If God is more present in darkness than in light we are encouraged to stay with the shadow to go through it – rather than run away or repress it. This is what William Johnston calls the night of the senses where all our faculties expand helping us to receive communications which come from the wounded stag – from the darkness of God that becomes a light for us.
Two stanzas from the Spiritual Canticle by St John of the Cross describes this time of spiritual nourishment:
‘My Beloved, the mountains,
And lonely wooded valleys,
and resounding rivers,
the whistling of love-stirring breezes,
the tranquil night
at the time of the rising dawn,
the supper that refreshes, and deepens love.’
The soul is graced and blessed by closer connection to the peace of God. This is a giving God who feels present and who helps us. Johnston distinguishes this healing night of the senses (it reminds me of Thomas Merton’s piece on the night spirit and the dawn air in the Ox Mountain parable) with the night of the spirit.
The night of the spirit is concerned with meaning. Traditionally religion provides the symbols for our spiritual nourishment such as ‘God our Father, Jesus our saviour, the story of scriptures and the story of life after death’ but the deeper we go into ourselves and into the shadow and the more we expand spiritually so the symbols come to lose their meaning.
‘They no longer talk to us about God, or anything. Only one symbol remains: emptiness, darkness, absence. A terrible night is now caused by loss of meaning.’
In other words everything we thought we believed in looks hollow, empty, and insubstantial as if it turns to ashes… Our clear beliefs become faded as we enter a thick, thick cloud. This is the cloud of unknowing where all the sweet comforting beliefs seem to dissolve into uncertainty.
Johnston quotes the experiences of Therese of Lisieux who in spite of the darkness continued to write and speak enthusiastically about the love of God and His mercy – though at heart she felt an atheist. What had initially felt for many years as a warm sense of loving presence created an upsetting sense of absence – her reasons for belief fell away. Yet she claimed that she now made more acts of faith than at any time before. This became a faith that was therefore pure as it was without cultural or social props, or symbolism, or feeling good or because of theology or mystical experiences. ‘She believed because she believed. She believed God for God. And this is pure faith.’