So we have both joy and we have sorrow. We have hope and at times we have desolation. These times can be mean: vicious, fell, violent times. The night grows deep in times like these. The night may even bring us to forget. And when we forget, even greater sorrow occurs. We get caught in the illusions of this world. We give the worldly powers more of our attention than they truly deserve. Our God is supplanted. We seek kings instead. And then we despair.
But even in the darkest hours there are glimpses of light. And even though it may seem like God is not with us, He is there. Consider the life of Saint Silouan, a monk of great prayer and faith, whose life in the monastery was blessed by a vision of the True Christ, only later to be besieged by countless visions of demons. The peaks are there, but we still live in the Mean Time. From such a life came Saint Silouan’s great message from the Lord Himself: “Keep thy mind in hell and despair not”.
So we press on. We remain aware of God’s promises, and when the darkness surrounds us, we remember that we are the Light of the world. God never really leaves us desolate, and His light will shine through us if we let it.
Dark nights will come. When they do, it can be good to be in the company of true and pious friends. Even better is to go to the church and pray, and to receive the Holy Eucharist. Do not let the meanness of this world get the best of you. Give your best to God. He will bring you to the dawn.