The Starlight in My Soul’s Dark Night

Christians like to talk a lot of trash about idol worshipers: those backwards folks in the Bible, who, for example, made a golden calf while Moses was receiving the Torah. In modern times, such stories are reinterpreted to implicate all of us. Our desire for money. Our reverence for education. I’ve heard Christian ministers scorn those who in their congregations might dare to love their children or spouses or parents more than God.

Who can blame us, really? We are tactile creatures, incapable of loving a thing without also wanting to touch it. Who wouldn’t trade abstraction for a god whose feet we can kiss? However misguided such an impulse might be, surely it is forgivable.

I’ll admit to the seductiveness of idols. Years ago, when I dabbled in voodoo, I liked making offerings to Erzulie and Papa Legba, to sense my offerings received, that I’d done something pleasing. The same desire drove me to light candles at the Orthodox church, to kiss the icons’ mournful, painted faces.

This desire to touch what is holy is why, I suppose, I went to a Greek monastery on Monday evening. I haven’t been to church in two years, but it was the beginning of Holy Week. I will go as an outsider, I told myself. I will go as a guest, with eyes full of wonder—the way I came to the church five years ago, knowing nothing.

But I cannot, apparently, go in reverse. Though the room was sprinkled with fresh bay leaves and redolent with incense, I realized that I am still in some ways groping through my dark night of the soul. In my impatience be over it, or through it, to have learned a great lesson and to have moved on, I’d only closed my eyes. I fooled myself into thinking the darkness was a thing I could end when I chose to, that it was something I could control.

We often use the phrase “Dark Night of the Soul” to indicate anyone who is going through a hard time, specifically if that hard time challenges their faith. But a true dark night of the soul, in the sense meant by St. John of the Cross, who originated the term, means  complete annihilation. Everything that previously made sense—the noble causes to which one devoted his or her life, the notions one had about God and church, about the soul and the afterlife—all of it suddenly turns to dust in your hands. It is not a sought experience. It comes without warning, and to those for whom it comes, there is no language, no practice, no teaching than can undo it.

Picture an astronaut suddenly separated from from his craft, drawn helplessly toward the horizon of a black hole. As he drifts away from everything he has known, he notes with irony that the stars are no nearer to him now than they were on earth.

This was how I felt two years ago, when the Orthodox Church and the practices that fed my soul became ashes in my mouth.

My grief at that time was incomprehensible, boundless—and utterly solitary. No one understood. Depending upon which camp they were in, anyone with whom I dared to share my pain alternately congratulated me, or chastised me for losing my religion. There were, and still are, people in my life who grieve the person they lost when my dark night descended.

It’s understandable. Dark nights happen to some and not others, and only God knows why. St. John of the Cross called it a holy experience. Tell that to my priest, I wanted to say. Tell it to my husband, who still mourns the “nice Christian girl” he thought he married. It doesn’t feel blessed, it feels like a wilderness.

But it’s not all bad. There’s a kind of abandon in it.

I cannot write about this without also admitting that last year I had what can only be described as a mystical experience. I have not written about it here, or anywhere, and suspect I never will. It would be impossible to describe without falling into hyperbole or overly poetic language. What I can tell you is that experience was the single most beautiful thing that has ever happened to me, and it changed me forever.

It also changed the way I think about God. In the blink of an eye, “God is love” went from being a metaphor I didn’t really understand, to a tender and visceral truth. If I could, if I knew how, I would summon that experience again and again. I would live in it, and never leave.

And yet, returning to the church was never a choice; it was an impossibility. Unfolding in my heart was—and is—a kind of spiritual entropy. I knew this before my mystical experience and nothing about the experience pointed me back in the direction from which I’d come. In some ways this was a relief. In others, it was a disappointment.

For someone like me, whose heart burns with God-lust, who grasps at anything that might lead me to the Divine, whose needle always points toward a kingdom whose gates I can’t seem to find—for someone like me, there is sorrow in learning that no one path, no matter how well-trodden, leads to God. God lives in the wild, a nomad with no fixed abode. You do not find God; God finds you. Sometimes only once. Sometimes not at all. And none of us can say why.

As you might suspect, I desperately wanted to be moved by the services at the monastery Monday night. Instead I bridled at the way men were allowed to kiss the icons before the women were. Are we not all one in Jesus Christ, I wondered? But this was not the issue, not really. Neither was the priest whose face glowed in the light from his phone, behind the iconostasis. My soul was like an octopus, groping the dim reaches of the sanctuary for God: Not here, not here. Not here.

But beyond the windows, swallows swooped through the exterior courtyard. Their shadows flickered through the golden panels of evening sun cast onto the monastery’s ceiling, and I thought about the archangels for whom the monastery was named. Did they also dip and soar beyond the walls? The birds’ flight was joyful and yet singularly full of purpose. Make me like that, I prayed.

I looked to the nearby icon of the Virgin for comfort or some sign that my prayer had been heard, but she only looked away from me with drooping, sorrow-filled eyes, offering her tiny son to the world. Jesus, too, seemed to be looking beyond me, over my shoulder or at the crown of my head. Only the image of John the Baptist would meet my gaze. The wild man, dweller-in-the-desert. Wearer of skins and eater of insects. The narrow fingers of one hand curled against his bony chest. He was pointing at something.

He was pointing at his own heart.

Stop searching, he seemed to be saying. Go within. You carry the only gate, right here, inside of you.

But I don’t know how to open it.

So I lit a candle in front of his icon instead.

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