Thisby Thestoop and the Black Mountain

It’s fair to say that I read a good number of books children’s books. Having kids of my own, I like to pilfer their shelves from time to time. In our house, we like to stock “the classics” as a sort of quality guarantee. Since children’s books became a genre there have been writers who have tried to cash in on the children’s market as a way to make a quick buck with little effort. Reading “the classics” means that you get the best books from every era without having to wade through the formulaic twaddle, most of which has mercifully been forgotten over the years.
It’s a different story with modern children’s books. Picking up a new children’s book means taking a chance on wasting your time, and the modern children’s book publishing machine loves tried and true formulas. After the success of Harry Potter we got books about schools for magical/mythological/specially talented kids who are sorted into groups based on their personalities. After The Hunger Games took off, we’ve have had m…

The Dark Night of the Soul

There are two ways of thinking and speaking of God. The first is the apophatic way, or the via negativa, the way of negation. This way of thinking and speaking focuses on the transcendence of God and the inability of human language and experience to encompass all that God is and does. The second is the kataphatic way, or the via affirmativa, the way of affirmation. This way of thinking about God focuses on His immanence and His presence with us in and through His creation. Charles Williams has rightly pointed out that each Christian must approach God through both ways to some degree or risk falling into heretical beliefs. If God were ultimately transcendent, then we would become Gnostics, shunning matter and the material world as evil. If God were ultimately immanent, then we would become pantheists, unable to separate God from His creation. With that in mind, I recently read The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, a practitioner par excellence of the apophatic way. I intend to wrestle with this tough little book and its author and perhaps come to fisticuffs before it’s all over. We’ll see how it turns out.

First of all, some background. St. John of the Cross wrote of the “dark night of the soul,” a time when the first excitement of conversion and service to God wanes, and the believer is left with a sense of emptiness, a sense of God’s absence. He may continue to practice the same spiritual exercises as before, but the joy in them is gone. It seems that he takes no pleasure in the things of God, and this leads to a spiritual depression. Most if not all believers will experience this at some point in their lives. St. Augustine, St. Francis, Martin Luther, G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis all experienced these dark nights. It is the goal of St. John to show that when this occurs it is God’s instrument to empty us of our pride and selfishness and focus us more fully on Him, drawing us closer to Divine Love. So far so good.

St. John open with an excellent discussion of the various manifestations of pride, including prideful things such as the desire to be teachers rather than learners, the desire to experience a spiritual high (a sort of spiritual gluttony), and the desire to be recognized for one’s great learning/humility/holiness. St. John stresses total reliance on Divine Grace and the inability of humans to stir up within themselves these experiences of God. God alone must give a sense of His presence as a gift. St. John is also very concerned with articulating a theology of suffering as an aid to those who suffer in their Christian walk. All of these things are good, and I appreciated them greatly.

That being said, and I feel a bit guilty saying this, I didn’t like this book overall. The whole of the book is permeated with an ascetic sort of dualism. The goal of salvation in the mind of St. John of the Cross is for the soul to become one with God, to enjoy unity with its Creator. In order for this to happen, the person must be emptied, first of every physical desire and pleasure and then of every spiritual desire and pleasure. A perfect emptiness is necessary before the soul may enjoy unity with God. Biblically the ultimate end of salvation is the resurrection of the body and eternal life in the new heavens and new earth. St. John’s method, like the entire ascetic project, finds some sort of sharp division between body and soul and holds the soul up as the better of the two. In the ascetic scheme we come closer to the Giver and embrace Him by scorning His gifts. This whole way of thinking misses the fact that creation is charged with the presence of God. Through sacraments and scripture, we see God everywhere and His truth proclaimed throughout the universe. An author would be puzzled if I claimed to be his biggest fan and then proved it by refusing to read his books. If we love an author, we will generally love his books, and it often works the other way as well; if we love the books we will develop a love for the author. This in essence is the kataphatic way, the way of affirmation. St. Francis revered nature and found God; Dante loved Beatrice and found God; Chesterton embraced the world and found God; Lewis loved Balder and found God.

How do we balance this, though, to avoid having idolatrous thoughts of God? One theme that is abundantly clear throughout The Dark Night of the Soul is that God is far more than we see of Him in Scripture and far more than we see of Him in creation. Because He is transcendent all that we know of Him through His world and Word are still but part of the whole. Our finite minds and language cannot properly conceive the full majesty and glory of God. In St. John’s logic this leads us to the obvious conclusion that we ought to mortify the flesh and spirit in order that our souls may peel back the veil and see God as He truly is. However, not only is this not the only conclusion, I believe it is the wrong conclusion. Martin Luther himself recognized the transcendence of what he termed the Hidden God. He recognized all the same problems as St. John. His solution however was that we will never be creatures that will be able to penetrate that veil for we will always be finite creatures. God would be totally unknowable to us except for the fact that He condescended to meet us where we are. This means that we should look at the things God has revealed about Himself in order to know Him, physical things like the Word and Sacraments. Only through these things can we know God, for we cannot peel back the veil and see the ineffable nature of God. By this the two ways, the apophatic and kataphatic are reconciled in a way that St. John can’t quite reach.

St. John says that many who devote themselves to the contemplation of God that he encourages find it repugnant to speak of the things they have learned in secret for human language cannot tell of what they experience. However, we are told in Scripture that Jesus is the Word of God. God has chosen to reveal Himself in words. Language is God’s divine creation. It is true that we may not know God as He really is, but that is because we cannot comprehend Him as He is. We can only know Him as He reveals Himself, and therefore through special revelation. In other words, words! In fact I would go as far as to say that God does not want us to contemplate His nature or thoughts apart from what He has revealed to us (Deut. 29:29).

Overall I had a hard time with this book. I really wanted to like it. I absolutely loved The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, but this was as different from the world-affirming Lawrence as possible. Often throughout Church history Christians have held that the way of affirmation, of knowing God through His creation and revelation, is the beginning which will eventually lead to the way of negation, knowing God in a contemplative fashion apart from the things revealed. Charles Williams reverses the two saying that we may start with contemplation, but we must move on to affirmation as we mature. I believe that this is more Biblical in light to the great emphasis in the Scriptures on resurrection, material blessings, and the creation in general. As Williams writes, “It [is] necessary first to establish the awful difference between God and the world before we [can] be permitted to see the awful likeness. It is, and will always remain, necessary to remember the difference in the likeness. Neither of these two Ways indeed is, or can be, exclusive.”