Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Dark Night of the Soul

The Dark Night of the Soul is a poem written by the 16th century Spanish mystic, John of the Cross. Some time after its composition he wrote a treatise in which he expands on each line of the poem. The treatise has become one of the great classics of Christian contemplation

In a tradition going back to The Song of Songs, the poem uses the metaphor of erotic love to describe the progress of the soul on the journey to union with God. The following is a translation of the original Spanish. Loreena McKennitt's version is her own paraphrase, altered in parts for musical reasons.

1. One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings
- ah, the sheer grace! -
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

2. In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
- ah, the sheer grace! -
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

3. On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
- him I knew so well -
there in a place where no one appeared.

5. O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

6. Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
Forgotten among the lilies


It's nearly the end of a silent retreat I have been making this week. We have had the last of our talks from the retreat master, David Moore, Vicar of St. Luke's in Christchurch, had our last silent meal and it now feels over enough that I can write this and talk to any other retreatants who happen into the room.

At the start of any serious prayer I always have a prologue; a sort of introductory mini prayer in which I reflect on what exactly I am wanting from this imminent contact with God; a short place where I ask for any appropriate graces for the time to come. At the start of this retreat then, I asked that God would use the time as God wished and that I not get in the way. God seems to have taken me at my word.

The first night I went to bed soon after 8 and slept until 7. I meditated for as long as my knees would allow. I went for an hour's walk every day. I took the Eucharist and attended morning prayer. David has been a superb retreat leader, giving beautifully honed, well researched but brief addresses and knowing how to leave most of the day empty for the silence to work its powerful magic. One of the gifts he gave was music to start and to finish the end of all the formal sessions, and he chose the pieces well. One of them, yesterday, was Loreena McKennitt's haunting rendition of the poem which begins John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul. I was so moved by the song that I began to reread John of the Cross, and this has been the deep heart of the retreat for me. What a strange thing, to have someone speaking across more than 400 years and describing my spiritual walk with an accuracy and in such personal detail that it is cringe making.

Tomorrow there will be final farewells and we all leave: me to drive immediately to Wanaka and participate once more in the life of this little Diocese on the edge. But I go stronger and wiser and deeper for my encounter with David, with John of the Cross and with the one who waits for me in silence. 

Friday, 4 May 2012

What Are You Doing Here?

It was snowing on the Kilmog when I drove North last Monday, but by the time I reached Oamaru the sky was clearing and the temperatures were rising. By the time I got to Wainui on Banks Peninsula it was a clear, settled summer's afternoon. Pathetic communion. That's the fancy name for the literary device whereby weather and other environmental conditions reflect the emotional import of the narrative. Which is a long winded way of saying that much and all as I love my diocese, it has been, what with one thing and another, quite a busy time of late and it was good to get out for a few days.I went North to lead a clergy conference for the Diocese of Christchurch, so I was not really on holiday or retreat or anything like that, but I drove home late on Thursday feeling unexpectedly refreshed.

The issues facing Christchurch are immense. Much of their physical infrastructure is badly damaged or totally AWOL. People are tired after a long period of living in a world which will not stop moving. Populations have shifted and so have the congregations of some churches. There are ongoing contests of will with insurance companies and local bodies and The Press and people who think that Christchurch cannot possibly be Christchurch unless there is a big gray building with a pointy roof smack in the middle of it. The issues that we in Dunedin face - unsafe buildings, depopulation, insurance, funding, scarce resources - are not dissimilar, so the Christchurch Clergy Conference wasn't an escape. What was so energising and encouraging was gaining the perspective, even for a brief time, of another group; one which is innovative and focused and well led. There are a lot of people I know working over our Northern border, and it was fun catching up with them. It was more fun seeing how the ethos of my old home has changed.

Christchurch Diocese, for as long as I have known it has been divided along the factional lines common in the Anglican Church: evangelical v catholic, high church v low, liberal v orthodox, all that stuff. Now, after the earthquakes, a lot of that has gone, put into its proper perspective by the larger issues people face together. Sure, people are showing the effects of many months of overwork, but they seemed to me to be very kind to one another, mutually respectful and forbearing. And there is real excitement amongst many of those I spoke to about the possibilities opening up as old ways of being Church are necessarily abandoned and new ones are mooted.

I spoke about wilderness; about  Moses and David and Elijah and Jesus as they navigated that essential period of relinquishment between what was and what is to come. Thinking of ways to engage groups of people with the stories of scripture is the best way I know to deepen my own engagement with them; so for three days I was confronted again by the movement of the ancestors through the deserts of Judah and the peculiar spiritual power unleashed for us by those stories. Particularly, the story of Elijah in the cave on Mt Horeb moved me as it had never done before, and even more particularly the question asked of Elijah by the Spirit: "What are you doing here, Elijah?"

Elijah sat, lonely and depressed and suicidal at the mouth of the cave after his grand scheme to out-baal the prophets of Ba'al had exploded in his face. All of Elijah's history, all of his shortcomings, all of his giftings and failings, all of his mixed motives were gently presented to him in that question. As mine were to me. After that question came the utter silence as a vehicle for God's presence and as a sign of how things would work from this point onward. God led Elijah out and onward, not into any more public bragging contests, but into the ways of the Spirit whose modus operandi is shown most powerfully in the one who did not cling to his greatness but, rather,  poured himself out; the one whose invitation is to follow him on that path.