March 10

The Dark Night of the Soul and St. John of the Cross

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 4: 1-13

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Five days ago here at Marsh Chapel about 1,000 students and others presented themselves for ashes, Ash Wednesday.  Our hard working Marsh Chaplains and team served 430 or so.  The Chapel also hosted three Catholic services and the weekly contemporary Theological School service, wherein ashes were given.  Hence, about 1,000.  In the last few years, Ash Wednesday has begun to catch up with Easter and Christmas in active young adult participation.


My middle name of late is ‘I don’t know’, which I don’t.  One of our chaplains preaches an Ash Wednesday sermon every year, ‘the ashes are not magic ashes’.  But they draw.  The touch draws.  The solemnity, too. The whisper of mortality at the fountain of youth.  The strange, numinous, yet public pause.  The flesh of it all.

There is perhaps another cause or reason.  Here, mid-winter, is an encounter with antiquity.  For two millennia women and men have been preparing for a holy Lent.  For two millennia women and men have stopped to remember, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  As our English chorister read it some years ago, Thou art DUST and to DUST though shalt return.  Is this not subliminally why, in part, we are here this morning, too?  For two millennia women and men have listened to readings from Holy Writ.  For two millennia women and men have received Jesus in cup and bread.  For two millennia, come Sunday, there have been choirs and preachers and prayers and candles and quiet.  The architecture of our gothic nave, with an origin nearly a millennium ago, speaks to us so.  Our long tall, yes traditioned, stained glass captures places and people from longer ago.  Our habits of liturgy, stand and sit, our habits of liturgy, sing and give, our habits of liturgy, bow and kneel, our habits of liturgy, our body language, give us a jarring encounter with antiquity.  For once, every seven days, we are not jailed and stuck in the shallow shallows of the twenty first century.  We are liberated to time travel, to get out and see the past, and perhaps, now and then, to hear something good and learn something new. 


It is the season of Lent, and again, come this first Sunday in Lent, we meet Jesus in the wilderness.  There He resists.  In the time honored tradition of a three part story, we are given a lesson about making and keeping human life—human.  Here, as in our other gospels, the Lord faces and masters the various temptations which we also know.  They include a kind of will to power, and a sort of pride, and a type of avarice.  We come to church with some experience of temptation and resistance.  As the song writer says, ‘good experience comes from seasoned judgment–which comes from bad experience’.

In many communities, including our own, the sun rises this morning, this Lenten morning, on experience of loss and hurt.  This morning there are homes and families who have suddenly known unexpected loss.  This morning there are friends and groups of friends who have been faced with mortal danger.  At one breakfast table, a wife now sits alone, for the first time on a Sunday in 60 years.  At another breakfast table, a family gathers for the first time, in a long time, and missing a member.  It would help us to remember just how short our words do fall in trying to describe the depth of these moments.  Our words arrive only at the shoreline, at the margin of things.  Beyond this we practice prayer, a kind of sitting silent before God.

Our immediate community here along the Charles River today mourns unexpected losses.  Along with the scripture and the music, amid the hymns and prayers of our worship, there walks also among us today, by the mind’s farther roads, a recognition of loss.  There is some shock to loss.   There is a kind of fear that comes with loss.  There is, often later, an honest anger.  There is some numbness.  There is a real, and good, desire to do something helpful.  There are questions, numerous and important.  And there is the one haunting question, too, why?

We do not know why these things happen. We hurt, and grieve.  In the bones.  At the deeper levels, we just do not know, and for an academic community committed to knowing, and knowing more, and more, this means wandering in a serious wilderness.  Give us an equation to solve.  Show us a biography that needs writing.  Provide us with an experiment.  Happily we would organize a committee, or develop a proposal, or phone a list of donors.  But loss, unexpected and unfair, is tragic.  The tragic sense of life, el sentimiento trajico de la vida, takes us out into wilderness, where we learn, with Jesus, to resist.  Faith is resistance. Faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand.

We are in worship this morning to attest to something.  Faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand.  Worship is the practice of faith by which we learn to withstand what we cannot understand.  God is the presence, force, truth, and love Who alone deserves worship, and worship is the practice of the faith by which we learn to withstand what we cannot understand.  Worship prepares us to resist.  So we see Jesus again in the wilderness.  To resist all that makes human life inhuman.  So here you are, come lent, come Sunday, come 11am, today again to walk in the wild, in the wilderness.

The Marsh Lenten Sermon Series

Our Lenten Series, beginning today, will engage in conversation with St. John of the Cross.  From 2007-2016, Lent by Lent, we identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition.  In this decade, we turn to the Catholic tradition.   With Calvin we encountered the chief resource for others we engaged over ten years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), Paul of Tarsus (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin, (2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).  In this decade, beginning with Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, turns left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England, and some of its great divines including Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, and others, one per year.  Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome?  For those who recall, even if dimly, the vigor and excitement of Vatican II, there may well be other names to add to the list.  We began with Henri Nouwen in 2017, and continued with Thomas Merton in 2018.  We turn this Lent to St. John of the Cross.  You may remember how much Merton loved St. John of the Cross, from last year.  If not, as we start, listen to Merton on Lent:


“Ash Wednesday is for people who know that it means for their soul to be logged with these icy waters: all of us are such people, if only we can realize it.  There is confidence everywhere in Ash Wednesday, yet that does not mean unmixed and untroubled security.  The confidence of the Christian is always a confidence despite darkness and risk, in the presence of peril, with every evidence of possible disaster…  Once again, Lent is not just a time for squaring conscious saccounts: but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before.  The light of Lent is given us to help us with this realization.  Nevertheless, the liturgy of Ash Wednesday is not focused on the sinfulness of the penitent but on the mercy of God.  The question of sinfulness is raised precisely because this is a day of mercy, and the just do not need a savior.”    Thomas Merton
San Juan de la Cruz

Let us then start our 2019 lenten Marsh Chapel tour of a part of antiquity.

St. John of the Cross was born in Old Castile,  Spain, in 1542, and is one of the great Catholic, great Christian, great religious mystics.  He came from a troubled, poor family of weavers, with perhaps some Jewish ancestry.  Out of desperate poverty, his single mother placed him in an orphanage.  He later studied in Salamanca, and was known there for long mid night prayers, endless silence, fasting, and self-mortification and solitude. In 1567 he was ordained priest, and went home by custom to celebrate his first mass in Medina, and there had his life reformed in an unexpected encounter with Theresa of Avila, who signed him up and signed him on to help her develop her reformed, descalced (that is, shoe-less), primitive rule new Carmelite order.

‘Carmel’ in Hebrew means garden, and the Scriptural reference of course is to 1 Kings and Elijah, on Mt. Carmel.  John adored the Bible.  Much of his young adulthood was consumed in spiritual direction and the hearing of confessions among the nuns (here nuns not nones), the religious committed to Santa Theresa de Avila, and to the endless ecclesiastical intrigues, contentions, and outright feuds involved in running, or starting, or reforming anything religious, including a religious order.  Such a mirror from the past has been spiritually helpful, this winter, as many of us face a winter of denominational discontents.  St. John was a man, like Zaccheus of old, of small stature, under 5 feet in height.

A most dramatic event in his younger adulthood came as a consequence of these administrative disputations, when he was arrested and then imprisoned in the Alcazar, the castle, in Toledo.  There he was rudely treated, nearly starved, and after nine months escaped, scaling down the walls of the castle just above the river Tagus.  It makes a dramatic narrative, and ends with his reception, his protection by and hiding out with the Carmelite nuns again.  Now St. John is known, today, if he is at all, today, by single phrase, ‘the dark night of the soul’, ‘the dark night of the soul’.  Unfair of course it is to anyone to remember them by one phrase.  Yet John of the Cross is so recalled.  He is our spelunking guide, our patrol leader through the caves of darkness, the hours, especially wee morning hours, of despair, the wilderness, the wilderness, the wilderness, the wilderness, which our Lord, sursum corda, endured, tamed and blessed, see Luke 4.  Think of John in the dark, nine months, in the Toledo castle.  Think of him in escape, on a moonless night.  Think of him, stumbling through the penumbruos streets, lurking in the vestibule of the nunnery for safety.  Then think of him translating that pedestrian dark night into the poetic dark night of the soul.

In his beatification in the 17th century, about 40 years after his death, it was remembered that he heard, in his prison despair, in Toledo, the voice of a young man singing a simple love song, Muerome de amores, Carillo.  ?Que Hare?—que te mueras, alaide.  ‘I am dying of love, dearest.  What shall I do?  Die’.  Of a sudden, somehow, in the heart of darkness, San Juan de la Cruz was transported into ecstacy, the song of love becoming the song of death, and life.  The simple voice of a love poem gave the heart of his mystical encounter, transported of course to the love of God.  This becomes his poetic, spiritual, prayerful, mystical pattern.

Is this not the Lenten gospel, for you?  Your wilderness, your wandering, your wasteland—see, hear—is the landscape of love, the landscape of longing for love, love personal, love human, love spiritual, love divine all loves excelling.  Quien no sabe de penas no sabe cosas buenas.  Quien no sabe de penas no sabe cosas buenas.  ‘Whoever does not know hurt does not know good things either’. (San Juan de la Cruz).

This lent we shall see by the dark light, the dark night, the dark night of the soul.

While life’s dark maze I tread

And griefs around me spread

Be thou my guide

Bid darkness turn to day

Wipe sorrow’s tears away

Nor let me ever stray

From thee aside

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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