a dark night of the soul

Lamenting, Journeying Together
sad face at Sagrada Familia

Ever since John of the Cross immortalized a certain kind of spiritual crisis in a poem called “Dark Night of the Soul,” people have used that term to refer to a time when it has particularly felt that God has been absent and unreachable.

When I think of the darkest night that I have gone through spiritually, I don’t think as much of a personal disconnect from God as a time of an intense sense of despair about the church and its connection to the Spirit. The time was 2003, in the months during the build-up to the Iraq War. The darkness that caused me such deep anguish would have been summed up in these two questions: “How is it possible for the Spirit to be so powerless and silent in the millions of Christians, largely evangelical and charismatic, who are clamouring for war?” and “How is it possible for so many churches to be so blind to the disconnect between their rhetoric and everything that Jesus so clearly stood for (and died for)?”

These were not at all abstract, academic questions for me; they were causing me deep anguish. Like many wannabe radicals who missed the sixties, a part of me had been waiting for the right cause to sink my teeth into. Here it was – a nation preparing for an utterly senseless war, which was sure to kill thousands of innocents and would quite likely make the whole terrorist situation much worse for years to come (sadly, both of these fairly obvious predictions were much truer than most of us realized).

But instead of seeing an opportunity to act, the situation just felt frustrating. Fortunately, Chretien was still prime minister, and Canada made the decision not to join the war. This made it seem less necessary to protest at home (though we were eventually to see Canada become involved in support far more than most of us would have liked). I was also in the last year of my doctoral program which I was completing while working full time. It felt like any activist passion was being absorbed by thick pillows of distance from where the action was needed. The frustration all just built up inside with no clear practical outlet.

So with huge frustration we watched the world march inexorably toward a stupid and evil war, sold to the public by lying politicians and cheered on by Christians (“87 percent of all white evangelical Christians in the United States” were in favour according to a Pew poll). It was intolerably painful for me to see this happen.

A big part of the pain was coming to terms with the apparent powerlessness of the Spirit of God. My already tentative and fragile belief in the value of charismatic “manifestations” of the Holy Spirit largely crumbled. Could the Spirit simultaneously be at work in such emotional events which were apparently completely removed from the essence of Jesus’ teachings and the life and death he modeled? I was less inclined to think so. I felt the integrity of my Christian identity was at serious risk.

I came to an important decision: I could no longer see myself as part of the same religious movement as these evangelical American churches crying out for war. I declared to myself (and occasionally when it came up to others) that I would no longer accept the term “evangelical” for myself in spite of its good etymology. I was more dedicated to following Jesus than ever, but the term evangelical had been forever spoiled in my perception – severed from any meaningful association with Jesus. I did not do this lightly or impulsively. I still try as hard as I can not to do this condemningly; I am simply naming a clear divergence of pathways: what most evangelical and charismatic American churches were following was not what I was following.

That decision helped me to survive that season with my faith intact. The other thing that helped was a realization about the Spirit. Just as religious control and political empire conspired to put Jesus on the cross, similar forces are at work in our culture to silence the Spirit. One still needs to have ears to hear, even in (especially in?) the church. So, I eventually told myself, my response should not be to bemoan the death of the church or the powerlessness of the Spirit, but to join the voices crying out in the wilderness.

I’ve tried but my own voice has been a hesitant whisper. Fortunately many other voices have rung out loud and clear, and increasingly some do have ears to hear. Most encouraging was this: in the midst of writing this post I happened to read a recently released book by Brian Zahnd called A Farewell to Mars. It’s the story of a passionate evangelical pastor confessing his “worst sin” – celebrating, preaching and praying in support of the Iraq Wars. I’m not sure exactly how the Spirit got his attention (seems like Dostoevsky had a hand in it), but it happened. And his book is an excellent example of exactly the kind of voice we need to ring out this New Year. Preach it, Brian! sad face at Sagrada Familia

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