Archive for June, 2010

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Paul wrote in the letter to the Ephesians, “Give thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
For everything? The bad as well as the good? The “dark nights” as well as the brightest days?

The “dark night of the soul” has become a rather popular term to describe everything from severe depression and anxiety to loneliness. For sure, the expression has an ominous and negative tone. However, the 16th century saints John of the Cross and his spiritual partner Teresa of Avila wrote about it in much broader and deeply spiritual terms.

IN the coming days, as noted in the Noon Wine posting here yesterday, I’m posting excerpts from the late and the great psychiatrist Gerald May and his best-known and very readable books on spiritual guidanceThe Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth, and Addiction and Grace. In my training and study for ministry,as well as my chaplaincy training for specialized hospital and hospice ministry, I learned more about giving pastoral and spiritual care to those laid low by sickness and death from those two books than from any other source. More important, I learned an enormous amount about myself and how all my “attachments” and addictions keep me locked up and inhibited from being as giving and compassionate as I can be as a follower of Christ. The beauty of Mays’ books is that he articulated in such readable terms how we can let go of our attachments and, ultimately, surrender more wholly and completely to God and God’s healing grace.

May became steeped in the wisdom and teachings of John of the Cross (who wrote the poem entitled “The Dark Night of the Soul’) and Teresa of Avila. He said he learned more from those teachings than from the writing and thought of Freud and others whom he’d steeped himself in as a psychiatrist.

And so with no further ado . . . more samples from May, who suffered through his own “dark nights” in illness and suffering:

“I must confess that I am no longer good at telling the difference between good things and bad things. Of course, there are many events in human history that can only be labeled as evil, but from the standpoint of inner individual experience, the distinction has become blurred for me. Some things start out looking great but wind up terribly, while other things seem bad in the beginning but turn out to be blessings in disguise. . . .

“I was diagnosed with cancer in 1995, which I thought was a bad thing. But the experience brought me closer to God and to my loved ones than I’d ever been before, and that was wonderfully good. The chemo felt awful, but it resulted in a complete cure, which I decided was good. I later found out it may also have caused the heart disease that now has me waiting for a heart transplant. At some point I gave up trying to decide what’s ultimately good or bad. I truly do not know.

“Although not knowing may itself seem like a bad thing, I am convinced it is one of the great gifts of the dark night of the soul. To be immersed in mystery can be very distressing at first, but over time I have found immense relief in it. It takes the pressure off. I no longer have to worry myself to death about what I did right or wrong to cause a good or bad experience–because there really is no way of knowing. I don’t have to look for spiritual lessons in every trouble that comes along. There have been many spiritual lessons to be sure, but they’ve been given to me in the course of life; I haven’t had to figure out a single one.

“One of the biggest lessons–and another gift of the dark night–is the realization that I’m not as much in control of life as I’d like to be. This is not an easy learning, especially for ‘take-charge people’ like me, who think they can–and, more important, should — be in control of things. Other people are more naturally able to go with the flow of life. They deal with things as best they can and then go on to the next moment. They too have their dark nights, times of confusion and seeming powerlessness, but they don’t pester themselvs. Either way, each experience of the dark night gives its gifts, leaving us freer than we were before, more available, more responsive, and more grateful. Like not knowing and lack of control, freedom and gratitude are abiding characteristics of the dark night. But they don’t arrive until the darkness passes. They come with the dawn.

“[The dark night] is much more significant than simple misfortune. It is a deep transformation, and movement toward indescribable freedom and joy. And in truth it doesn’t always have to be unpleasant. . . [It] is an ongoing spiritual process in which we are liberated from attachments and compulsions, and empowered to live and love more freely. Sometimes this letting go of old ways is painful, occasionally even devastating. But this is not why the night is called ‘dark.’ The darkness of the night implies nothing sinister, only that the liberation takes place in hidden ways, beneath our knowledge and understanding. It happens mysteriously, in secret, and beyond our conscious control. For that reason it can be disturbing or even scary, but in the end it always works to our benefit.

“More than anything, I think the dark night of the soul gives meaning to life.

“. . . I also feel that the dark night of the soul reveals an even deeper divine activity: a continually gracious, loving, and fundamentally protective guidance through all human experience – the good as well as the bad.” So perhaps it is not as important to give thanks specifically for the good and/or the bad things, but instead we give thanks for God’s “protective guidance” in the midst of it all.”

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And now for something completely different for your regular Tuesday afternoon music therapy here at JFJ.com.

Hip-Hop cowboys, line dancing.

I think that sound was Hank Williams rolling over in his grave.

I think I’ll stick to Jitterbugging, thank you very much.

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Have you ever condescended to calling someone a “control freak”?
I know I have to plead guilty to it. But we’re all addicted to control. In fact, we’re all addicted to all kinds of things that we just can’t let go of–until we’re catapulted into some kind of “dark night of the soul”–a place where all our control mechanisms are on the blink and we realize that “Houston, we have a problem.”

Or we shout, “Oh my God!”

It’s in such dark moments or dark phases and stages of life that we can either be laid low to some degree by pain or suffering or grief or an overwhelming sense of loss or whatever form the darkness takes—or, we can be like Jesus and the Psalmists and the prophets and so many others in the Bible who walked in darkness and confronted it and let go of their control and trusted in God’s sovereignty from on high and God’s presence down here where you sit and I sit at this very moment. We’re all strapped by what saints and spiritual guides through the ages understood to be “attachments,” or addictions, and we can be addicted to anything from meth or alcohol and cigarettes to power and control, to certain ideas and attitudes–you name it. The good news is that when we let go we grow, because it’s in our letting go of power and control — it’s in spiritual detachment — that we become vulnerable. It’s then that God’s healing grace can fill up the emptiness, if only we get out of God’s way and let God in.

Yer Jitterbugger is featuring postings in the coming days on “the dark night of the soul” and addictions and grace and such topics as that, with the late psychiatrist and spiritual writer Gerald G. May as our guide.

Read on.


On the top shelf of the bookcase where I keep all of my favorite books I have Gerald G. May’s The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth. And right next to it I have another spiritual classic by May, Addiction and Grace.

In both books, the late and the great Dr. May explores how the darkness of pain and suffering–which are not be be desired but rather are just facts of life–can transform us and deepen and strengthen us and bring us much closer to the God who works God’s grace our “dark nights.”

One of Dr. May’s remarkable gifts was his talent for reader-friendly writing. It can be grasped and appreciated as much by a high school reader as by the most sophisticated psychiatrist or theologian. One of his greatest abilities was to introduce spiritual seekers to the wisdom and works of the now “popular” 16th century Spanish mystics Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.

If you never read another book (other than the Bible, of course) read the two aforementioned works by May.

Here’s a sampling from The Dark Night of the Soul: that I picked by random just to give you a taste:

The problem for most of us is that we don’t realize how united we are with God. Except in rare moments . . . most of us generally don’t feel much intimacy with the Divine. Even if we believe devoutly that God is present with us, our usual experience is that we are ‘here’ and God is ‘there,’ loving and gracious perhaps, but irrevocably separate. ‘We just don’t understand ourselves,’ says Teresa, ‘or know who we are.’

At worst, we give lip service to God’s presence, but then feel and act as if we were completely on our own. I think of church committee meetings, pastoral counseling sessions, or even spiritual direction meetings I have attended. They often begin with a sincere prayer, ‘God, be with us (as if God might be in attendance at another meeting!) and guide our decisions and our actions.’ Then at the end comes, ‘Amen,’ and the door crashes shut on God-attentiveness. Now we have said our prayers and it is time to get down to business. The modern educator Parker Palmer calls this ‘functional atheism . . . the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with me.’

There are many reasons why we fail to recognize our deep and irrevocable communion with the Divine. Some are simply defensive. A direct experience of union or deep intimacy may be beautiful beyond words, but it also requires a certain sacrifice of our self-image as separate and distinct. We become vulnerable, less in control. We can no longer maintain the illusion that we are the master of our destiny. Other reasons are inherent in our dualistic way of thinking. As soon as we use the label ‘God’ or ‘divine presence,’ we make an object of it, separate from ourselves. These reasons encourage us to dwell in the more comfortable, controllable world of ‘God and me’ rather than the vague, vulnerable realm of ‘God in me and I in God.’

Clinging to the ‘God and me’ mentality, we actually come to believe such bogus sayings as ‘God helps those who help themselves’ or ‘Pray as if everything depended on God, but work as if everything depended on yourself.’

At the same there, there is a certain authenticity in viewing God as distinct from oneself. Such a perspective not only acknowledges the irrevocable beyondness and incomprehensibility of the Divine, but it also permits us to have a sense of relationship with God. It allows for what Teresa and John saw as the dynamic love affair between lover and the Beloved, the soul and God. . . . The spiritual life for Teresa and John has nothing to do with actually getting closer to God. It is instead a journey of consciousness. Union with God is neither acquired nor received; it is realized, and in that sense it is something that can be yearned for, sought after, and–with God’s grace–found.”

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Do not wait for the last judgment. It takes place every day.

— Albert Camus

Indeed, we’re judged every day by God looking down on us from the cross.
So today, and every day . . . . ask not what God can do for you.
Ask what you can do for God.
Painting is “Isenheim Altarpiece,” Matthias Grunewald, 1432.
Mary Magdalene, identified by her long hair, kneels at the foot of the cross. Behind her is Mary, mother of Jesus, and John.
John 19:25-27

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My friends at St. John’s United Methodist in Austin (the city where, to hear some of my more rabid conservative friends tell it, there’s a commie on every corner) are involved with this interfaith homeless ministry . In fact, they are helping the families featured in this news vid this week.

If you’ve never worked with homeless people in a soup kitchen or a shelter or in any other way–if you’ve never so much as met a few homeless people–you might want to come out of your proverbial “comfort zone” and hear some real stories from real homeless folks. I can almost guarantee that if you do so, whatever your perception of homeless folks is will change.

It pains me to hear otherwise devout Christians talk about the homeless as if they are so many bugs that ought to be exterminated. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t some dangerous people on the streets who happen to be homeless. (How many times have I heard that excuse for avoiding outreach to the homeless.) But there’s dangerous people looking like a million dollars ever Sunday in houses of worship too. (See stories on many of the BP execs, former Enron execs, the sharks who lied shamelessly and out of self-interest about healthcare reform, the glorified loan sharks who gave us the mortgage crisis and a near thirties-scale Depression, your favorite folks in Congress, most anybody on the Fox News Channel, fearmongers and warmongers, etc, etc, etc.)

One more thought: The streets are full of homeless Vietnam War vets who, for one reason or another, couldn’t cope with life after the Hell that the Vietnam War was. But with the more recent and needless wars we’ve had, I’m afraid we’ve seen nothing yet.

Don’t get me started.

Just meet a real homeless family up-close and personal.

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The Flemish saint and mystic John Ruysbroeck had much to say about God and, particularly, the love of God. I like the image of Christ “devouring” me with love, and yet feeding me with love as well.

“It is the nature of love,” Ruysbroeck wrote, “ever to give and to take, to love and be loved, and these two things meet in whomsoever loves. Thus the love of Christ is both avid and generous . . . as He devours us, so He would feed us. If He absorbs us utterly into Himself, in return He gives us His very self again. . . .

“That measureless Love, which is God Himself, dwells in the pure deeps of our spirit, like a burning brazier of coal. And it throws forth brilliant and fiery sparks which stir and enkindle heart and senses, will and desire, and all the powers of the soul, with a fire of love; a storm, a rage, a measureless fury of love. These be the weapons with which we fight against the terrible and immense Love of God, who would consume all loving spirits and swallow them in Himself. Love arms us with its own gifts, and clarifies our reason, and commands, counsels and advises us to oppose Him, to fight against Him, and to maintain against Him our right to love, so long as we may.”

God is an ocean that ebbs and flows. God is an “inbreathing and outbreathing,” the saint said. But the ebb and flow is all a single motion, as is breathing in and breathing out. God through Christ devouring us while also feeding us with measureless Love–it’s two divine acts in one, one divine act in two.

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