Several things are colluding to create a darkness that has taken up residence in my soul in recent days. With darkened skies come a sort of melancholy that can easily take hold. My soul is affected by the constant state of angst, bitterness, and conflict brought on by our current culture … within our political lives and even within our church. Then it is a (sometimes silent) reality that this month brings up the trauma of the loss of our son-in-law two years ago on the 23rd of this month. There are things that seem to loom and create a very real darkness in my own psyche.
As I begin to strategize about how I can sidestep such darkness, I am reminded of the wisdom I first heard espoused by Thomas Moore in his book, Care of the Soul. In that book, he has a chapter titled, “The Gift of Depression.” And it is in that chapter that he shares about how we can harness the gift of depression and use that period of darkness for self-reflection and growth. It is during these dark times that I have discovered deeply hidden within my inner being a new connection with God and a renewed sense of adventure in human living.
I then just recently picked up Moore’s book, Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals. In that book, he talks about the role of religion and how even religious leaders tend to push the darkness aside as something that we can conquer. The darkness is not something to conquer. It is something through which we must journey. Only then will we find the greatest riches of the soul. About religious practice, he says,
Religion … often avoids the dark by hiding behind platitudes and false assurances. Nothing is more irrelevant than feeble religious piousness in the face of stark, life-threatening darkness. Religion tends to sentimentalize the light and demonize the darkness. If you turn to spirituality, you are using spirituality to avoid life’s dark beauty. Religion easily becomes a defense and avoidance. Of course, this is not the real purpose of religion, and the religious traditions of the world, full of beautifully stated wisdom, are your best source for guidance in the dark. But there is real religion and there is the empty shell of religion. Know the difference. Your life is at stake.
Flight from the dark infantilizes your spirituality, because the dark nights of the soul are supposed to initiate you into spiritual adulthood….
One of the strongest voices of religion in the face of death … is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian and pastor, sentenced for participation in a plot against Hitler. In his last letters from prison, he tries to describe a kind of religiousness that is exactly the opposite of what it once was for him. “The world that has come of age,” he writes, “is more godless, and perhaps for that very reason nearer to God, than the world before its coming of age.” What he means, I think, is that in the old days religion called on God as a power outside of life to solve our problems. Today, Bonhoeffer says, we have to face our problems directly, and having lost the option of a God coming like the cavalry from the sky, we discover the real meaning of religion, an openness to the mysteries that are playing themselves out. Bonhoeffer wrote this toward the end of a dark night of the soul that was, by all accounts, not at all depressive. He kept his hope alive, but he also turned the idea of religion upside down.
Further, Moore notes that Bonhoeffer lost his life in this process when he was hung as a criminal by the Nazi’s, but in the end, he won the battle of the soul.
As I face my own dark night of the soul, I realize that Jesus is the one who understood these dark nights the best. Even as I preach today, there is an image that comes to my mind. We so often misunderstand the difference between the words “cavalry” and “Calvary.” I have even heard preachers mix up the words and say Calvary when they mean cavalry. Calvary is the Latin rendering of “skull” as in the “Place of the Skull,” which is somehow descriptive of the hill on which Jesus died. But we tend to prefer the word cavalry … which comes from a French word having to do with the soldiers on horseback (and today describes the most mobile of our military even today when few of our military use horses for actual combat).
The problem, of course, is that it is easy for us to mix them up because we want Jesus to be the warrior messiah coming with the cavalry. We want Jesus to break the darkness on our own terms. But he understands the darkness. He understands that the only way to conquer the darkness … to live through the dark night of the soul … is to walk through it.
When we get confused, Jesus looks at us squarely and says, “I didn’t say, ‘Cavalry.” I said, ‘Calvary.’” And then he begins walking away only to look over his shoulder and whisper, “Follow me.”