Date: March 7, 2021
Bible Text: Malachi 3:1-4; Ephesians 4:13-24 | Bart Smith
Long before I knew her, a friend of mine was in the process of moving. She hired movers to help pack her things at her old place. On the way to her new place, the movers parked the moving truck overnight in a parking lot. The truck was stolen… along with everything in it. Everything! All of her possessions — furniture, clothes, photo albums, family heirlooms, all of it — were stolen. When she told me this story decades later, I just sat there, slack-jawed. “How horrible!” I eventually said, “How did you ever get past that?” I said this, ironically, when all I owned at the time was a mattress, recliner, dresser, ten shirts, and some books, but still…
“It was the best thing to ever happen to me,” she said, “because it taught me what was most important in life.” She lived fairly simply from there on out and truly is one of the most grounded people I know. For her, loving people is what counts.
Continuing with the thread of losing or letting go of “stuff”, how many of us have found it difficult to downsize, whether that’s our own stuff or someone else’s, like a parent’s for instance? Marie Kondo and others have some wisdom about how to do that, but it’s still not easy! Relinquishing things, letting go of what we hold dear can be an extremely painful process. Even in smaller ways, letting go of things — and not just things but also habits, ideas, desires — is hard to do and hurts while it’s happening. Attachment is a powerful force. It’s not a bad thing in and of itself (that’s how human beings are wired, after all) but the trouble comes when we tend to get our priorities out of order.
As we continue with this Lenten series we’ve explored the lives of major figures in Christian history who have spent large chunks of time isolated or in one place, either by themselves or with a small group of people. Some of the heftiest spiritual thinkers in our wider faith tradition were people like monastics and hermits who stayed in one place wrestling with the big questions. There’s a lot we can glean from their lives, especially in this pandemic when we’ve been feeling separation and deprivation in new, profound ways. Even though we live in vastly different worlds — staying at home with air conditioning and Netflix is no Fourth Century Egyptian desert — we’ve been asking, “What can we glean from their lives?”
Enter our latest conversation partner, San Juan de la Cruz, Saint John of the Cross. Juan was born and lived in 16th Century Spain, a Catholic priest, and member of the Carmelite Order. His mentor and biggest influence was St. Teresa of Avila. His works are considered among the greatest in all of Spanish literature, and he’s probably one of the more famous Christian mystics of all time. If you haven’t heard of him, don’t feel left out; his work is not something Protestants typically dive into. While you may not have heard of him, you’ve probably heard a phrase he coined: “the dark night of the soul.”
What San Juan meant by “the dark night of the soul” was particular to Christian mysticism and his own spiritual experience, but the term has taken on a life of its own. People the world over have used it to describe a spiritual depression, or existential crisis, or bout of hopelessness, or period of doubt and questioning. People describe the process of detoxing from something addictive as a “dark night” and bottoming-out as a dark night. Search the internet for “dark night of the soul” and you’ll come up with a lot… and a lot of advice from self-help guides, therapists, and clerics on how to move through it. It’s inspired poetry, visual art, and music, of course (“hence the “Dark Night of the Soul” by Van Morrison playing on the intro slide today”). It names what it seems are some universal human experiences.
There’s overlap, of course, but what Juan meant in his poem “Dark Night of the Soul” and his commentaries on it was a little different. Long story short, he wrote the poem, many people think, while he was imprisoned in a small cell by members of his own religious order who disagreed with the reforms he was ushering in. For him, it was a sensory purgation and then spiritual purgation on the way to an experience of union with God, the first steps in a mystical journey. Some compare it to the experience of adjusting your eyes to the bright sun after being in darkness: it hurts for a moment, but then you’re flooded with light. Union with God, love, is the ultimate goal.
At the risk of doing injustice to the nuances of his work, maybe a more familiar word to us in our time might be “detachment.” The dark night may be for us an experience of letting go of the old thing so that the new thing may emerge. Or, rather, that God works a new thing in us. That’s a better emphasis. And it’s often true that deep transformation doesn’t come without pain, and part of that pain is letting go of what we had previously been attached to — what we once needed, desired, thought, or believed.
It’s similar to what the writer of Ephesians is saying: you have to put the old way of life behind. “We aren’t supposed to be infants any longer,” he says, “who can be tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from… the tricks people play to deliberately mislead others.” That makes me think of the expression, “The only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper.” Change, thorough change, the kind of change we need, is often painful because it means detaching from the familiar, even if the familiar does not serve us well. To grow to maturity, to conform your life to Christlikeness, Ephesians says, you have to let go of not only your old way of life, but also your old way of thinking: “Instead, renew the thinking in your mind by the Spirit and clothe yourself with the new person created according to God’s image in justice and true holiness.” Renewal first involves an undoing.
The prophet Malachi spoke of God’s messenger being the “refiner’s fire” and the “fuller’s soap.” Those metaphors should make us squirm! A refiner burns off the dross to get to the precious metal beneath. Fuller’s soap (I had to look this up) was used to scrub off the muck and grime from sheep’s wool. None of that purification is fun or easy! Those metaphors should make us squirm not only because they entail discomfort, but also because they’re addressed to a nation. We can think of the most significant transition periods of history as collective “dark nights.” It’s a hard truth even now: the deep, lasting change our communities need will not come with surface-level tweaks. We have to relinquish some cherished ways of doing things. We have to let go of a lot, as a people, to inch closer to the Beloved Community.
As this Sunday marks the 52nd week of pandemic living, at least for us, it’s led me to wonder about how this past year has been a “dark night” for many of us, individually and collectively. In all this disruption, what have we had to detach ourselves from? In these extreme circumstances — in the isolation, in the upended routines — what have we been deprived of, and in that deprivation, what have we learned that we truly need? What stands in the way of our spiritual maturity? And thinking in larger terms: what have this past calamitous twelve months revealed about what’s not working in our communities? What needs to be burned off or scrubbed away?
In each of these sermons, Bailey and I have invited you to try a spiritual practice in the coming week that touches on the theme from the scriptures and the historical figures we’ve explored. So here’s this week’s: in thinking about the purging that “dark nights of the soul” can bring, what in our lives do we need to let go of? I invite you to think first about yourself, personally, and if you’ve got the energy for it, think socially. What are we attached to that needs to be set aside?
Whatever it is — whether it’s an object, an attitude, a habit — give it some careful thought, pray on it (this isn’t meant to be a rushed process), “what do I need to let go of?” Write it down on a little piece of paper. Burn it or crumple it up and throw it in the garbage. Let it go.
My spouse, some friends, and I did something similar to this at the end of 2019. We scribbled what weighed us down on pieces of paper and tossed them into a bonfire. It was cathartic! “What a hard year,” we said, “2020 is going to be our year!” And then…
Nonetheless, done with prayer, done in contemplation, it can be a fruitful exercise. So do that for one thing. Do it for several. What needs to be purged?
If you do, remember San Juan de la Cruz’s words: “A Christian should always remember that the value of [their] good works is not based on their number and excellence, but on the love of God which prompts [them] to do these things.”
This Lent, may the love of God prompt you to let go of what you need to let go of so that you may know that love in a deeper way so that it will sustain you in all things. Amen.