Those who have traveled in the dark night have both very daring and, at the same time, very practical advice to give to new journeyers. “Stay in the darkness and emptiness. Do not flee from the nothingness or try to fill up that hollow place with your own attempts to create new finite pillars on which to build your life.” The prescription is daring because it flies in the face of our instinct, as journeyers, to clutch at any straw in this dreadful time. It also contradicts the model for helpers of those in pain. Helpers wish to rescue, to fix all problems, and to make sure everything comes out all right. But rescuing is not in order here. God is to be found in the darkness, not away from it. Moreover, rescuing is not possible anyway. There are no more straws to clutch; there are no solutions to our dilemma; thus, the advice to stay in the emptiness is purely practical. There is no other choice. There is no way to prop ourselves up unless we are willing to settle for what we know are weak supports which will crack when we try to place any weight on them.

By facing the darkness, we confront that empty place inside each of us. That place marks the end or limit of all finite things in creation, including the limit of ourself. Our strivings after meaning and purpose--indeed, after God--have brought us to end of ourselves and our own ability to encompass God. As we stand at the edge of these limits, we face nothing, or so it seems. But, paradoxically, just at this point where we face nothing, rather than ourselves or any other elements of creation, we may come to know our creator. In that empty place we can at last know that which transcends ourselves. We realize that in our relationship with God in the past we have turned more toward God’s gifts than to God alone. We have looked for comfort or challenge. We have looked for direction and meaning. These are fine and good, but now God brings us beyond those divine gifts. We come to God alone. We have, in the past, confused God’s gifts with God. Now we begin to move beyond this confusion we begin to recognize a deeper conversion or turning to God which takes place in the dark night. A profound re-patterning begins in us. The re-patterning can happen because the old structure of our lives has been broken up. All those good but creaturely pillars will no longer serve as the center of our lives. Now that they are taken away, a new center can emerge. That new center is God. The dark night journey has re-shaped our activity patterns, our value system, and our whole being so that God is the functional center of our living.

The apophatic way does not demean God’s work in the natural world, our relationships with friends and loved ones, or our service and ministry in God’s created order.* The dark night journey does not take us to a place where we ignore these natural elements of human life. Rather, it allows us to see where we have inappropriately invested our faith, security, and trust in that which is created rather than in the One who underlies all creation. In the stripping of the dark night we encounter God in a deeper way than we may ever have allowed ourselves before.

For this deeper encounter to occur, two particular pillars of misplaced faith must be stripped away. They are the hardest supports to give up since we often to not even recognize them for what they are--false sources of security. These two pillars are our ‘self’ and ‘god’.

It is odd that we treat “self” as if it were like any other finite thing we possessed and could control. We spend most of our lives trying to make ourselves loving, more integrated, more humble, or better adjusted. Spoken about in such a such a bald way, the inner contradiction in our scheme is obvious. How can we use our “self” to overcome our “self”? But what is obvious logically is not experienced as such until we begin the dark night journey. To manipulate ourselves in this way is impossible. The outward elements of our life which used to bring a sense of fulfillment are often gone or drained of meaning. The techniques of prayer which used to be so meaningful are no longer so. We cannot control God’s presence. In fact, our “self” has no material with which to work. As a result we feel as if the self has been broken.

. In a deep sense, this is just what has happened. As the old self cracks open, we discover not the annihilation we had feared but a deeper “I”. This deeper “I” is not a possession that can be remade through all our efforts at self improvement. This deepest self is a gift from God. Recognizing that we exist because of God’s gift of ourselves makes a new structure possible in our lives. Having let go of the self as a possession, we are able to let go of others as possessions or “things” which touch us only insofar as they impinge on our efforts to make ourselves. Our love for others now springs from the awareness that others are also gifts of God. Our love does not come from our efforts to make ourselves more loving and caring by dint of our own ego-centered struggles. The journey which may have looked at first as though it were distancing us from other people and from needs of this world has brought us to an inward place where we can love others with a new depth because we are no longer the center of our own loving.

Miraculously, with the movements to a deeper center in our lives, we are able to release our hold on God as a possession. It may never have occurred to us that we have been treating God as a possession. This was the effect, however, when our relationship with God grew out of that former manipulative, possessive self. We had wanted comfort in times of distress. We wanted the fruits of a close relationship with God, but did not necessarily want God.

The problem, in fact, was even more deeply rooted. Previously we wanted God to enter our lives. We wanted to more faithful. We wanted to be closer to God. In short, “we” had wanted everything. “We” wanted to do it all. We wanted to control that which gave meaning and power to our lives. In truth, we wanted to provide our own salvation. We wanted a god who would be yet another finite pillar under our control, a god that would take away the terror of facing the empty place which lurked at the limit of all finite things and at the end of our “self”.

In the dark night, that god dies as our narrowly manipulating self dies. More accurately, we recognize that this god has never been there at all, except insofar as we have conjured up such a security blanket. At that moment a new encounter is possible with God who has been waiting in the darkness from which we have been fleeing. For the first time there is a substantial shift in focus. We recognize that it is not that our lives need to be opened to God. This imagery comfortably retains us in control; “we” allow God to enter “our” domain. Now we recognize that God invites us into the divine life. On the deepest level our existence has meaning not because we let God into a lesser or greater piece of our lives but because we are given life and love in God’s life and love. God’s graciousness is such that we have received many rewards in the past for our endeavors to open ourselves to God. In the dark night, hoverer, we discover that God is not willing to settle for bits of movement which do not change the essential structure of relationship with God. In the dark night, the structure itself changes.

This transformation marks our participation in Christ’s crucifixion. In the darkness all reliance on human efforts to bring salvation is shattered. The old self dies. Into emptiness God brings new life. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20a). Our life becomes transparent to the eternal Word, Christ.

* We find ourselves in the apophatic pathway when words, images, and even our deepest relationships with others cannot hold or express all that God is. Ultimately God is beyond all avenues of experiencing. In contrast, the cataphatic path is one in which God makes use of all the richness of our created world to touch lives. Both form parts of most people’s lives. They are two sides of the same reality


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