Sunday, June 24, 2012

Dark Nights of Our Souls

Today is the birthday of St. John of the Cross, born in 1542.  We celebrate his feast day on the day that he died, December 14.  He's one of those mystics that baffle from a distance and maybe even up close.  He's one of those monastics that wanted to make the cloister more rigorous, more demanding--and it's not like monastics were living an easy life before these Counter Reformation people came along!

Even those of us who are completely non-religious and non-spiritual may owe a debt to St. John of the Cross.  He's one of the writers who coined phrases that are still with us.  One of his most famous is "the dark night of the soul."  Even people who don't believe in the soul understand the truth contained that phrase.  It's an elegant phrase that captures so much in such an economy of words.

I am surrounded by people undergoing various dark nights.  I have a friend who is still waiting for her burned house to be restored.  Most of my friends work in academia, and some of us feel our jobs are more threatened than others, but no one believes that higher ed is in fine shape.  A colleague at work had her house broken into--luckily no one was hurt.

St. John of the Cross would tell us that these dark nights are necessary to strengthen our souls, but that's stony comfort when one is floundering in a dark night period.

Those of us who are creative types have likely found ourselves in similar straits, when the creative work stalls, when we lose confidence, when we find ourselves so crunched for time that the creative work must wait.

Here's what I have learned:  if we wait, hard as that may be, the good times return.  The ideas bubble up, the confidence returns, the time crisis recedes.  There are times that we can hurry the process along, but there are more often times where we just have to wait for the wheels to turn.

What to do while waiting?  Maybe we can explore a different creative activity.  Maybe read.  Maybe go visit a museum or a park or something else that gets us out of our heads and our tortured thoughts.

It's a form of prayer, the activity that spiritual folks would tell us to turn to when the dark night of the soul descends.  It's a form of continuing to commit to our disciplines, what the monastics would tell us to do.

Sometimes it's good to leave the desk, the work table, the easel.  Some times it's good to remember to keep breathing and to stay put, staring at the blank page, the empty canvas.  Some times turning our attention to a different project can rescue us from our tortured dungeons.

Above all, we must remember that dark nights of the soul do pass.  They are temporary, even though they may feel endless.  And one day, we may look back with a strange fondness for those dark times.  We may say, "Oh yes, that was the crisis that brought my family together."  "Oh yes, that was the stretch that turned me towards my more successful creative output."  "Oh yes, those dark times make me appreciate the light more."

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