On Pilgrimage: The Long Stretches

In an obscure night
Fevered with love’s anxiety
(O hapless, happy plight!)
I went, none seeing me
Forth from my house, where all things quiet be…

– Opening lines from “Dark Night of the Soul” by Saint John of the Cross

Dear Pilgrims,

The insomnia started in my early twenties. For more than a decade I have struggled with seasons of chronic sleeplessness. It has become a metaphor for the restlessness that has seemed to follow me throughout my life. If you’ve never experienced a season of sleeplessness, you are fortunate. It is a terrible feeling. The dark night, when all others rest and dream, is for the insomniac a tortured period of anxiety and sadness.

Saint John of the Cross described what I often believed to be a spiritual season of insomnia as a “dark night of the soul.” It is a season in which the waking soul has been stretched by the lasting darkness into places of terrible hardship and frustration. It is a feeling of the absence of God, the absence of light, the absence of rest. The opening lines to his famous poem portray the beginning of a journey into the night.

When I lived in Philadelphia, in the middle of a tumultuous 10-year stretch of pastoring, I would often get into my car in the middle of the night while my wife and daughter slept and drive around. I had no destination, no aim other than simply to escape the encroaching confines of darkness in a house that taunted me as I fought for a chance to sleep. I would drive, in the darkness, around the quiet city. These drives never alleviated my inability to sleep, nor did they give pause to my weary soul. They were the wanderings of someone desperate to find peace.

Perhaps, pilgrims, the worst part of wandering in the dark is the loneliness one feels. The excitement that accompanies the beginning of a journey has long since faded in these nights, and our isolation (whether real or imagined) seems to prevail. Very little makes us feel more alone than the dark, whether that darkness is the literal blanket of night or the night of the soul that shrouds us in seasons of despair.

Pilgrimage has these long stretches where we seem to wander aimlessly in the dark, not sure when the light will come but knowing that the darkness is not meant to be forever. I am currently in one of these seasons in my pilgrimage. Last summer the congregation I served as pastor in South Dakota decided to invest heavily in its building rather than in ministry. (Now, I recognize that many ministries make very good use of their building. This building, however, was used only a few hours a week by the church for meetings and worship.) Not only did this mark a sharp turn in the focus of ministry, they also saw the pastor as no longer relevant to their ministry vision. My family was cast aside with a startling level of ambivalence toward our future. Since then other ministry doors have slammed shut. Pastoral ministry opportunities have not panned out, and the prospect of fulfilling my dream of teaching in a university or seminary seems to be fading. I work long hours as a safety and compliance officer for a bus company, and though the work is mostly satisfying and my co-workers are remarkably loving, I am finding it difficult to find time to write and create. There is a darkness that envelopes me as I remember what could have been and have trouble seeing what could be.

I don’t know what is next for me, and perhaps neither do you know what is next for you. In this stage of any pilgrimage it is easy to give yourself over to despair. May I offer you some pastoral advice, even as I offer it to myself? Don’t give in to despair. As Pope John Paul II said, “We are an Easter people and hallelujah is our song.” As Lent continues, remember that the darkness is only temporary, though it may be long. Light is coming. Easter is coming. And with it comes glorious new life.

The Lord be with you,

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