"The Sheer Grace of Night" 8 of 11 in a series on the 16th Century Reformation (Jonah 2:1-6)Mark Longhurst, November 5, 2017
Part of the Pentecost series
the scripture readings can be found at the bottom of the page
Rev. Mark Longhurst
The Sheer Grace of Night
8 of 11 in a series on the 16th Century Reformation
Scripture: Jonah 2:1-6
Sometimes we are in a dark night. Sometimes we, as Dante put it, find ourselves in a dark wood, or as Jonah experiences, a dark and stormy night at sea. And regardless of our degrees or our professional skill or the goodness of our intentions, we still cannot find a way out. We have that feeling of being trapped, of not having options, of being stripped away from that which we most love. The only way out seems to be, as Jonah asks his fellow sailors, to be thrown overboard.
And we are in a dark night in our country. Morality, decency, and justice, for now, have fled the scene. ICE agents often raid while it is still night and the President’s most disruptive tweets are sent at night. Some of us wake up in the middle of the night, and we are afraid. I know that we lived charmed lives here in the Berkshires, it is a beautiful place to live, here in the Berkshires, but fire raged also in Sonoma County, and we’re charmed only insofar as we deny that we’re connected to what’s happening elsewhere, too. If there is a metaphor for our spiritual state right now, it might be a dark night, a dark night of the soul.
The Spanish Carmelite mystic John of the Cross coined this famous phrase…the dark night of the soul. If you pick up the writings of this Reformation-era monk, he can come across as austere, difficult to connect with, overly concerned with that medieval ascetic process called “mortification,” which sounds very Inquisition-related, but is actually a positive process of re-ordering our desires towards God. John of the Cross can come across as distant, awkward at dinner parties, one of those heavy handed, eccentric mystics, but all accounts of Juan or John of the Cross as a person describe him as a joy-filled, loving man. A man wildly in love with God, a God he pictured as a living flame of love that sets us on fire with love, too.
But it’s the dark night he’s most know for. He’s a Spanish monk in that rough and tumble time of 16th century Catholic repression and renewal, the time known as the Counter Reformation. He’s what’s called a Carmelite monk, an order that traces roots back to cave-dwelling mystics in Jerusalem. And he is friends with, partners-in-renewal with, another famous mystic, the founder of a new Carmelite order, called the Discalced or Barefoot Carmelites, one Teresa of Avila.
And yet as joyful and filled with love as he is, not all of John’s Carmelite brothers support his work. He is pushing change too fast, he’s expecting people to care more about spiritual matters more than they actually do; some people think he Teresa and he are amassing too much power. And so one night his own brothers kidnap him, they bring him to a town called Toledo, and they throw him in a tiny cell, the size of a bathroom. They keep him there, they torture him there, in the dark, for eight months. John has two choices, either slowly to die, or to attempt escape, and he gradually, under cover of night, finds a way to escape from the small window in his cell.
And do you know what he did while he sat languishing in prison? He composed poetry. Poetry about a Dark Night of the Soul. But strangely, John’s dark night is not a directionless, purposeless night. He does not describe his night as a night of suffering, abandoned and alone, as he has every reason to do. He calls his night a journey into the mystery of God. And the language becomes even more shocking—a lover’s journey into the dark mystery of God. “So dark the night!...I went with no one knowing upon a lover’s quest –Ah, the sheer grace! – so blest, my eager heart with love aflame and glowing.”
This is what he composes in his heart in prison, this is what he puts, pen to paper, after recovering for a few months after his escape. How can this be? How can he perceive the depths of suffering as a lover’s quest? If it was not his personal testimony, we would dismiss it as foolish, as not taking suffering seriously enough. But what if we’re the one’s who do not take suffering seriously enough, what John has stumbled into a divine mystery, and what if we’re often the ones who miss the doorway of transformation contained in suffering?
Jonah ends up in a fish’s belly for the unfortunate mistake of fleeing God’s presence. He receives a clear call from God to preach a troubling message to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire. It’s a thankless mission. He is to name and confront them with their wickedness, to say that God sees them, and that their injustice and evil will surely bring about their downfall. It’s like Noam Chomsky warning Americans that our Empire is declining and that we are closer to the nuclear clock than we’ve been in decades. It’s not a popular message, and most people don’t want to hear it.
And so Jonah runs, and he hides away on a ship. But then the rains start pouring. And the waves start thrashing. And the sailors take up Jonah’s own suggestion to throw him overboard, since God is the one stirring waters of destruction. All because Jonah is running from divine relationship, fleeing divine encounter, just as many of us do, too. They throw him overboard, and a giant fish, which tradition has called a whale, swallows him up, and he remains in the fish’s belly, alive, for three days and three nights.
It’s in Jonah’s dark night, with waves and billows passing over him, that he prays to God. Sometimes it takes crisis to bring us to our knees, to acknowledge that we are not in control. “I called to the Lord out of my distress and he answered me. Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.” From my lack of faith, from the from the depths of my pain, from the wreckage of the world, from my prison cell, I cry, Jonah says, Juan says, we say, and you hear me. The darkness is the place of divine encounter.
But it’s more than that. Not only do Jonah and John, meet God in the darkness, in the deep, God raises them first in the darkness, not necessarily from the darkness. And, here’s the critical part: their escape, their resurrection is not dependent on the cessation of their suffering. Resurrection is not a false promise that it will all become easier. Jonah claims that God hears his prayers, not after the fish spews Jonah out on dry land, but before. Jonah’s relationship with God deepens in the darkness, and strangely, because of the darkness.
John of the Cross calls his dark night sheer grace. He’s not saying that he enjoys being imprisoned. He’s saying that the darkness opens up such a chasm of helplessness that he has no other choice but to risk trusting God. His own resources have been exhausted, and he is at his wits end, and this is where he stumbles into grace. And, if his poetry is any indication, this is first an inner reality of experience before it is theology. It’s not just nice talk from a pulpit. It’s real. It’s transformation.
The transformation in darkness of Jonah and John parallel the trajectory of Jesus himself. Jesus tells the religious leaders of his own day, those are used to handing out easy answers, that “No sign will be given to you except for the sign of Jonah.” Three days in the belly of the whale. Three days from passion to resurrection, that holy “Triduum” or three-day journey from Good Friday to Easter. And, in fact, John’s poem the Dark Night itself echoes an ancient Christian hymn sung on the night of Easter at what’s called the Easter vigil.
The first hours of Easter morning occur in the dark, but it’s a glimmering dark, because, as the hymn says, “This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave.” Then, it adds, “Night truly is blessed when heaven is wedded to earth and humanity is reconciled to God.” (page 58 The Impact of God).
We may be in a dark night in our country, we may be in a dark night of the soul in our personal lives. But all spiritual wisdom suggests that night is the most productive spiritual place we can find ourselves. It’s the place when new possibilities, new life, can emerge. And we ignore the night, or linger too much in the light, at the cost of our own spiritual health.
2:1 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, 2 saying,
“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
3 For you cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
4 Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’
5 The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
6 at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O Lord my God. (ESV)