“...the narrow way which ascends the high mountain of perfection
requires such travellers as are neither weighed down with any burden
as of interior things, nor with higher things in such a way as should embarrass them, since this is a journey
in which God alone is to be sought and attained.”
~ San Juan de la Cruz, The Ascent of Mount Carmel.
Having been intensely self-driven and self-sufficient, due to necessity for so many years, I’ve also had to be one to seek out experienced advice. I appreciate hearing and reading the insights of others. In the shorthand of my journals, “I want to know what I don’t know.” My survivor instincts insist upon betterment, fulfillment, growth, and participation. Status-quo is as insufficient as it is tenuously fragile. A friend who is a social worker recently observed that my circumstances over the years amount to a “crucible” that defies explanation. Perhaps not the most helpful thing to hear, but worth a thought. Struggle tends to be a humming din beneath the surface, though occasionally the mechanisms rattle and distract. The cumulative effect can paralyze the strongest aspirations, and that is unaffordable.
These times are more desolate than usual. As the mind continues to work and look to better things, it is only natural to try figuring out the meaning of this crucible. Why the persistent lack of career fortune, why the instability, why the merciless rejections, why the unrequitedness of life in general? Perhaps this is some kind of indefinite, exhausting test. Indeed, I can operate through days and months on “auto-pilot,” yet all the while aware of living the biblical metaphor of a light smothered under a bushel. I would rather not be self-engrossed, but ambition is for the individual to manage. Of course, and as many do, I am looking for significance. Hopes and circumstances stand in opposition.
In darkness, it is difficult to know whether there is something close at hand. Discerning substance and its details is impaired by obscurity. Turning to the experienced works of San Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross, 16th c), there are some directives. He poetically and thoroughly wrote about the soul’s Night of the Senses, and the Dark Night of the Soul, reminding the reader to cease excessive intellectual operation and reasoning. He goes further and says not to ask why, but to simply detach from the injurious aspects of sense, question, and memory. The intellect was created to see the Divine, but it is incapable of that sight, said San Juan, unless God grant it the gift of infused contemplation. The metaphor of night was also quite physical for San Juan, as these concepts came to him during his unjust and protracted incarceration in a dark Castilian dungeon. He did not know if he would survive, though he managed a night-time escape from the cell. His description of the Night of Sense begins with detachment. It is a night, because San Juan said the soul travels in darkness on its way to union with God. In very brief, he wrote that the soul experiences three stages: the Purgative, the Illuminative, and the Unitive. For San Juan, light and dark are not always in opposition; in the Night of the Spirit, the inmost soul is pared-down, illumined and purified.
The works and biography of San Juan de la Cruz have become my daily studies during lunch breaks. I make sure to leave the building and be away from interruptions, so that I can soak in the ideas that seem very far away from limitations and barricades. Just as it was for the congregations he addressed and counseled in 16th century Spain, this is life-giving consolation and food for more thought. I’m able to return to work somehow equipped with some renewed fortitude. Over the years, I’ve tried to read his works and have set them aside. But now the poetry of illuminating night speaks squarely to my condition. Comprehension is built up with time and experience, even if it’s about the peeling-away of self. I’m grateful for the enduring studies which I’ve pursued at my own pace. When this is done around consuming schedules, only small distances can be covered. Just as well for the savouring. When I study philosophy and theology, I don’t always immediately understand what I’m reading. But I follow along, many times swept up by the images in the words and what they cause me to consider. When I revisit the texts later, understanding more of the concepts, I realize how little I grasped on the first pass. Evidently, cultivation is a patient process, and the crepuscule remains.
In this solitary wilderness time, I’m compelled to provide my own direction and defense. The arrivals of reinforcement and granted prayers are unknown to me, yet that cannot be cause to stand still. I’ve learned to be resourced enough to provide residual energy. It’s the proverbial spare battery in the desk drawer. Sometimes the fuel reserves can be pulled from personal history. During my 14-year career in commercial photography, I was immersed in a profession that valued available light. We measured light in lumens and footcandles. Most of my workweeks were spent in complete darkness, producing imagery under intense pressure. Just today, I thought to myself, the present abyss must have some places for available navigational light. I cannot really provide what is needed; it’s never entirely adequate. But since I’m never at liberty to stop and procure the full picture, I still must proceed with whatever I can scrounge up. In this Dark Night of the Soul, as San Juan de la Cruz described, the conditions of the passive depletion and active renewal run parallel for a span of time. He said the soul must become accustomed to the loss of solid signs, as it transitions from meditation that relies upon the intellect- to contemplation that relies on naught but the Spirit.
Indeed, the metaphors are surely appropriate to me, but my life is not that of Juan de la Cruz. He didn’t have employment tribulations, or deal with dissonantly cold online application processes, usurious student loans, or have to concoct the perfect résumé. Granted, he did suffer biases and cruelties, and had to live by his wits. The darkness of his cramped dungeon had a crack in the stone wall through which just enough sunlight could enter, by which he could read his breviary. Such things endear people like him to me. As for the dark nights in my context, I suppose I’m something of a clock-punching Juan Lunchpail in northern New England.
Just as my inspiring studies become provisions in this indefinite desert, I’m reminded of the necessities for the voyage. How did San Juan de la Cruz resource himself? As a monastic, primarily living in communities, he had his basics covered- austere as they surely were. It seems his critical resources were his insights, his sense of judgement, his tact, and his ability to persuasively communicate mystery to novices. He retained and applied his studies, while he continued writing. A powerful and discerning mind is an instrument of inestimable value. What else is needed for survival? During my decade as a photography teacher, I used to assign what I called the “Spaceship Project.” I told the students to imagine they were going to be sent into space for an undetermined amount of time, and they could only bring 12 photographs. Each student produced images of what they felt they’d need to have with them; each dozen marvelously unique to the creating artist. There was scenery, people, light patterns on objects, cats, essentially images of beauty. Go up into the void with imprints of beauty.
As San Juan de la Cruz would recommend, as we choose what is holy and life-giving, we also determine what must be avoided. For me, there is surely imagery, and there are books, keepsakes, and writing necessities. The Night of Sense is summed up as detachment and readiness for the darkest strata. San Juan said this is passive, and the soul finds that it must allow for the simplification to happen. It surely does not feel passive, as he described. Purgation is wearisome, monotonous, emptying, desolate, and obstructed. He lived through it and left us a guide, quoting his guide the ancient prophet Jeremiah’s Lamentations, that in the purgation it is as though God has cut loose and cast aside the anguished soul. But the soul perseveres with just enough faith that the darkest night will become light. “Enter the silence, when burdens are at their heaviest,” wrote Jeremiah; “Don’t ask questions, wait for hope to appear, confront the trouble full-face.” And I do so, responsibly every day. Among my vital provisions are the spirited words of adventurers whose footsteps are documented. There is just enough available light and thirst for me to continue reading and writing.
“The soul is like one who has begun a cure, all is suffering in this dark and dry purgation of the desire, by which it is healed of many imperfections and exercises itself in many virtues, in order that out of its care and solicitude for God it grows in desire for God alone.”
~ San Juan de la Cruz, The Dark Night of the Soul.