We never really lose our childhood fear of the dark. So we mostly follow lighted pathways to God, and then wonder why we never seem to reach our destination. The truth is that there are no lighted pathways to God – or at least none that will get you beyond a certain point. Sooner or later we find ourselves in the realm that the 16th-century Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, called “the dark night of the soul.” There are no signposts here to show you the way. There is nothing here you know or can know. It is the place where even Jesus cried out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Theologians call this path the via negativia, or way of negation. Everything here is counterintuitive, starting with a God who is not light but darkness. And yet if you review the encounters between God and humanity in our sacred literature, darkness predominates. True, the Lord first revealed himself to Moses in the Burning Bush. But when Moses returned to St. Sinai after delivering the Hebrew people from bondage in Egypt, the Exodus account reports that he “drew near to the thick darkness where God was.” Similarly, after the childless Abram (later Abraham) was told his descendents would be as numerous as the stars in heaven, he slept and “an horror of great darkness fell upon him.” The Lord then revealed that his descendents must first go down into Egypt and be enslaved for 400 years. Even Saul of Tarsus (later St. Paul), who encountered the Risen Christ in a blaze of light on the road to Damascus, was struck blind and remained in darkness for three days.
To what extent do these stories convey an inner reality for which there was no language at the time? Lacking any knowledge of the unconscious or psychological vocabulary, theologians of the via negativa were reduced to describing what God is not. God is like nothing in the created order, like nothing you can see or otherwise apprehend with your senses. You find you are drawing in upon yourself, and then you can no longer find even yourself. The poet T.S. Eliot, who was thoroughly imbued in the imagery of the “dark night of the soul,” likened the experience to a kind of death in his Four Quartets:
O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant […]
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.
What kind of a death is it when there are not even remains to be buried? It is not just a death but an annihilation – a term of art used by mystics to describe the complete disappearance of the self. From the standpoint of someone undergoing ego dissolution, the experience may seem like death and darkness -- until there is no longer a self to identify with. We might fantasize about what union with God is like, but if two become one, then there is one fewer of you, and the one who remains is not you. As the 12th-century mystic Meister Eckhart expressed it, “We shall all be transformed totally into God and changed into him.” Such statements can be misleading, because they lend the impression that we are transformed into God the way Clark Kent is transformed into Superman, with a quick change of costume. The operant word here is “totally,” which means much more is involved than just ditching the suit and the glasses. We might even keep the suit and the glasses. We might continue to answer to the name “Clark Kent.” But rest assured: there is no more “you” inside.