Chapter 4

The Failing Light: The Heroism of Affliction

In the trial of suffering so far considered, the pain has been illuminated by the inner radiance of hope. The divine presence which enlightens us all has, if anything, been allowed to shine even more brightly than is usual, because the tawdry glitter of the world has excluded itself in disgust (rather as Jesus' disciples ran away from him when he was betrayed), and the unsullied glow of the divine indwelling is left in sole occupation. In this way intense suffering, especially endured in the company of others in the same plight, can evoke a response of loving forgiveness that lies above mortal conception. For the first time in a victim's life the impress of divinity may be imparted to him, and he may respond in a loving sacrifice of such a magnitude that Jesus' all but impossible commandments to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors become real and practicable. As Jesus taught, for men this is impossible but for God all things are possible. God works, in our little world, primarily through the agency of humans. The greatest love is renunciation carried to the acceptance of death for the sake of the beloved who is identified, in the perspective of injustice and cruelty, with the whole created universe, inanimate as well as living.

But there have been some who have been called, in a state of isolation from all human solidarity, into an experience of even greater suffering where the darkness is all but total. Here the light of God's presence appears to be obliterated; indeed, its very existence becomes increasingly problematic up to the point where the very notion of a meaning to existence appears a terrible delusion. God appears finally to be no more, indeed never has been except in the imagination of the believer, where he has been conjured up to fill the gap of intolerable meaninglessness. A raging whirlpool of destruction, of blank extinction, is all that remains.

The experience is known, at least to some extent, by the person aspiring to truth, who prefers the walk in the cold desert to an ascent to the skies of delight by way of escapist meditation techniques. These promise, and indeed may induce, an experience of bliss, but soon this dissolves in the harsh daylight of mundane disorder. The way of the desert, like the wilderness into which Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit after his baptism by John, is cold and forbidding, but its end is the vision of God for those who persist through all trials and dangers. The Psalmist has at all times a particularly intimate relationship with God, who assumes a strongly personal character, albeit in a presence that far transcends finite description, even to the extent of bearing a name that can identify it. Thus the Psalmist can plead directly with the Almighty to show his hand at once in defence of his chosen people. Sometimes the attitude is one of confession, or pleading, or frank irritation at the length of delay in spite of urgent prayers. But there are also portions of the Psalms where terror is expressed at the spectre of impending doom staring the people as directly in the face as the Psalmist confronts the naked void of annihilation. "Thou hast plunged me into the lowest abyss, in dark places, in the depths. Thy wrath rises against me, thou hast turned on me the full force of thy anger. Thou hast taken all my friends far from me, and made me loathsome to them" (Psalm 88:6-8). Again we read, "When the bonds of death held me fast, destructive torrents overtook me, the bonds of Sheol tightened around me, and the snares of death were set to catch me" (Psalm 18:4-5).

A similar type of experience is recounted in the psalm put into Jonah's mouth as he prays in the belly of the great fish sent by God to swallow him, "I thought I was banished from thy sight and should never see the holy temple again. The water about me rose up to my neck; the ocean was closing over me. Weeds twined about my head in the troughs of the mountains; I was sinking into a world whose bars would hold me fast for ever" (Jonah 2:4-6). These terrible experiences are of a darkness more profound than that due to outside circumstances of bereavement, unjust punishment and torture, or even the progressive failure of bodily function that leads to the individual becoming increasingly isolated from the world around him. The darkness is such that the divine presence is not only obliterated from the spiritual intuition of the victim, but its absence is also felt to be contingent on his sinful nature. Eventually all positive meaning to life is felt to be a delusion. In such a state of obfuscation all attempts at living beyond the covetous desire of an animal are felt to be not only futile but actually non-existent. Therefore judgements based on moral values fall into the chaos of despair.

The human at his best lives in response to a hierarchy of values. The foundation is paved by elementary self-interest without which life would be immediately impossible. Then comes his relationship with those close to him in blood ties, conjugal union and everyday employment: the family unit and the working community constitute the walls of his private house. But the roof, if indeed it exists at all as an integral unit, is composed of the slates of higher moral values. The three cardinal ones are, in the Platonic pantheon, beauty, truth and goodness; the Christian revelation would tend to incorporate the third of these in the wider scope of love. Thus at his basest man lives on a purely self-centred sensual level. As he rises in awareness, his mind in its intellectual mode assumes a more dominating position, so that the person views the world in conscious thought apart from himself. The end of this advance is scientific research and technological enterprise. In this state there remains a gaping hiatus between man and the world. The human assumes a purely distant, even disinterested, I-It relationship with all the creatures around him and the earth on which all survive, man and beast alike. But as man grows into the fullness of his identity, which includes an exploration in depth of the unconscious no less than a vertical ascent to mental supremacy, so the spiritual dimension assumes a more insistent place. Man indeed discovers that he lives not only on bread but also on the word of the nameless One which alone sustains the world and is the ground of his own true being, which we call the soul. The human occupies an amphibious place in this world: his feet rest firmly on solid ground while his head is in, fellowship with the divine presence. And each polarity, must be given its full due: a worldliness devoid of spiritual insight finds its end in death and annihilation, whereas a discarnate spirituality effects no change either in the world or in the person himself.

The journey to spiritual mastery, to the vision of God whose illumination transforms all that attain it into something of the divine nature, is a way of renunciation, sacrifice and impoverishment. But the poverty lays one open to the divine impress, and in that contact a new person is born, one who is totally in union with his fellows - and eventually with all living forms that inhabit the world. In this spirit Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit [those who know their need of God]; the kingdom of heaven is theirs" (Matthew 5:3). Having given themselves without stint to God's service, they attain an instant knowledge of divine reality. This is the end also of human nature, to share in the very being of God (2 Peter 1:4).

But before this visionary end may be attained, something else may also be demanded of the aspiring person: a blinding of the soul so that it loses its erstwhile confident assurance of God's presence. With this apparent disappearance of God comes a doubt about the reality of the spiritual life and the cardinal values on which it rests. All the previous faith seems to be erected on a foundation of pure fantasy, a wish-fulfilling escape from the true facts of life. The inner voice of destruction tells him, "There is no God who cares for the world and its inhabitants. There is no overall meaning or purpose to life which is not terminated in death. Chance at its blindest governs all events. Life itself is a delusion except as a series of interconnected sensual stimuli that keep the body intact for a limited time." In the words of Macbeth, life itself is "but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Of course, on one level, this is the entrenched view of the rationalist atheist, and it appears to evince no discomfort in him; indeed he appears to exult in it, inasmuch as he can feel that he alone is in charge of his life and is the master of his fate. But, in fact, this metaphysical point of view has an emotional aridity about it; it belongs to the realm of the arrogant intellect rather than that of the human relationship we inhabit day by day, a world peopled by a throng of fellow workers striving inwardly towards some meaning to a life that is darkened by pain and disappointment even at its most fruitful moments. But deep in the core of the soul of even the most arrogant atheist there burns the light of God's- presence as a constant assurance of his grace even if its glow is summarily ignored and its warmth excluded from the conscious life. "The light shines on in the dark, and the darkness has never mastered it" (John 1:5).

In contrast to this intellectually based atheism, the loss of God's presence that the spiritual aspirant suffers is of a completely different order. It is the ultimate bereavement, and one that can never be filled with alternative consolations: This is because all alternatives are as nothing compared with the divine reality that has now apparently departed. Everything is consumed in the destroying fire of futility, so that the very cosmos is reduced to the chaos out of which it was created. To the person who has dined at the heavenly table, earthly banquets are not so much inferior as irrelevant apart from their divine source. Furthermore, the absence of the divine love brings with it something far more terrible than mere intellectual doubt, a doubt that would ultimately reduce the aspiring one to the level of the worldly unbeliever. With the failure of the light of God's love comes a terror as the darkness of suffering appears to overwhelm one in its destructive fury. All around is the sheer blackness of non-existence, and yet paradoxically one is more than ever before aware of one's own being as a separate entity. One is trapped in a vortex of ferocious forces, sucked down into an abyss of primeval destruction, whilst one struggles frantically for one's life, calling out piteously to the one who is not there. And yet one remains alive - provided, of course, the temptation to end one's life is resisted, as is usual in the instance of the spiritually advanced person. He knows, even in his panic, that there is no way out except by going resolutely through the raging torrents of hell. The soul is completely bare in the tempest of destruction; it is felt to be like a little furry animal, like a mole. This is the stature of the personal identity, and it reminds one of Dame Julian's vision of the whole creation as a hazel-nut: "Also in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereon with eye of my understanding and thought: What may this be? And he answered generally thus: It is all that is made." She marvelled how it might last; for it could have suddenly disintegrated into nothing, but she was told that it lasts eternally because God loves it. "And so All-thing hath the being by the love of God" (Revelations of Divine Love; Chapter 5). However, the fragile, vulnerable soul flinches before the cold wind of hell, and seeks desperately to remain alive.

How different all this appears from the calm, detached stance of the rationalist! How remote it is from the traditional piety of the conventional believer who prides himself on his orthodoxy! The impeccable taste and propriety of the reasoning faculty and the traditions of religion recede before the naked onslaught of the power who denies life. So did the disciples from the discredited person of their Master. There is no assurance of victory here, and all the solitary victim can do is to keep on his course, dark, unilluminated as it is. We remember Jeremiah complaining to God repeatedly at the hardness of his lot, being persecuted by the very people he had been sent to save from their folly. The prophet is caught between the power of God's command and the resentment of his fellows: God tells him to get on with the work, but offers no word of comfort let alone any material consolation. But the high point in the prophet's life is his description of the new covenant to be written on men's hearts, so that they may know God intimately as an immediate presence, and not merely as a theological abstraction. The world gains from the life of the prophet, but he himself enters a pit of suffering from which he is released only when he dies in captivity in Egypt, whence his rebellious countrymen have carried him in their futile flight from Babylonian power. Could Jeremiah or the fictional Job, possibly constructed on the personality and suffering of the prophet, have understood the cosmic forces against which they were pitted during their pain? All they had was their own integrity and a faith that was completely dark and obscure.

This sequence of spiritual unfoldment is described memorably by St John of the Cross in his book The Dark Night of the Soul: In the first night the soul finds increasingly little comfort in the traditional forms of religion, and verbal and mental prayer become stultifying and unreal. The soul is moving towards a more intimate communion with God, one that transcends images. The end is contemplation, which is the foundation of prayer and also its culmination. The unobstructed mind ascends to the heavenly grace in rapt adoration, while the person gives of himself to God in silent devotion. To the traditional believer this apparent repudiation of the outer garb of faith seems like treason, the very workings of the evil one, but the more experienced spiritual director learns, by his own experience as much as by what he gleans from spiritual authorities, to recognize the true night of the soul and to distinguish it from spiritual pride on the one hand and mental apathy on the other. One always has to bear in mind that the higher one ascends to God, the more open one is to demonic assault. The evil one acts not only directly but also through the flaws and weaknesses in our own character. What we take special pride in is, in fact, the Achilles heel of our personality.

And so the lover speaks to the beloved in wordless joy, and discovers that the beloved is the universal Lover of all creation. No joy could be more complete. But then later in the life of the lover may come the second night, in which the very presence of the beloved seems to have evaporated: God is no longer there, and in his place there is a darkness worse than that of total annihilation. This is "the dark night of the spirit", which is the title of the second part of The Dark Night of the Soul. The sixth and seventh chapters of this part of the work describe some of the associations of the dark night very clearly; indeed St John of the Cross speaks of the whole experience as "dark contemplation": "But what the sorrowing soul feels most is the conviction that God has rejected it, and with abhorrence of it cast it into darkness. The thought that God has abandoned it is a piteous and heavy affliction for the soul . . . When this purgative contemplation depresses a man, he feels very vividly indeed the shadow of death, the sighs of death, and the sorrows of hell, all of which reflect the feeling of God's absence, of being chastened and rejected by him, and of being unworthy of him as well as the object of his anger. The soul experiences all this and even more, for now it seems that the affliction will last for ever." He describes a further "excellence" of dark contemplation as another kind of affliction to the soul: this property makes the soul feel within itself its own intimate poverty and misery. He notes also that because of the solitude and desolation the night causes, the person in this state finds neither consolation nor support in any doctrine or spiritual director; though the director may point out many reasons for being comforted on account of the blessings contained in these afflictions, the sufferer cannot believe this: he believes his director says these things because he does not understand him, and does not see what he sees and feels. Instead of consolation he feels deeper sorrow, thinking that the director's doctrine is no remedy for his evil, rather in the same way that an incurably ill person suddenly realizes that all the existing medical authorities are powerless in treating his condition. The state, if it is to be truly efficacious, will last for several years, no matter how intense it may be, although there may be intervals in which the dark contemplation ceases to assail the soul in a purgative mode, and instead shines upon it with loving illumination. Nevertheless, the purgation continues until the soul is absolutely cleansed of lust, until it is devoid of all egoistic desire. Though the soul habitually possesses faith, hope and love, the present awareness of the privation of God and of the afflictions does not permit the person to enjoy the actual blessing and comfort of these three theological virtues.

To this great mystic these formidable inner experiences are part of the divine purification of the soul, so that it may grow, unencumbered with the least trace of egoistical dross, into full union with God; in its innocent nakedness, like that of Adam and Eve before the fall, it can make the final surge of adoration to the beloved, who is God. But the end is hidden from the one who undergoes the privations of hell; at the most he can glimpse its advent from afar as the peace of death falls over him, a presage of the death he, and all of us, are ultimately to experience. A telling instance of this sequence clouded and glorified the final pan of the life of St Thérèse of Lisieux, who died of tuberculosis in her twenties. She is remembered especially for the path of spiritual unfolding she demonstrated: "the little way" to God the Father, in which she, with her naked innocence; was the little child. The beloved Fatherhood of God was incarnated, so to speak, in her own father whom she adored, but who, alas, was to suffer a mental breakdown that lasted until his death.

Following this terrible blow Thérèse learnt to identify God as the Father of all, not merely a personal father to her alone: And so she saw his Fatherhood in all the community of the convent, and in him learned to love all the members, difficult as some of them were, as is inevitable in a closed group of people. The little way was one of complete trust in a loving Father; a way that in turn demanded absolute obedience and self-giving to that Father. The ego was given to God, in whom all love resides, from whom all healing flows. But then she entered the dark night: her beloved Father failed her as terribly as had her earthly father. She descended into the pit of annihilation, of panic, of dread of losing her mind in insanity. She experienced "the night of mere non-existence", as she so terribly called it. She shared the table of unbelievers and partook of their bread. But whereas the unbeliever could munch away unconcernedly, she savoured its bitter taste and empty content. She had lost everything, whereas they knew nothing in the first place. The pain continued unabated until the moment of her death, when she was lifted up into an ecstasy and the usual warmth suffused her face once more. She had indeed accompanied her Lord to Gethsemane, and was subsequently to lead many others to him, as she entered the full membership of the Communion of Saints in the life eternal.

In terms of modern psychological understanding, and indeed in the climate of much current theological thought, the dark night of the spirit is a psychopathological state to be treated rather than emulated. Many regard it as essentially a chronic depressive illness, and St John of the Cross has been labelled as merely a depressive, even by some Christians in religious orders. That the dark night of the spirit is a manifestation of severe depression cannot be denied, but is it simply a psychosis? It must be acknowledged that many of the world's great mystics appear to know nothing of it, at least in the terrible intensity described in the literature.

The main features of severe depression are a sense of dereliction and the loss of self-esteem, so that the person feels he is worth nothing. At the same time all the mistakes of the past are enormously inflated, with a corresponding sense of guilt out of all proportion to the misdemeanour recalled. There is intense emotional sensitivity, so that even inoffensive memories evoke a scarcely bearable inner tension. The depressed person feels he is a total failure and attaches all the blame for this on himself. There is also often an inexplicable feeling of anxiety, so that the person cannot relax sufficiently to fall asleep even when he is tired. If he does drop off to sleep, he soon awakens because the level of the sleep is so superficial, the quality so light. When awake, he has great difficulty in falling asleep again, so that he wakes up in the early hours of the morning and remains awake in a state of listless anxiety. The cause of depression is still unknown. There are sometimes hereditary factors, and the condition not infrequently follows some episode of trauma like childbirth, a surgical operation, or a sudden blow to one's expectations. On the other hand, depression may arise spontaneously. It may be intermittent, with normal periods in between; sometimes it has a cyclical periodicity with alternating periods of maniacal elation. This is called manic-depressive psychosis.

Severe depression can often be successfully treated, or at least controlled, by anti-depressant drugs; indeed, the discovery of these drugs has been a major landmark in modern psychiatric practice. In the more intractable cases electroconvulsive therapy is very helpful. The psychodynamic view is that depression is a response to long-repressed unconscious anger. Psychotherapy itself is of little avail during the acute phases of the condition, but it may be valuable during the periods of intermission or when there is only a mild disturbance of mood. It cannot be denied though that a number of depressive subjects continue in their suffering indefinitely, unresponsive to all treatment at present available. Their plight is indeed terrible, and some in despair terminate their lives by their own hand. Both the fictional Job and the St Thérèse of real life were tempted, no doubt on more than one occasion, to this course of action. It was their sublime faith in the goodness of life, despite the apparent contradiction in their own situations, that kept them moving onwards to the fulfilment of their vocations.

It can hardly be gainsaid that some great mystics and saints have a personality predisposed to bouts of depression. The course of their spiritual development makes them more rather than less vulnerable to the malign psychic currents that encompass us all, and which, left unchecked, would lead to total destruction of life. Jesus himself was, after his baptism, led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, where he was exposed to the gamut of temptations by the evil one - not only for the traditional forty days and nights but for the entire period of his ministry up to the time of his death. We often forget that he, though perfect in his humanity, had to learn in the school of suffering, as we read in Hebrews 5:7-10. This passage further states that he attained a peak of perfection by obedience in that school. Those less intrinsically whole than Jesus will have their special sites of weakness severely tested by the assault of the dark forces. But if they can persist to the end, their very agony will be their badge of honour, in the same way as the wounds of the crucified Christ become our focus of worship as we contemplate the resurrected Lord. The difference between the sufferings of the two Carmelite saints whom we have been considering and that of the average depressive subject is the nobility of bearing of the former and their calm acceptance in the face of indescribably devastating dereliction: no less than their God had been taken away from them. They had moved far beyond mere self-concern to an involvement in the pain of the larger human situation. Therefore we would be ill-advised to dismiss these two saints as merely mentally sick people, an embarrassment to the spiritual life rather than an adornment of it. Their pain has about it something of the agonised love of Christ on the Cross; it makes us aware of dimensions of the human spirit that enrich the whole of mankind. Furthermore, their agony is an inspiring witness for all those who suffer from depression; their dark victory, their sombre triumph, is a focus of living hope in a shoddy world that looks so often for ephemeral entertainment and meretricious glitter to distract it from the facts of life and death.

There is a tendency in some professional circles to label various handicapped people with their afflictions, and then to dismiss their witness as unreliable. In the realm of behavioural and nervous disorders we have, for instance, depression, schizophrenia, phobic states and epilepsy: depressives, schizophrenics, agoraphobics and epileptics can then be summarily categorized and their particular contributions to our understanding of life cavalierly discarded as the effusions of deranged people. In fact, their contributions can be of unique value, in that they may attain insights foreign to the average run of humanity. In much the same way victims of such physical disorders as progressive diabetes, strokes, inoperable cancer, multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy not infrequently learn important lessons of patience and endurance as their maladies move towards a terminal state. Their witness may be an inspiration to those who care for them no less than to their relatives, and not a few attain the stature of sanctity as they persist in courage and faith to the end of the course of their disease. Without this challenge they might have remained typically selfish, thoughtless people.

It need hardly be emphasized that no one is called on to endure misery if there is any means at hand for its relief. Self-inflicted suffering is the morbid gesture of a disordered personality, and it is usually ostentatious with theatrical overtones. It seeks to make an effect in order to gain attention and sympathy. It is the pain that resists all agencies of relief which can be a means of growth of the person to the knowledge of God, who in Christ takes on the sins of the whole world. We should listen with attention and respect to everything such an afflicted person tells us about eternal things as he moves on to the destiny in store for all of us.

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered pan;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood -
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

          from East Coker by T.S.Eliot

Chapter 5
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