Apr 25, 2017

A spiritual crisis can paralyze everything

Candles lighting the way in the dark.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning.

A dark night every day

Diana Washington Valdez

It is difficult to get back on track with this "memoir" because I am not always sure of whether the past is gone or still present. Our memory records what has already happened, that is certain. But there is another dynamic at work whenever you look back, the effects that the past have on the present and the future.

The term 'dark night of the soul' is described by some as a painful spiritual journey and by others as a spiritual or existential crisis. The best-known expositions of this state can be found in the works of mystics like St. John of the Cross (a 16th Century and to an extent in the writings of Aristotle. In his book "Siddhartha," German author Herman Hesse deftly and beautifully summarizes spiritual conflict through the lives of his protagonist, Siddhartha, and his friends, family and lover Kamala.

Others across the centuries, different countries and cultures share examples in their literature and oral traditions about a journey that we must undertake alone. The aloneness is at once terrifying and necessary. "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" is the title of the 1940 book by American author Carson McCullers as well as the name of a popular 1995 American country music song by Reba McEntire. The title of both serve to illustrate a point. The pilgrim's walk is a lonely one; and, sidetracks can take you on the wrong paths. 

One may surmise that a spiritual conflict arises from the battle of the soul that is at war with itself, its destiny or with God. The only way out is to get off the path. But the soul that's hungry won't let you stay in the detour. The Divine will not permit it.

The phenomenon of waking up at three in the morning without apparent reason is universal. I used to wake up constantly at this hour, only to go back to sleep after seeing the time on the clock. It happened so often that my curiosity led me to do some research on this experience. 

The explanations varied widely: It was the bewitching hour, when people involved in occult practices carried out their rituals and ceremonies and you were a target or simply got swept up in the fallout; and, at the other end of the explanation spectrum, for those who go to bed at normal night hours it is generally the hour at which the body naturally undergoes several physiological adjustments.

Kamala, the character in the Hesse book "Siddhartha," tends to get short-shrifted in the literary critiques that I'm familiar with. Yet, she is the most figure in the book after Siddhartha. Kamala represents where most of us want to stay. The known, the comfortable, the understandable.

Symbolically, she also represents the place where the soul cannot advance on its pilgrimage; that place is a docking, a detour. That's not to say that the customary aspirations of humans, which include emotional bonding and having families, are not legitimate ones. They are valid and necessary for humanity to continue. But in that setting, the soul that is hungry for more will always be restless. 

Likewise, the hunt for the ideal romantic partner that McEntire sings about is a futile one because the hunter in the song does not realize that the object of her pursuit is a mistaken one to begin with. Hence, the list of lovers can only grow ever longer while the object of the hunt grows ever more elusive. The soul cannot find in that environment what it is really searching for.

There is a song that fits so well in this discussion: "Is that all there is?" which was made famous by Peggy Lee in 1969. This is the refrain from the haunting melody:

"Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing
Let's break out the booze and have a ball

If that's all there is"

Indeed, if the object of the soul at the end of its quest is not God, and certainly if God does not exist, then the logical conclusions must be nihilism, there is no meaning to life and we need not pretend otherwise, and hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure without restraint because the basis for a moral code is missing.

Job, the principal character in the Old Testament book, who is portrayed as a man of great faith, also reached a point during which he had to wrestle with suffering and the issue of philosophical aloneness. Left to wonder whether God had abandoned him, during his dark night of the soul, Job exclaimed, "Oh, that I knew where I might find Him."

I, too, have entered such a period, suddenly and unexpectedly. It involves an emotional exorcism that is painful and ongoing and so much more. I know the end from the beginning. Yes, I truly know how it will end for myself. I don't know what the rest of the process will include or how long it will last or what will be left untorched. The wrestling began about two months ago, heightened by the deaths of friends and an intense awareness of my own mortality.

The details of this kind of journey are different for everyone, so there is no point in baring them here. It will remain in the background. I am sharing what I can in case it will help anyone else out there. It is likely there will be updates in this chapter. The rest of the memoir, dealing with more earthly matters, will go on sporadically. 

My best to everyone in your own life's journey.

[1] Herman Hesse book

[2] Carson McCullers book

[3] St. John of the Cross

[4] Peggy Lee sings

[5] Reba McEntire sings

[6] Job: 23:3 English Standard Version.

Diana Washington Valdez is a member of the International Association of Religion Journalists (IARJ).