Updated: Jul 19
Coral Isles Church June 19, 2022
Dark Night of the Soul (Kenosis)
Rev. Dr. Terry Hudson
My daughter, Deborah, is the Director of Caring Ministries at the Methodist Church in
Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Recently she sent me this prayer which she had written:
Thank you for being there in the midst of our troubles. Help us lean on you and
when trouble strikes and not to fear anything, because of your promises and
love. When I was in trouble, I called out to You, Lord, and You answered me.
I am sure that many cultures and places have felt they had a unique claim to being
troubled. Our times, however, seem to be particularly troubled. The war in Ukraine is one of the first such aggressions since World War II. In the U.S. The January 6 th Insurrection and the resulting Congressional Hearings are unprecedented. COVID has struck the entire world and claimed millions of lives here and abroad. In my own life, I had cardiac by-pass surgery. This past week Teresa and I learned that my ex-wife and her partner are going to Rehab and Assisted Living respectively. Just a few days ago, we just learned that our beloved pastor, Bruce, has COVID.
Life is easy -- when everything goes alright. But what about those times when things
don't go OK, when life is hard? What about those times when nothing seems to work, when
things stop clicking, when we fall into a hole? You have heard about the pessimist who not only slips into a rut but furnishes it!
We all have those moments when the bottom seems to fall out. We despair of ever being
whole or happy again. There are times when we are tempted to give up, to quit on life. There are times when some people call it quits. These are the moments when some of us contemplate the ultimate surrender—suicide. It is said that suicide is the permanent solution to a temporary problem. There are moments when we are overcome by depression and despair.
In fact, however, these are sacred moments, full of possibility. These moments when we
don't feel we can go down any further are the times when the only direction we can go is up.
There are times when we experience what John of the Cross, a sixteenth-century Spanish mystic, referred to as “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Who here has had a “dark night of the soul?”
Alcoholics Anonymous teaches that “lack of power was our dilemma.” Addiction
recovery tells us that it is necessary—indeed, essential—that we hit bottom before we can begin to climb, to recover. It is difficult to start our upward ascent until we are at our lowest point. We become willing as only the dying can be.
It is one of the ironies of life that there is a gift in desperation, a victory in surrender, a
sunrise that follows the night. Let us not make the mistake of trying to shun all loss and tragedy in life – these things are inevitable. Let us learn instead to find the potential inherent in them.
There is something special and sacred about the low moments, the times of despair.
Traditional Christian theology talks about how Christ voluntarily divested himself of divine
powers to become human and live as a man. Philippians 2:8 says he “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.”
This teaching of being emptied out is known as kenosis, taken from the Greek word
keno. This emptying out is essential to make room to be filled with something else, something
more. As one theologian put it, “For Paul, to have the mind of Christ is specifically to be kenotic in accommodating the needs of others, especially those who are poor or weak in the community”
(Lee 2018). We then realized that “genuine love has a kenotic quality” (Lee, 2018). So, too, let
us not begrudge the moments we feel defeated and depressed. It is only by the emptying of self that we can identify and empathize with others who likewise suffer. In a sense, we create space for them, we validate them and give them permission and encouragement to be filled.
Unmerited suffering is the theme that we find in ancient times, going back at least as far
as the Book of Job. Job, as we know, was a wealthy, upright and blameless man who lived in a land called Uzi (many have reflected on the similarity to L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz).
According to the Old Testament, God allows Satan to torment Job, but forbids him to take Job’s life. Job’s livestock, servants and children die. Job himself is afflicted with severe skin sores.
Friends visit and tell Job that although he comforted other people, he never really understood their pain. Job’s losses thus become a means to understand and empathize with others. The meaning of Job’s hitting bottom and being emptied out is expressed in his affirmations: “Shall we receive good from God and shall we not receive evil?” and “The Lord giveth, and the Lord takes it away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
In sixteenth century Spain, Teresa of Avila wrote a poem: “Nada te turbe; nada te
espante; todo se pasa.” Translated it means, “Let nothing disturb you; Let nothing make you
afraid; All things pass.” Teresa was mentor to another Carmelite, a diminutive man who was less than five feet tall. This cleric became known as John of the Cross and wrote the book, La Noche Oscura (The Dark Night of the Soul).
In the 1980’s, Harold Kushner wrote his popular book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good
People. And our friend Richard Agler, who was rabbi of the Upper Keys Jewish Center,
published his book, The Tragedy Test, provoked by the untimely death of his twenty-year-old
daughter. He concludes that the “God of Law and Spirit is one with and does not overturn the
laws of the universe. This God … may not be all the God we want. But it is a God we have.”
Before I moved to the Keys, I lived in Up-State New York. I knew a man there named
Julius. Julius was an alcoholic who had newly found recovery, but he had trouble accepting the fact that he couldn’t drink any more. Day after day, he would moan, “Why me? Why me? Why me?” One memorable day he began to say something different—he started to say, “Why not me?”
Teresa and I enjoy children’s stories like The Little Prince and The Run-Away Bunny. I
think her favorite is The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. If you haven’t read it, or if you
haven’t read it in a long time, it bears re-reading—as she did this morning.
In the story, the Velvet Rabbit met another toy in the boy’s nursery—an old Skin Horse.
The rabbit asks the Skin Horse, “What is Real? Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?” “Real isn’t how you are made,” replied the Skin Horse, “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time . . . you become real.” “Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” the Rabbit asked, “or bit by bit.”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. These things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
So, my friends, let us try not to despair if we and our world are going through a “Dark
Night of the Soul.” Try not to despair if you feel you have hit a bottom in life, if you feel an
inner emptiness, or if you feel you have fallen into a hole and you can’t seem to get out. Don’t
despair even if your hair gets thin, or if you have trouble seeing, or if you get loose in the joints.
If we are to believe the Skin Horse, let us be assured that we are not becoming ugly, but are
finally becoming lovable, complete, and real.