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February 17th, 2023 | 8 min read

By Matthew Emerson

At the beginning of The Divine Comedy, in Canto I of Inferno, Dante opens with these famous lines:

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.

A few lines later he adds:

I cannot clearly say how I had entered
the wood; I was so full of sleep at
the point where I abandoned the true path.

Dante expresses here what many of us feel, namely that, one way or another, whether through human frailty or finitude or fallenness, we have found ourselves in one of life’s ditches. And, as many of us are keenly aware, Dante makes clear by the end of the Canto that not only did he find himself off the path, he could not return to it of his own power. He had to be guided out, and not simply by climbing back up the hill from whence he came. His way back is blocked by sin – sins of his appetites, his intellect, and his will. And so he has to descend into the darkness of Hell to find his way back onto the path of Life.

The Christian tradition related to spirituality has long observed that we all pass through this “Dark Night of the Soul.” For some of us, it has not come yet. For others of us, it has come and passed. For still others, we are currently walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Whether past, present, or future, there are times in our lives where we will feel what the Psalmist expresses in Psalm 88:

  3      For my soul is full of troubles,

and my life draws near to Sheol.

    I am counted among those who go down to the pit;

I am a man who has no strength,

    like one set loose among the dead,

like the slain that lie in the grave,

like those whom you remember no more,

for they are cut off from your hand.

    You have put me in the depths of the pit,

in the regions dark and deep.

    Your wrath lies heavy upon me,

and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah

    You have caused my companions to shun me;

you have made me a horror to them.

I am shut in so that I cannot escape;

        my eye grows dim through sorrow.

Every day I call upon you, O Lord;

I spread out my hands to you.

10     Do you work wonders for the dead?

Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah

11     Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,

or your faithfulness in Abaddon?

12     Are your wonders known in the darkness,

or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

But what Dante reminds us of throughout his work, and, more importantly, what Scripture tell us (as it does in Psalm 89), is that God is with us in Christ by his Spirit through these dark nights. Or, as Jerome puts it in his homily on Psalm 88:

‘My life draws near to the nether world [v. 3].’ Well said, ‘draws near,’ for He was not detained in Hell, but drew nigh to the nether world for our sake. Another psalm says, in fact, in the name of the Lord: ‘Because you will not abandon my soul to the nether world, nor will suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption.’

Indeed, Christ has gone before us through the valley of the shadow of death and shines the light of his resurrection on us as we, too, journey the narrow path, taking up our cross and following him, losing our lives so that we might gain it for the sake of him and his eternal kingdom.

The truth is, though, that this confession – that Christ is with us in the darkness and leading us through the valley – is easier to recite than it is to live.

In the middle of a crisis of economic downturn, cultural insanity, pastoral burnout, & the like, many of us have also experienced turmoil in our industry or at our workplace. Some of us have also experienced deep personal loss in the last few years – gut wrenching and unexpected loss due to tragedy, friendships lost, loss or diminishment of physical abilities, loss of economic stability, the anxiety and uncertainty associated with COVID and all its effects, etc. It is important to state plainly that we have all experienced dark nights, and particularly in the last few years. It is also important to acknowledge that this is, in a fallen world, inevitable – we will experience pain and suffering, because we still sin and we still live in a sinful and broken world that groans with longing for Christ’s return when all things will be made new.

In the midst of crisis, it is often difficult for us to place our trust in the right person. We are so often tempted to place it in ourselves, our own abilities, our own mental capacities or will power or talent. As the “whiskey priest” in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory confesses toward the end of the novel, even our desire to fix what’s broken is often ultimately vainglorious: “pride was at work all the time,” he finally admits. “Not love of God.” This will be one of the primary temptations for us, and for our neighbors. We will inevitably want to fix what’s broken by our own power and might, even if that looks on the surface like meekness, humility, and love. We will want to turn inward to our own strength rather than rest in God’s love. In fact, as the priest goes on to say, true love, the love of God, is often more terrifying than the initial cause of our present turmoil:

God is love. I don’t say the heart doesn’t feel a taste of it, but what a taste. The smallest glass of love mixed with a pint pot of ditchwater. We wouldn’t recognize that love. It might even look like hate. It would be enough to scare us – God’s love. It set fire to a bush in the desert, didn’t it, and smashed open graves and set the dead walking in the dark. Oh, a man like me would run a mile to get away if he felt that love around.

In the midst of crisis we are tempted not only to rely on ourselves but also to run from the only true source of strength, God himself. And yet, despite our temptation to either muscle our way out of struggle or to run away from it, the Dark Night of the Soul is not, as Dante helps us to see, an opportunity to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Neither is it an impetus for us to run away from God (as if we could!). On our own, we are merely dust, and to dust we shall return. On our own, we could lay our head in Sheol, at the bottom of the darkest deep, but we could not escape the presence of the God who is love. The Dark Night of the Soul is not another life hack to motivate you to more effort, and it isn’t a chance to finally escape God’s presence. It is instead another opportunity, indeed the opportunity, to trust the Lord with all our heart, leaning not on our own understanding but descending with him into death.

This is what Malcolm Guite so beautifully articulates in his, “Through the Gate,” written for the Tuesday of the third week of Lent. The entire poem is a call to “unbar the gates” of our sinful and broken hearts to let the light of Christ shine into the darkness. The final stanza puts it poignantly:

He comes to harrow Hell and now to your
Well guarded fortress let His love descend.
The icy ego at your frozen core
Can hear His call at last. Will you respond?

In the Dark Night of the Soul, we are called not to effort but to surrender. We are called not to abandonment but to presence. Surrender to the God who is in control. Present in the presence of the living God, the same God who is in control, the God who is good at the same time that he is sovereign over all things.

This is why, in the Bible, remembrance of what God has done through death is linked so closely with the presence of the living God with his people. In the Old Testament, Abraham and his descendants build altars to YHWH both to remember what he has done and to be in his presence, starting with Abram’s altar at Bethel, continuing through the Ebenezer stones of the conquest, and concluding with Solomon’s Temple. In the cases of the altars, tabernacle, and Temple, the people of God also offer sacrifices to God, encountering the God of life through the death of the sacrificial animal. And these altars of remembrance are used on a liturgical cycle, one which culminates in the Passover, a material reminder in the form of a meal that YHWH has delivered his people out of bondage through blood and death and water.

In the New Testament, the church no longer meets together at an altar or in the Temple but is instead a building of living stones whose cornerstone is Christ. The church is herself a Spirit-enlivened memorial to what Christ has done and who also remembers what Christ has done for her members through both of her sacraments. In their initiatory rite, baptism, they plunge the new believer into the waters of death to sin and raise them up to new life in Christ. In their weekly meal, the Lord’s Supper, they commemorate his death, usher us into his presence, and eagerly anticipate his return. In remembering their birth, Israel remembered death: the death of the firstborn, the death of the lamb, the death of their enemies. In remembering Christ’s, True Israel’s, death through participating in both sacraments, we remember the death of the Lamb, the death of our Enemy, and the resurrection of the Firstborn from the dead. To remember God’s work is to remember death, but in remembering death we find life in the God who is life, the God who birthed Israel out of death, the God who raised Jesus from death to life, the God who gives life to us through his Son and by his Spirit.

How, then, can we respond when life inevitably lets us down? When we let ourselves down? When we let others down? When the realities of creaturely finitude and fallenness hit hard, how will we respond? Will we pout, as Jonah does under the plant, or will we put our trust in Christ? Will we attempt to flee to a far country, as Jonah does, or will we willingly go down into the depths, descending into death with Christ who has gone before us and made a way through his resurrection? What will we do?

My prayer for us is that we remember Christ’s death that gives us life, that life is found in the way of the cross, not the way of glory. For if we suffer with Christ, we will also be raised with Christ. Descending with Christ into death means also being raised with him to new life. My prayer is that we will continue to take up our crosses, as we walk in the way of Christ, losing our life so that we might gain eternal life in God the Son incarnate, who reigns with the Father and the Spirit forever and ever.

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