Into This Dark Night: Moving Toward Pure Encounter

Late afternoon shadows.

I’m still sitting with how strange it is, I’m sure, for you to hear St. John of the Cross prescribe inactivity during the dark night of the senses.

Even if we don’t feel it, wouldn’t it be a good thing to be faithful to the various spiritual disciplines, like reading the Scriptures, prayer, fellowship, meditation, fasting, worship? Why stop those things? What harm — rather than good — could they really do? They’re good things, aren’t they? The church has been practicing them for centuries upon centuries, encouraging us toward the goodness they offer the soul.

It’s true. The spiritual disciplines are good and effectual for us and our growth. And there are certainly times when faithfulness to God through spiritual activity — even when we don’t want to do it or seem to gain nothing from it — is warranted. 

But in this particular season, when God specifically seeks to wean our dependence on our senses and to grow us up at the level of the spirit, those activities actually hinder the work intended for this time. 

Here’s how the saint puts it:

“It would be as if a painter were composing a portrait and the model kept shifting because she felt like she had to be doing something! She would be disturbing the master’s work, preventing him from accomplishing his masterpiece. What the soul really wants is to abide in inner peace and ease. Any activity, preference, or notion she might feel inclined toward will only distract her, intensifying her awareness of sensory emptiness.”

This goes back to what we learned earlier about the night of the senses being aimed toward removing our dependence on our senses. The more aware we are of our activity, or of the felt effects of our activity, the more something serves as an intermediary between us and God. Something is between us — either the activities we do or our noticing the effect of those activities on us. 

In the night of the senses, God is moving us toward pure encounter.

Here, he is teaching us how to exist with nothing standing between us and himself. Spirit to spirit. Pure encounter.

In a way, this “doing nothing” and “just being” takes its own form as a spiritual discipline during this season. Tomorrow, we’ll learn what it looks like to exist in this way before God.