Friday, April 10, 2009

This Dark Night

Things a scientist should never do during Holy Week: Read St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul.

Things a scientist should do at least once in his life, preferably during Holy week: Read St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul.

It’s one of those books on which I could pass an intellectual test. I read it well and I can recapitulate the concepts, but St. John of the Cross speaks of a world and experience that I understand only in the tiniest flashes. I need a book by St. Somebody-or-Other of the Test Tube if I am going to really understand purgation of the soul.

A friend, hearing me reflect that this Lent had been less connected, more arid for me, sent me the book to remind me there is something else in Christian faith. I think I can say with reasonable assurance that I am not in the Dark Night St. John of the Cross describes. I think I can say with reasonable assurance, I’d prefer not to be. And I think I can say with reasonable assurance that at some point, I expect to be—in this world or the next. After all, the losing of self in God is what we are all ultimately made for. I’m just not strong enough to let go, to trust, to give over yet. This little dry spell of mine isn’t any great and monumental test. It’s a few laps around the field to help me build my endurance and maybe drop a few excess pounds of self.

And so I rely on what I have relied on before. I remember that love is an act of will, not an emotion. Devotion, though it requires grace, requires the cooperation of will. And I keep reminding myself that, when all is said and done, it isn’t about me.

Maundy Thursday illustrates that with such clarity. The year after we were received, I got a call to be one of the 12 for foot washing. Having had no experience in declining invitations by the powers-that-be in the Church, I agreed—and promptly made an appointment for a pedicure. While I am a reasonably presentable woman, there are parts of me that really should remain hidden, preferably by a size 10 pump.

I think the Holy Spirit had other plans. On the appointed day, at the appointed hour, I hustled across the street to the spa, only to find out they had no hot water—no pedicure in sight. Panicked, I got in my car and drove halfway across town to a little walk-in place I know of—closed for Holy Week. (While I applaud their devotion—who ever heard of a walk-in nail salon closed for Holy Week?)

I was stuck. I finished my day, went home, scrubbed and laundered the offending extremities as well as I could, and went to church. When the time came to mount the stairs to be washed, my mind kept replaying the words of the Gospel. The next thing I knew, our Monsignor was kneeling before me, in his white lace alb, splashing my foot with water, drying it, leaving it with a kiss as light as a butterfly’s touch.

Acutely aware of the inversion of the situation, my first thought was to flee—really, honestly, from the deepest part of myself, flee. I’d used that word before, but never really understood it until then. It was the first time I felt with such intensity the proximity of Jesus in the rituals of His Church, and it frightened me. I really understood Peter’s words: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” Or in my case, let me depart from You.

Fortunately, I had just heard other words: “If I do not wash you, you have no part in Me.” And “As I have done for you, so should you do also.” I stayed. I’ve walked. I’ve tried to serve. I’ve stumbled. I’ve gotten up again. I’ve also rejoiced, danced, laughed out loud.

It’s just that, right now, I don’t see it so clearly, and it all goes back to that same self who went out looking for a pedicure to try to make herself presentable before God. I haven’t really understood in the way that He wants me to, how fully Jesus accepts me as I am. I haven’t really accepted that when I give over to Him, and let Him work without my getting in the way, great and glorious things can happen. I’m not yet willing to sit still and let Him wash my feet.

I think these arid spells are, as John says, a way by which we learn to trust God’s direction and care. I have lost for a time the way I usually see my path, and so I stumble and fall. I need Someone to lead me, mostly because I keep trying to pick my way along under my own power, and keep running into obstacles.

When I was a Girl Scout leader, I had a terrible time convincing my frightened troops not to use their flashlights when they set out at night when we camped by the river, in the woods, amongst the snakes and alligators. They were afraid of what was in the shadows, but the intensity of the light meant that they could see only the patch of ground at their feet. They had no idea what was beyond, good or bad. When they finally trusted me enough to switch off their lights, they discovered, in a little time, they could see the whole woods around them, in all their beauty, and in all their threat. They were more confident, even when there really were things in the woods that might hurt them. They discovered, if they trusted, that sometimes, less light meant more vision.

That’s what this dark night is about for me. Less light, more vision. May Holy Week help me put down my own torch and follow confidently in this dark world Him who washed me, feet and all, and who illuminates everything.

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