There are times when the world unravels. Who hasn’t had this feeling? “I’m falling apart! This is beyond me! My heart is broken! I feel betrayed by everything! Nothing makes sense any more! Life is upside down!”
Jesus had a cosmic image for this. In the gospels, he talks about how the world, as we experience it, will someday end: “The sun will be darkened, the moon will not give forth its light, stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.” When Jesus says this, he is not talking as much about cosmic cataclysms as of cataclysms of the heart. Sometimes our inner world is shaken, turned upside down; it gets dark in the middle of the day, there’s an earthquake in the heart, and we experience, in effect, the end of the world as we’ve known it.
But, Jesus assures us too, in this upheaval, one thing remains the same: the word of God, God’s promise of fidelity. That doesn’t get turned upside down and, in our disillusionment, we are given a chance to see what really is of substance, permanent, and worthy of our lives. Thus, ideally at least, when our trusted world is turned upside down we are given the chance to grow, to become less selfish, and to see reality more clearly.
Christian mystics call this “a dark night of the soul” and they write it up as if God was actively turning our world upside down and causing all this heartache deliberately to purge and cleanse us.
John of the Cross, the great Spanish mystic, puts it this way: God gives us seasons of fervour and then takes them away. In our seasons of fervour, God gives us consolation, pleasure, and security (sometimes with considerable passion and intensity) inside our relationships, prayer, and work. As a gift from God this is meant to be enjoyed. But, John tells us, God will, at a certain point, take away the pleasure and consolation and we will experience a certain dark night, namely, where we once felt fire, passion, consolation, and security, we will now feel dryness, boredom, disillusion, and insecurity. For John of the Cross, all honeymoons eventually end.
Why? Why would God do this? Why can’t a honeymoon last forever?
Because eventually, though not initially, it blocks us from seeing straight. Initially all those wonderful feelings we feel when we first fall in love, when we first begin to pray deeply, and when we first begin to find our legs in the world, are part of God’s plan and God’s lure. The passion and consolation we feel help lead us out of ourselves, beyond fear and selfishness. But, eventually, the good feelings themselves become the problem because we get hung-up on them rather than on what’s behind them.
Honeymoons are wonderful, but, on a honeymoon, generally we are more in love with being in love and all the wonderful energy this creates than we are in love with the person behind all those feelings. The same is true for faith and prayer. When we first begin to pray seriously, we generally are more in love with the experience of praying and what it’s doing for us than we are in love with God. On any honeymoon, no matter how intense and pure the feelings seem, those feelings are still very much about ourselves and not about the person we think we love. That is why, sadly, many a warm, passionate honeymoon eventually turns into a cold, passionless relationship.
Until we are purified, and we are purified precisely through dark nights of disillusionment, we are too much seeking ourselves in love and in everything else. Therese of Lisieux used to warn: “Be careful not to seek yourself in love, you’ll end up with a broken heart that way!” We’d have less heartaches if we understood that. As well, before we’re purified, most of the tears we shed, no matter how real the pain or loss, say more about us than they say about the person or situation we are supposedly mourning.
In all this, there’s both bad news and good news: The bad news is that everything we feel as precious will someday be taken from us. Everything gets crucified, including every feeling of warmth and security we have. But the good news is that it will all be given back again, more deeply, more purely, and even more passionately in terms of feeling.
What dark nights of the soul, cataclysms of the heart, do is to take away everything that feels like solid earth so that we end up in a free-fall, unable to grab on to anything that once supported us. But, in falling, we also get closer to bedrock, to God, to reality, to truth, to each other, beyond illusions, beyond selfishness, and beyond manipulative love masquerading as something else. Clarity eyesight comes after disillusionment, purity of heart comes after a certain kind of heartache, and real love comes after the honeymoon.