dark clouds at sunrise above a lake

Are We in the Midst of a Communal Dark Night?

 October 27, 2020

No one would question that we are living in challenging times. There’s COVID19 on top of already existing problems: massive wildfires, tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, racial unrest and the many conflicting reports from the media. Many feel depressed and lost as they wonder and worry. Who and what are we to believe? What will happen next? Perhaps we are in the midst of a communal dark night.

What Is a Dark Night?

A dark night is a spiritual experience where an individual goes through a time of darkness, purification and transformation. Old beliefs, images of God that are no longer helpful, are left behind as the person grows to a new understanding of who God is in their life. You question what you once believed, question the very existence of God, but you don’t stop believing.

Some suggest that the massive five-hundred-year rummage sale that Phyllis Tickle mentions in her book, Church Emergent, is bringing about a communal dark night where former beliefs are left behind and we, as society, come to a new understanding of God. (For more on this, see part two in this series on the Changing Face of Religion.)

Dark Night of the Senses

John of the Cross writes in depth about this experience. He makes a distinction between two dark nights, one of the senses and one of the spirit or soul (both terms are used interchangeably).

The Dark Night of the Senses is experienced by many beginners in prayer as they move to a deeper level. When you first experience God, it’s like falling in love. The sky is brighter, colors more vibrant, flowers smell sweeter, everything around you is infused with this love. You spend hours in prayer and it seems like but a minute.

God often graces the beginner with consolations, feelings of God’s presence. As you continue in your prayers, you no longer experience the same highs. God may seem far away and you are desolate. You wonder, what have I done that God would withdraw God’s favor from me?

God’s Light Appears Like Darkness

The reality is that God has not withdrawn God’s favor. Rather God is calling you closer to him. God leads us through what appears to be darkness in order to know God better. God’s light appears as darkness. It blinds us. “For you darkness itself is not dark and night shines as the day. Darkness and light are the same.” Psalm 139:12

God is purifying your love so that it is not based on “feelings” or the senses, but deeper. If you only love God as long as everything is easy and feels good, how deep is that love? You have to ask yourself: Do I love the God of consolation, or the consolations of God? In one you only love God because of the consolations God brings. Like a child you love God as long as God gives you goodies. The minute those goodies are gone, so is your love.

In the Dark Night of the Senses you learn to let go of the need to have consolations in prayer. Many people go through this dark night. They are changed but it’s more like wood being charred in a fire, not the deep transformation which is the Dark Night of the Spirit.

Dark Night of the Spirit

In the dark night of the spirit, the wood is transformed into smoke and ash. Such is the depth of the change that takes place. Old beliefs are challenged and transformed. You let go of false images of God. The ego is set aside and transformed so that one may say, “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20)

Many people experience aspects of the Dark Night of the Spirit. Few experience it in its entirety. That is for saints. “The Dark Night of the Soul is a crushing desolation where the soul learns to love the cross of Christ,” according to Dr. Taylor Marshall. The soul embraces suffering.

Some may be called into a dark night, but refuse to enter the darkness, holding onto to old ways rather than letting go. For those who embrace the darkness, they will come out transformed into a better version of themselves. They become closer to the person God intended them to be.

Is there a Communal Dark Night?

You may wonder, is it possible for a whole community to experience a dark night? When a community is going through a time of deep loss and change, it might be considered a communal dark night. This is more than the grieving a church community experiences when a beloved minister leaves. It’s an experience that throws the members into questioning everything they once held dear.

Not everyone in a community will enter into this experience in the same way. Some will resist, dig in their heels and refuse to change. Some will leave the church. Others will welcome the change at first, then want to return to the way things were, though this is not possible. There may be feelings of lingering sadness that don’t lift, feelings that something isn’t right, but you aren’t sure what, nor do you know how to make it right.

Historical Examples

I suspect such was the experience of the Jewish community during the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian exile. Life as they knew it had come to an end. What life in exile would look like was unsure for those taken away. Those left behind didn’t know what life without the Temple would be like either.

At the time of the Reformation, those who remained in the Catholic Church must have wondered what was going on as they watched many leave the church of their birth for this new movement. Martin Luther himself didn’t want to leave the Catholic Church, just to reform it. It must have been painful to be forced out, a time of darkness. But the hand of God was at work bringing about necessary change. Luther, ironically, did reform the Catholic Church, just not how he thought he would.

Our Present Situation

What we are currently experiencing is not as drastic as these events (at least not at the present). But there are feelings that something isn’t right. People wonder whether it will ever be right. Sometimes as they listen to the news, they despair, wondering what is going on? Who are we to believe? What are we to believe?

We no longer trust old sources of information. Old beliefs are challenged. Some resist change, wondering what the world is coming to. Others embrace change. Still others fear change is happening too quickly, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. This is the great five-hundred-year rummage sale. What will be left when it is done?

What Will the World Look Like?

We don’t know what the world will look like after this great rummage sale, but I pray the church and society will truly be transformed into a better version of its current self. I trust that God will lead us through the darkness into God’s light.

What has been your experience of spiritual growth? Have you gone through a dark night experience? Is our society going through a dark night?

This concludes my series on the Changing Face of Religion. I hope you found it informative and helpful. Either way, I would love to hear from you! (Previous posts are: The Changing Face of Religion in America, Five Hundred Year Rummage Sale, and Our Inclusive God.)

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