The Dark Night of the Soul

by Robert Engelbach on May 27, 2015

Dark Night of the Soul

The term “Dark Night of the Soul” is the title of a poem by Saint John of the Cross, a 16th century friar of the monastic order of Carmelites in Spain. He was a leading Spanish poet and religious reformer in his time. The Dark Night of the Soul is a message about travail and hope in the journey of the soul towards union with God. It represents one of many threads of esoteric belief winding through the tapestry of the more conservative and exoteric Catholic Church as the Middle Ages drew to a close.

This famous quote from another work by Saint John of the Cross expresses my sentiments exactly in defining the interrelationship between exoteric and esoteric understanding as experienced in his day and, so far, in my own:

“Seek in reading, and thou shalt find in meditation, knock in prayer and it shall be opened in contemplation.”

This well-known saying of the Carmelite friar who was later honored as a saint by the Catholic Church articulates an interdependent balance between the exoteric and esoteric, rather than one contradicting or exceeding the other. This is like the Frank Sinatra song “Love and Marriage” (go together like a horse and carriage), a somewhat cliché metaphor, but it just seems to fit. Marriage is a covenant relationship. Much of our exoteric understanding of God is based on a covenant relationship which progresses from master/servant to forerunner/friend and it is from within the covenant relationship that we are enabled to grow into even deeper revelation and union.

The Dark Night of the Lover Searching for the Beloved

According to Harvard graduate and former editor of “Gnosis” magazine, Richard Smoley, in discussing “The Dark Night of the Soul” in his popular book from 2002, “Inner Christianity”1:

The poem speaks of “a dark night” in which the soul finds “The One I knew so well, my delight, / In a place with no one in sight.” He exclaims “One night that joined Lover with Beloved, / Beloved in the lover transformed!” Like the biblical Song of Solomon, this poem uses the metaphor of lover and beloved to speak of the soul’s union with God.

In his own commentary to the poem, John of the Cross indicates that the “dark night” refers not only to “purgation” – that is, a detachment from worldly interests – but also to a “dark night of the intellect.” This may be analogous to the “hesyshia”2 of the Orthodox tradition. It is a kind of a darkness in that the mind does not appear to perceive anything; it is a blankness, a state of consciousness without an object. Although some traditions regard this as a final goal of meditation, the Christian tradition says it is only a preliminary, for at this stage the spirit becomes ready for direct contact with God – the union of the lover with the beloved. This is sometimes referred to as “infused prayer.”

At this point in the tradition of the Jesus Prayer 3, the heart will literally feel warm. One practitioner reported that eventually “a small sweet flame was lit in my heart. This sensation was like swallowing some delicious food. This little flame remained in my heart, and I felt as if someone was gripping my heart. From that point on I prayed continuously, kept my attention there, where the sensation was, my only care being to preserve it.” Here the seeker begins to sense directly the presence of God. Ordinary language and thought fail, or serve as only vague reflections of experience. Mystical writings, like those of John of the Cross, the Song of Songs, or the Sufi poet Rumi, frequently use the metaphors of lovers, who, though separate, are united, to express this elusive realm where the distinction between God and the self, between “I” and “not-I”, are blurred or obliterated.

It is interesting to note that Saint John of the Cross was part of a reform movement within his monastic order to bring back the full rigor of living a life of separation, devotion, deep communion with God, unfeigned humility, and service to God. His order, the Carmelites, had become lax in observing protocols which developed these qualities. His order substituted their own watered-down version which they claimed was less burdensome. They demanded that the other Carmelites observe them also, with the same lukewarm lack of passion. They forbid observing the older protocols.

John of the Cross worked with two other reformers of his order to build a network of successful convents, monasteries, and churches following the former more rigorous protocols. They became known as the “Decalcined Carmelites” because they went barefoot or in sandals, the Latin word “decalcined” meaning “unshod”.   The other group became known as the “Calcined Carmelites. After a seven year period of intensive growth, John of the Cross was kidnapped by the Calcined Carmelites, brought to their main monastery, tried for heresy by a counsel of Calcined Carmelite friars, found guilty and imprisoned in a cell hardly big enough for him to fit in, with barely any light and being given the sparest of rations. He managed to persuade his cell guard to provide him with paper for writing. He escaped eight months later by burrowing out a window and then continued his reform activities freely when papal authorities formerly separated the two branches into separate orders, so one could not claim jurisdiction over the other. He was later promoted to sainthood after his death. It is believed that he wrote “Dark Night of the Soul” around the same period when he was imprisoned.

In Saint John of the Cross, we find a friar of a hermetic order who stressed a passionate search to unite with God, as if for a lost love. The reason he stressed rigor in observances and demeanor was because these were vehicles that could bring one closer to experiencing union with God when they were exercised with complete regularity and with a whole heart. They kept one intensely focused on the search through ritual and exoteric activities until the passion to find union with God broke through and spilled over during the quiet of contemplation, evoking intense physical manifestations in which one experienced a dissolution in the division between what is self and what is divine. In this experience, the old self became transformed by this mystical union. At no point did this quest for union usurp exoteric foundations and beliefs. It was, in fact, a product of it.

The Dark Night of Realizing the Emptiness of an Accustomed Worldview

There is a slightly different experience that has also been described as The Dark Night of the Soul and is particularly relevant to the modern world. It is when the person seeking God begins to see a larger frame of things, and becomes less interested in worldly preoccupations, but has not yet found something meaningful to replace them. One may feel a sense of emptiness or depression as one withdraws from the older interests and pleasures. The 40-year trek of the Jews through the wilderness of the Sinai desert is a symbol for this experience. They were free of slavery under Pharaoh, which is a symbol for being free of the ego’s preoccupation with the outside world, but they had not yet found the Promised Land. Then it becomes an exercise of faith to persevere and keep searching in a period of muddle and confusion until the dark night is over and one has found peace and the presence of God.

I think this can happen again and again during our journey. We discover that various solutions that have been offered us, or that we come upon on our own, that seemed to encourage us for a time, were not all they were cracked up to be. And if they don’t work, then what’s left? There is nothing left! That is where it can get very dark. But it is also when we are finally ready to give up whatever we have been fooling ourselves about, and then the stars we had not noticed before start to twinkle serenely in our darkness, leading us onward to a better perspective beyond our previous understanding.

The Dark Night of Sensational Fireworks

Some people who practice various disciplined methods of prayer or meditation may start to experience sensational effects – flashing lights, signs and wonders, mysterious sounds, brilliant insights, or divine apparitions. Although these are extremely exciting, our friend Richard Smoley warns us that they should not be mistaken for spiritual advancement:

There is even a Zen story about a pupil who jumps up from his meditation mat and runs to his master exclaiming, “I just had a vision of a golden Buddha.” Unfazed, the master replies, “just keep mediating and it will go away.”

Such manifestation should and do go away. However dazzling they may seem, they are almost always the result of opening up the lid of the mind, like a Pandora box, and is allowing its contents to spill out. There is a point – and it comes reasonably soon – when these manifestations seem to cease; the practice becomes much more eventful and, from an ordinary point of view, much less interesting. Even though the goal of the practice is mental stillness, the practitioner frequently takes the dawning of such stillness to be a sign that nothing is happening.1

Conclusion

What we do in the stillness of meditation and other forms of seeking communion with God can greatly affect our spiritual growth and quality of life. We may find ourselves in a dark night of the soul in not understanding our experience and a need to break through to some kind of clarity. In an anonymous work from a 14th century Christian mystic from England entitled “The Cloud of Unknowing”, the author suggests how to break through:

“For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.”

Thus when faced with this Cloud that our mind cannot seem to penetrate, we are encouraged to use the faculty of love to pierce through it. It is not just about practicing mindfulness and believing we are egoless. We will need love to make the final cut. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the church at Corinth4, does a better job than any other in explaining the multi-faceted and transcendent nature of love. There are so many other biblical passages that give us insight into this faculty. We may thus be encouraged to learn how to understand and apply this superior faculty from its expressions and portrayals in our exoteric foundations.

There are still some schools of esoteric thought that believe that once we have lifted off from the launch pad of exoteric foundations, we are no longer in need of them, and so it is acceptable and appropriate to distort, exploit, ridicule and destroy them. Nothing can be further from the truth. Jesus said the Torah (and the Prophets), a symbol for our exoteric principles and teachings, would not pass away until all is accomplished. He said he was the fulfillment of the Torah.5 The Christ within us, the indwelling Holy Spirit, guides us into likewise fulfilling the spirit of the Torah. But without a Torah to fulfill, there could be no fulfillment of it. It was not created to be destroyed by us, but to be preserved as a reference and a guide towards its fulfillment. The more we mature spiritually, the better we are able to interpret scriptures, so we can pass beyond some of the limiting institutionalized interpretations of it. But I believe we should never feel that we are above and beyond it, or that the only value of it is in the esoteric nuggets we can pluck out of it. Its sacred purpose is so much more than that.

References

  1. “Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition” by Richard Smoley (pages 166-167).
  2. “Hesychia” is a Greek word meaning “quiet” and is a meditative practice used in the Eastern Orthodox Church and more recently of interest to the Catholic Church.
  3. Jesus Prayer. This is the recitation of a repetitive prayer originating in the Eastern Orthodox tradition that is useful in focusing out mental distraction. It is used in order to experience union with God. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is recited over and over again, not as a formula or mantra, but as a contemplation that when done whole-heartedly, releases the soul from its worldly preoccupations.
  4. 1 Corinthians 13.
  5. Matthew 5:17 “Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose.” (NLB)
Tommy May 28, 2015 at 7:17 am

Robert,

I enjoyed your article. I really liked this: “But it is also when we are finally ready to give up whatever we have been fooling ourselves about, and then the stars we had not noticed before start to twinkle serenely in our darkness, leading us onward to a better perspective beyond our previous understanding.

So true that leaving the warm comfort of exoteric “milk” in the light of day for hidden truth waiting in the night time is a hard thing to do. The superficial socialization we experience from the time we leave the womb and the profane cultural pressures we begin to endure in childhood feed our base nature and discourage us from the soul-seeking adventure that can really feed us.

For me, the gradual unfolding of greater awareness has its up and downs. It can be a bumpy ride with many starts and stops, or dark nights. It can be at once paradoxically disturbing, or dark, and exhilarating, or light. This is my experience.

I don’t know why, but Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” came to mind after reading your article. I read the poem again, and the esoteric beauty of his words twinkled with the message you conveyed.

Blessings!

Tommy

Robert May 28, 2015 at 9:19 pm

Tommy,

So glad you enjoyed the article and to see a comment by you. Robert Frost’s poem is touching, that he can do the unnecessary thing of stopping in the woods to watch the snow falling in the darkness of night and take in the beauty of it all. The poem says he does this on the darkest night of the year. It also mentions that his unusual stop is temporary because he has the necessary and demanding things to do also.

I think greater awareness is not always just being serene or objective, but also a purifying process that uncover things about ourselves that we ordinarily would not like and want to change, or wish we could change but are stuck in. It’s the period of experiencing an impasse or insight that is painful or seems hopeless– but not giving up — that is the dark night of the soul that breaks through into something new.

Claudine May 28, 2015 at 7:30 pm

Hi Robert,

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. I was only just the other day thinking about this very topic.

I loved the Zen story about the golden Buddha and not to misinterpret certain phenomena as something high stage (out of ego or pride or ignorance) but, rather elevating yourself above this level so as to enter a state of mental quietude. I personally found the info in your article very helpful in making me aware of certain things.

Tommy, I loved your comment. So eloquently put. I feel the same way you do.

My religious background started out as a Jehovah’s Witness. Much fuss was made about “the great tribulation” and the signs Jesus gave that would occur before the end of the world (or system of things as they put it) as stated in Matthew and Revelation. I was wondering if you think there are parallels between the great tribulation and the dark night of the soul? Is it speaking about the same thing rather than the literal doomsday approach that prophesy catastrophe and destruction before paradise?

Sincerely,
Claudine

Robert May 28, 2015 at 10:18 pm

Claudine,

From what I know about the JWs is that they believe adamantly that the 144,ooo in Revelation will come from their ranks. and so the whole scenario about the end times is very important to them in motivating them and reinforcing their beliefs. I think a lot of liberal Christians and people exploring higher consciousness are inclined to believe that the end times scenario is meant to be purely allegorical, and a means of inspiring hope, persistence and purification during our personal tribulations. It certainly does that. There is also some parallels between an individual’s Dark Night of the Soul and the Great Tribulations. I have often had that same idea when going through things, that this is my great tribulation.

On the other hand, I am personally reluctant to dismiss the end times as “purely” allegorical. Biblical prophecy concerning the nation of Israel generally comes to pass and is often doubted or dismissed until it does.

Claudine May 28, 2015 at 11:43 pm

Hi Robert,

Yes I’m familiar with the JW 144,000 dogma and totally believed it at one stage.

“The dark night” certainly isn’t fun while you’re in the purification process sensing unpleasant feelings and thoughts that have been stuck and hidden inside. Then you’ve also got the ego mind sending messages of fear (because it senses the mutiny arising) that makes you want to quit and give up on the healing that’s actually occurring. The inner turmoil can feel like an endurance test, like God has actually withdrawn his spirit or left you temporarily. It’s often just before a major breakthrough that the most negative stuff comes up too. Maybe that’s what is truly meant when we decide to take up our own cross to bear and follow Jesus? Our old ways of thinking have to die first in order for Him to bring us back to life anew with power. It’s not a physical death. It’s our old agenda’s, our self-centredness, our will and our emotions.

It brings to mind the old saying “the darkest hour is just before the dawn”.

I know I’ve said it before and I don’t wanna be gushing all the time but, I really appreciate this website and its authors who are like mini lighthouses in darkness. Thank you!

Sincerely,
Claudine

Robert May 29, 2015 at 3:05 pm

Claudine,

I appreciate your complements and comments. In regards to feeling like God has withdrawn his spirit, I sometimes feel like that. Your other comment about Palm 23 is reassuring then, knowing that God still walks with us in the valley, in the darkness, when facing difficult odds, clouds of uncertainty, or when situations or conflicts seem impossible to resolve. Even when we have problems sensing God’s presence or manifestations. I like the way you bring taking up our cross into the discussion, relating it to not following our old ways, that those have to die before being restored.

Claudine May 29, 2015 at 1:42 am

Hi Robert,

The other scripture that comes to mind is Psalms 23:4 – “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me”. Do you think there’s a parallel in this way, that the personal dark night of the soul isn’t so dark after all, that it’s actually a blessing in disguise because God is transforming us from the inside out if we stop resisting the changes?

Claudine

Robert May 29, 2015 at 3:11 pm

Claudine,

Tommy mentioned seeing as adventures what we might otherwise perceive as struggles. That would help make the darkness more enlightening. I like that you have reminded us to “Stop resisting changes”.

Claudine May 31, 2015 at 5:09 am

Hi Robert and SOS peoples,

Yes, the adventure – the adventure of being alive, the journey of self discovery, finding out what we’re truly made of through the obstacles. That’s the whole point of mythology. It inspires art and poetry. Seeing our life as a poem and ourselves participating in the poem. We can’t have creativity unless we leave behind our bounded and fixed old ways. I think it’s entirely possible that epic stories like The Illiad and Odessy, Dante’s Inferno, Goethe’s Faust and Paradise Lost by John Milton were maybe inspired by “the dark night of the soul”. Even ancient myths like the Minotaur who dwelt in the center of the labyrinth (the maze of our mind/psyche?) who eventually gets slain by the hero by listening to the advice of the princess outside. These stories are so rich because they’re all about the same human quest, the adventure, usually going it alone and the perils we’ll face in slaying those “dragons” (our ego clamping us down) that block us from God.

I know it’s hard to “let go and let God”. It requires a leap of faith and bravery. I imagine myself as an old operating system in need of a major upgrade. “Claudine 1.01” works fine and nicely supports common mainstream thought and beliefs but, it doesn’t support higher consciousness or true union with God which is what I’ve been seeking all the long. There’s a lot of hair pulling, cussing and screaming in the process of swapping the old for the new but, unless new internal software is installed, I will never be compatible with God and speak his language and he will never be able to communicate with me. It requires an update and total rebuild. The Clash of the Operation Systems! I’m a graphic designer – I had to use a tech metaphor sorry!

Sincerely,
Claudine

Robert June 1, 2015 at 1:32 pm

Claudine,

I like your technical metaphors for rebuilding the new and improved Claudine 2.0. Finding God in the stillness is a practice that is so easily lost in modern civilization in the common mainstream thought of society, even in some religious institutions. I am more of an advocate for progressive change rather than leaping, not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The desire to do the next right thing and to be open is sometimes all that is needed, rather than a total overhaul. According to the Christian model of spirituality, this amounts to putting trust in Jesus Christ as Savior to receive forgiveness of sins and receive the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit to help accomplish some immediate and some progressive changes. When this is done, according to the Christian model, you become acceptable to God and the door is opened for you to communicate freely with God. This was symbolized in the Gospels by the curtain that separates the Holy of Holies from the outer courts of the Temple ripping the moment when Jesus died. You now have access to the Holiest place. The politicizing of religion has obscured this concept. Also backsliding into the carnality of the cultures we are raised in. Monks in the middle ages escaped from religious corruptions by establishing self-sufficient monasteries away from heavily populated areas. They specialized in contemplative activities that quieted the mind and drew them closer to God. The art of Contemplation has reemerged in our modern society. Also, the concept of transcending the ego has become well-known and accepted in our culture thanks to the influence of Eastern religions. I see them as good tools to become more sensitive to the Holy Spirit when practiced wholeheartedly and with some regularity. Some people who have been disappointed by Christianity or found the institutionalized versions of it unable to meet their needs, have found sparks of spirituality in other religious systems or customized versions of them that meet their needs. Meditation when practiced seriously is definitely beneficial to physical and psychological health. When combined with any form of spirituality, it seems to enhance belief and can provide opportunities for deep personal revelations. I prefer to practice meditation from a Christian perspective, and agree with many criticisms of many forms of fundamentalist Christianity as being judgmental and dogmatic to the point that they suppress spiritual growth and sometimes condemn the innocent. But I find arguments against the Christian model I have heard so far are generally not valid (at least to me) when I have tried to look into them more carefully. I don’t agree that the bible as a whole is just another piece of creative mythology, although some of it should be interpreted allegorically instead of literally. I naturally expect those who have been turned off to Christianity and found some answers elsewhere will be inclined at times to discredit Christianity. I respect that position and I don’t have all the answers.

Robert June 1, 2015 at 3:43 pm

Claudine,

I should mention that the symbolism of the way to the Holy of Holies being made accessible when Jesus died and the curtain ripped is both an exoteric and esoteric message, both being valid according to my way of understanding. The exoteric message is that this act of Jesus opened the way to our salvation. The esoteric message is that to “follow the way” or “enter into the way” we need to die to what the bible calls the “old nature” and what we in more recent times and terminology tend to associate with being egocentric. The esoteric message also puts more emphasis on the “Christ within” (what I identify as the traditional indwelling Holy Spirit). The “Christ within” has the connotation of being internally empowered and enlightened by the spirit of Christ. It is both a “transfer” or “deposit” from the external spirit of Christ to us as a result of our forerunner Jesus on the cross to redeem us, and an awakening of the God-oriented identity within us as we, inspired by this act of Jesus, die to our selfish ambitions and fears on our own cross and, in so doing, releasing our full spiritual potential.

Claudine June 1, 2015 at 8:51 pm

Hi Robert,

Thank you for your wise words. Do not worry I won’t suddenly unplug my “external drive” and reboot myself! That would be too disorienting and potentially dangerous. Gradual integration and progressive change as you say is definitely the way to go. I have always prayed during the various stages of my life – even during an agnostic phase I once had. Over time I’d been expressing my internal desire to really know God some how, some way. This was all going on in my own private internal world (coming from a dominant religious family, I don’t like imposing my views). Then two years ago I started experiencing intense bodily vibrations, like painless electricity surging from head to toe during my prayers. I used to call them internal earthquake’s and tremors. The way it would start would I’d be praying to God in my usual persistent way, genuinely expressing my feelings and apologising to Him for letting religious dogma separate me from Him etc. It was during those moments that it would sometimes feel like a trance. I’d get total muted silence in my head and I described the physiological sensation to my husband as something similar to dissolving or pixelating or fragmenting. I’d feel like I was an aspirin fizzing up into pieces in water! As you can imagine, this freaked me out as I thought I was dying! Are meditation and prayer the same thing you think?

Your Dark Night of The Soul article resonated so much with me because I think I may be experiencing the preliminary stages of clearing those channels that have been blocked in me for so long. That would explain the vibration, heat and internal rolling sensations. I have gotten much better at letting this unwind naturally so as to dissipate that nervous tension. The paragraph in your article titled “The Dark Night of Sensational Fireworks” made it clear to me not to think of all that stuff as anything unusual except real proof that I DO need meditation and not to amplify that phenomena but, instead try to enter a deeper state of quietude.

I think I can now see how ordinary, everyday people would interpret these sensations as either signs from God and become unhealthy, egotistical fanatics, or fear it’s the devil and shut it down completely, or ignorantly think they themselves have developed divine mystical powers and continue indulging in these things amplifying them even more when quietness of the mind should be the goal.

I’m going to re-read your article and your last two responses again. The point of the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies and the Christ within and all the symbolism just blows my mind. The bible is fascinating and alive to me again in ways that it never was when I was a JW! It’s now sitting on my desk full of notes and post-its. You’re so right that finding God in the stillness is a practice easily lost in our modern world where rootless intellectualism and scientism dominates. Logic overload, linear thinking and rationality makes us too one-sided and we never get a chance to develop our spiritual nature because we’re oblivious of the need to nourish and develop those instincts like spiritual meaning and purpose of life.

I’ve been reading some of the older blogs on this site too. So much good stuff on there it literally blows my mind. That’s probably why I want my metaphorical operating system upgrade and grow restless or impatient with myself sometimes. It’s because I feel I have so much to catch up on and have lost much time. I have to keep reminding myself that everything happens at the right pace.

Sincerely,
Claudine

Claudine June 1, 2015 at 11:33 pm

Hi Robert,

I’m worried I came across as dismissive of the bible in my earlier reply where I linked mythology with creativity and the bible? That wasn’t my intention at all. One day I hope I get to read all the sacred texts of other faiths, like the Bhagavad Gita, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Qur’an the Tao Te Ching etc. I’m gradually seeing the beauty and importance of all these sacred texts that I wasn’t familiar with before. I was raised in Western culture so it’s natural for me to be inclined towards the Christian bible testaments.

There are people very close to me that have been turned off Christianity as you said. But, even worse than that – they’ve been turned off God completely. For example, my father has now convinced himself that the story of Jesus is all allegory and that the miracles are nothing but myth, to the point he’s become deaf to his actual message of compassion. In his disillusionment, he’s thrown the baby out with the bath water as you say, by dismissing the historical accuracy of religious texts and also believes this nullifies the significance of the entire message.

I think he’s just so disappointed with the religious choices he made that he now rejects them all. He’s not open to other people’s faiths and sort of mocks them. He seems to have lost the point that it was never about religion and that true spiritual cultivation is nondenominational. I bet if I tried to talk to him about meditation, he’d think it the silliest thing ever. He started out as a baptist then spent 22yrs with the JWs and now considers himself atheist. My mother is the opposite and takes the literal JW view of the bible. My father is right though when he says her version of “truth” is the very same idolatry that the bible warns about. My father quotes the scriptures like a pro and reminds her that in Genesis, Abraham smashed the idols of his father. He plainly tells her straight that Jehovah has become her idol. The importance of Jesus gets very downplayed in that organisation.

I really hope my father is able to open his eyes some day and see the crucial need for spiritual scaffolding to remain in place in his life. I don’t hold out much hope for my mother though. She seems to be get more blind, paranoid and unreasonable in her beliefs as time goes by.

Sincerely,
Claude

Robert June 4, 2015 at 6:41 pm

Claudine,

Thank you for all your so may thoughtful comments. It is wonderful how you are emerging from your parental environment that is mixed with agnosticism and blind JW observance. I am glad the SOS articles are helping you explore avenues of spiritual development that are appealing to you. Deeper union with God seems to be the common goal of SOS people, in all our different ways according to our backgrounds and personalities. In finding my way in this diverse spectrum, I seemed to have become more supportive than others of the importance of bible scripture “as is” and of the value of exoteric interpretations and practices, although I am well aware of their limitations and of the value of esoteric interpretations. Unlike many others I become uncomfortable with attempts to use a specialized interpretation of scripture that in a subtle way demeans and discredits the scripture “as is” and tends to break off into a customized theology that disregards that part of the nature of God that is external to the individual, although I value the part of God that resides in the individual.

There is a theory that I embraced for about a year, but now am far less supportive of it; that many written narratives including the worlds various sacred writings are equally legitimate attempts to convey the same universal spirituality that is difficult to convey directly and so these stories all use fictitious allegories to try to bring the reader to some sense of what it is; none of them are to be taken literally; no one is more special than the other. This IS true for many narratives and sacred writings, but I believe the bible is special and in a different category, although I will not carry it to the extreme of insisting that every passage in it is infallible and inerrant. The fundamentalists have carried it too far, especially by insisting on every passage being meant to be taken literally, and have driven many people who have been in those environments to drop out, become agonistics, or try to satisfy their interest in spirituality in other religions. I agree that there is a lot of wisdom in other religions of the world, and very much worth exploring, but it is not the same. The bible has a thread of prophecy weaving through it, events that were foretold and came to pass, including the nature and timing of the appearance of the Messiah and what would happen to him, and also the destiny of the nation of Israel. Many esoteric schools of thought have overlooked that, dismissing the bible as just another narrative, and concluding that Jesus Christ was not literal or historical, or did not perform the deeds that were written of him, or that he did exist but was just another great teacher, to be included as one more of the dozens of avatars in the passing parade of human history. It is possible that in exploring the many esoteric explanations out there, that one will get progressively sucked into believing that God is only within each man’s soul, which is a new kind of blindness than the kind from the dogmatic religions.

I didn’t mean to imply you were personally being dismissive of the bible. Sorry if it came across that way. I was reacting to the potential that some schools of esoteric belief promote, as a way of precaution.

Kathlene Glover June 5, 2016 at 6:32 pm

Hi! I love love love this blog just to start off. Could you explain the metaphor in “spare the rod spoil the child” and proverbs 22:15? I know it is not literal but I am searching for a deeper understanding. Plus I have 2 children that are very strong willed! This explanation and guidance is appreciated!!

Joshua Tilghman July 2, 2016 at 1:23 pm

Kathlene,

Some truths are both literal and figurative. Here the literal is important. Every child will develop their own individuality, will, and ego. If we use the rod without instruction, we are no better than something wild that just attacks. Sometimes we must use the rod, but we must explain WHY and what we wish to protect them from. We are responsible for allowing our children enough freedom and a big enough fence to learn in, but at the same time we must confine that fence to a certain area so that they don’t get hurt. The problem is, that when we don’t do this from a young enough age it gets harder in older age. Teenagers are much harder to explain things to. I do not know that age of your children, but remember that whatever punishment you bring, they understand the reason why you are doing so. They will at least respect that even if they disagree. It may take them many life experiences of pain to eventually understand, but they will at some point. You are not responsible for making them perfect, but your heart’s intent will is the important thing. Don’t blame yourself when all doesn’t always go as you planned.

Robert July 3, 2016 at 11:53 am

Hi Kathlene,

I interpret the “rod” as a metaphor for any type of reasonable discipline. Spanking is no longer considered reasonable by most psychologists in this day and age. If you google as I did the term “is spanking OK Psychology Today” you will discover an abundance of articles across the board warning against spanking and some of them suggesting more effective and less damaging alternatives. These findings are based on scientific research within the last five or ten years comparing groups of children who were and were not spanked. According to these studies spanking in the long run causes more aggression and can lower mental functioning. This is in stark contrast to speculation and opinions about “a few tears being worth the results”. Charles Dobson’s Focus on the Family ministry advocated spanking of strong willed children in the 1980’s that highly influenced religious conservative cultures who are still interpreting the proverb about the rod literally and spanking away. I have known many people who went to Catholic private schools who were paddled by nuns and became atheists.

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