September 15, 2016, Thursday — Dark Night, Last Conversations with Pope Benedict, Letter #3

Peter Seewald: Have you also experienced any of those ‘dark nights’ of which many saints speak?
Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI: Such powerful experiences, no. Perhaps I am not holy enough to have plumbed the depths of that obscurity. However sometimes, things happen to the persons around us that push us to ask ourselves how the good God can permit it. And these are already important questions. Then one must stay firm in the faith, and believe that He knows more than we do.”
—Passage in the first chapter of Ultime Conversazioni (“Last Conversations”), by Peter Seewald, a volume of previously unpublished conversations between Seewald, a German author, and Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI (p. 27). The date of one of the conversations is given as May 23, 2013 — more than three years ago — and Seewald in his introduction says the conversations occurred both before and just after Benedict’s resignation from the papacy in February 2013. The book appeared in Rome in German and Italian editions on September 9, six days ago. The English edition, to be entitled Last Testament, is expected in November

Peter Seewald: Did you really not experience one of these ‘dark nights’ ever in your life?
Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI: Nights totally black, let us say, no, but in certain situations one’s relationship with God becomes difficult. They are the moments in which I ask myself why there is so much evil in the world and how all this evil can be reconciled with the omnipotence and goodness of the Lord.”
—the next question in Ultime Conversazioni (“Last Conversations”), p. 27


by St. John of the Cross

1. One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
— ah, the sheer grace! —
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

2. In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
— ah, the sheer grace! —
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

3. On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
— him I knew so well —
there in a place where no one appeared.

5. O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

6. Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.
—St. John of the Cross, a Carmelite friar and mystic born in Fontiveros, Old Castile, Spain, in 1542. He died on December 14, 1591. The poem, in 8 stanzas of 5 lines each, narrates the journey of the soul from its bodily home to its ecstatic union with God, the Supreme Beloved. St. John wrote two book-length commentaries on his poem: The Ascent of Mount Carmel (“Subida del Monte Carmelo”), and The Dark Night (“Noche Oscura”). The “dark night of the soul” refers to the necessary purgations on the path toward divine union. Such Purgations are the first of the three stages of the soul’s mystical journey: (1) Purgation, which is then followed by (2) Illumination and finally by (3) Union. John does not actually use the term “dark night of the soul” himself. His term is simply “dark night, noche oscura.”

“In this first verse, the soul tells the mode and manner in which it departs, as to its affection, from itself and from all things, dying through a true mortification to all of them and to itself, to arrive at a sweet and delicious life with God.”
—St. John of the Cross, commenting on his own famous poem The Dark Night of the Soul.

“To further explain what this night causes in the soul, I will refer to what Jeremiah felt in it. Because his tribulations were so terrible, he speaks of them and weeps over them profusely:
“I am the man who sees my poverty in the rod of his indignation.
“He has led me and brought me into darkness and not into light.
“He has turned and turned again his hand against me all the day.
“He has made my skin and my flesh old; he has broken my bones.
“He has built a fence round about me; and he has surrounded me with gall and labor.
“He has set me in darkness, as those who are dead forever.
“He has made a fence around me and against me that I might not go out; he has made my fetters heavy.
“And also when I might have cried out and entreated, he has shut out my prayer.
“He has closed up my exits and ways with square stones; he has destroyed my paths.
“He is become to me like a bear lying in wait, as a lion in hiding.
“He has turned aside my paths, and broken me in pieces; he has made me desolate.
“He has bent his bow and set me as a mark for his arrow.
“He has shot into my reins the daughters of his quiver.
“I have become a derision to all the people, and laughter and scorn for them all the day.
“He has filled me with bitterness, he has inebriated me with absinthe.
“One by one he has broken my teeth; he has fed me with ashes.
“My soul is far removed from peace. I have forgotten good things.
“And I said: My end, my aim and my hope from the Lord is frustrated and finished. Remember my poverty and my distress, the absinthe and the gall.
“I shall be mindful and remember, and my soul will languish within me in afflictions.” (Lamentations of Jeremiah, 3:1-20).”
—St. John of the Cross, commenting on his own famous poem The Dark Night of the Soul, 7, 2.2.

“One cannot reach this union without remarkable purity, and this purity is unattainable without vigorous mortification and nakedness regarding all creatures. ‘Taking off the bride’s veil’ and ‘wounding her at night,’ in her search and desire for her Spouse, signify this denudation and mortification, for she could not put on the new bridal veil without first removing her other one. Persons who refuse to go out at night in search for the Beloved and to divest and mortify their will, but rather seek the Beloved in their own bed and comfort, as did the bride, will not succeed in finding him. As this soul declares, she found him when she departed in darkness and with longings of love.”
—St. John of the Cross, commenting on his poem The Dark Night of the Soul, 24, 4.

The Dark Night of Emeritus Pope Benedict

The term “dark night (of the soul)” is used in Roman Catholicism for a spiritual crisis in a journey toward union with God.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a 19th-century French Carmelite, wrote of her own experience. Centering on doubts about the afterlife, she reportedly told her fellow nuns, “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into.”

But St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish Carmelite mystic, tells us that this “dark night” is not something to be feared or avoided, but rather a great grace and a healing experience for the soul that seeks to draw ever closer to the ultimate it may experience, that is, the soul’s Beloved — God.

In his new interview-book, published on September 9 in German and Italian as Ultime Conversazioni (“Last Conversation”), German author Peter Seewald asks Emeritus Pope Benedict whether he has ever experienced a “dark night” of the soul.

And the former pontiff responds “no,” adding, with humility, “Perhaps I am not holy enough to have plumbed the depths of that obscurity.”

Benedict then tells Seewald that he has had difficult spiritual moments, moments when things have happened to the people around him, causing his to question how God could have permitted such a thing, moments when he has asked himself “how all this evil can be reconciled with the omnipotence and the goodness of the Lord.”

So we know that Benedict has suffered from the things he has seen occur around him.

And we know he has even questioned the dispositions of God in these circumstances: How could these painful and evil events be reconciled with God’s goodness?

Benedict doesn’t dwell on this. His words are concise. He doesn’t give examples of what he is referring to. We may imagine, perhaps, that he is referring to the Second World War and all the death and destruction that caused, which he experienced, and to the death of his sister Maria in 1991, who was very close to him and helped him keep house in Rome. But in any case, we know he is referring to the violence, injustice, cruelty and grief in life.

So, in a sense, he is revealing his experience of passing through a sort of “intellectual” night of darkness, when he did not understand, try as he might, how a good God could allow such things to be.

Seewald asks him: “How do you face such problems of faith?”

Benedict replies: “I face them first of all by not abandoning the underlying certainty of the faith and remaining, one might say, immersed in it. And knowing that if I do not understand something, it is not because it is wrong but because I am too small to understand it. Sometimes it has happened that I arrived bit by bit at understanding. And it is always a gift when, unexpectedly, one sees something that one did not see before. One understands that one must be humble, that is one does not understand the words of the Scripture one must wait until the Lord discloses them to our comprehension.”

The striking thing about this answer is that it gives us a clear insight into the working of Benedict’s mind and soul.

We all know that he is a profound intellect, a man of deep study, much knowledge, and brilliant insight.

And yet, he is revealing to us here that he not only has had difficulty with accepting the evils of this life, but also with understanding the words of the Scriptures.

And we know more: we know that he has experienced moments of understanding as he has sought to comprehend the meaning of those events, and of those Scriptures.

He tells us that these moments have been “gifts” to him.

He tells us that he has received these “gifts” of understanding after patient waiting: “one must wait until the Lord discloses the meaning.”

And Seewald, rightly, asks: “And does he disclose the meaning?”

Benedict replies: “Not always. But the fact that there exist moments in which he does shows me the grandeur (or “the greatness”) of that experience.”

Here we are being given an invitation to contemplate the daily experience of Benedict as he sought to understand the mind of God and the meaning of the Scriptures. Benedict is telling us that, in those moments when he could not understand why something had happened, in those moments when he could not understand the meaning of a passage of Scripture, he waited in an attitude of patience for the Lord to give him light, understanding, insight. And he tells us this happened to him more than once.

Partly for this reason, I think — because Benedict has explained how his intellect, in moments of lack of clarity, has been enlightened by the Lord — Seewald then asks the rather odd question: “Would you consider yourself an enlightened one?” (In Italian, the question is: “Si considerebbe un illuminato?”)

“No, no,” Benedict replies, and Seewald tells us that he was laughing. “No,” he says, a third time.

Seewald then asks: “But doesn’t the life of a Catholic-Christian also tend by definition toward illumination (or “enlightenment”) as it does toward holiness?”

Benedict replies: “The concept of the ‘enlightened’ one (Benedict uses the word “illuminato” in Italian) has in it something of elitism. I am an entirely normal Christian. Naturally our task is to recognize the truth, which is a light. And through the power of the faith, even a simple person is enlightened (“illuminata“). Because he sees what others, even in their wisdom, do not perceive. In this sense, the faith is enlightenment (“illuminazione“). The Greeks called baptism Photismos, enlightenment (“illuminazione“), coming to the light, acquiring sight. My eyes are opened. I see a dimension which is entirely different, that I cannot perceive with the eyes of the body.”

And with these words, the first chapter of this book ends.

Now, there could be many points of discussion arising from this passage, but one concerns the relationship of the natural eye to the spiritual eye of faith.

And this is something that relates back to the mysticism of St. John of the Cross.

John of the Cross tells us that the soul’s journey toward God cannot be a purely natural one, based on the natural senses and what one sees in the natural light of this natural world.

Rather, the “ascent of Mt. Carmel” or the journey of the soul toward God must transcend the natural, must become open to the supernatural, the eternal, even though we live in time.

And this experience of “seeing” with the eyes of faith which Benedict describes in the last passage cited above, saying it begins to occur in baptism, after having told us that it has also occurred in special moments of grace when he “sees” the meaning of a passage of Scripture which has been difficult or confusing to understand, shows us that Benedict has an element of mysticism, and element of the spirituality of St. John of the Cross, in his spirituality.

This offers us a new key to understand the events of these recent years.

For in retiring from the papacy but in insisting that he is still carrying out his ministry, that he has not cast his ministry aside, Benedict has told us that he is engaged in a spiritual task of some importance.

He is climbing Mt. Carmel.

He is moving toward God.

In his life on the hill behind St. Peter’s Basilica, in his life in a small monastery in the Vatican Gardens, in his life of devoting each week to the analysis and explication of the Sunday Gospel reading, Benedict is carrying out, for more than three and a half nears now, his personal “dark night of the soul” — his personal “ascent of Mt. Carmel” toward the mysterious, hidden reality of God.

The words Jeremiah uses in his Lamentations, cited above, might in a certain sense apply to this man who was the head of the Catholic Church and who is now restricted to a few acres of the Vatican Gardens:

“He has made my skin and my flesh old…
“He has built a fence round about me…
“He has set me in darkness…
“He has made a fence around me and against me that I might not go out…
“And also when I might have cried out and entreated, he has shut out my prayer.
“He has closed up my exits and ways with square stones; he has destroyed my paths.”

Benedict is, in this sense, living now the “dark night” of his soul.

And the end of that “dark night” is complete union with God…

(to be continued)

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What is the glory of God?

“The glory of God is man alive; but the life of man is the vision of God.” —St. Irenaeus of Lyons, in the territory of France, in his great work Against All Heresies, written c. 180 A.D.

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