I’m visiting a dank, dusty hallway in the basement of our house. I don’t go there often, and the lighting is poor. I open one of the old closets there, and something shifts in the shadows. I peer in, then pull back suddenly, recognizing the dark shape. It’s a human figure, thin and scraggly. Me.
Lent is traditionally a time for spring cleaning our souls. It’s an opportunity to take a spiritual inventory, to swat at the cobwebs in the corners, greet neglected items, and face lingering issues we’ve put off for months.
It’s not something we readily do. Christians, and our communities, can be exceedingly reluctant to engage our shadowy side. Christian culture, like the culture that surrounds us, prefers a pleasant sail on the surface of the sea than a plunge to the murky bottom, the subterranean vault where strange creatures lurk.
St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) wrote that as young Christians we often bask in the joy of being found in God’s grace. Caressed by the Spirit, we pray with great enthusiasm and fill our lives with refreshing religious activities. But then, he says, “there will come a time when God will bid [us] to grow deeper. He will remove the previous consolation from the soul in order to teach it virtue and prevent it from developing vice.” St. John calls this moment in the spiritual life of the Christian the “dark night of the soul.”
He experienced such a dark night. An associate of St. Teresa of Avila, he was a reformer in the order of Carmelites in Spain and was imprisoned by those who opposed his reforms. While in his dingy cell he wrote his most famous work, The Dark Night of the Soul, in which he explains how God takes away our initial spiritual consolation in order to bring us to a deeper faith. In the shadows of that night, the soul confronts its pride, greed, luxury, anger, gluttony, and sloth, and with God’s help, transforms those vices to humility, simplicity, contentment, peace, moderation, joy, and strength.
As Reformed Christians, we are shy when it comes to the more mystical side of our faith, but we can be swift to acknowledge our depravity. We do have shadows—those parts of ourselves and our congregations that are not part of our self-perception, those parts of us that we are loath to acknowledge or confront. It may be unnamed fears, self-justifying hates, or buried envy. Our shadows need not necessarily be vices—it may be fear of our sexuality or our spontaneity, gifts that gather dust through neglect or shame. To be responsive to these shadows, to talk about them with a pastor, mentor, friend, or spiritual director, as I did, is a vital step in spiritual growth.
Through this work and grace our spiritual house can become a more hospitable space. We can lay the welcome mat by the door, for the inside is well lit and there is friendly color on the walls. The plumbing may be undergoing some repair, but through an open window wafts the smell of fresh bread from the oven. The basement is still there, but it’s well-dusted and the dampness is gone.
Spirituality can be messy and mysterious. It’s good to be free to investigate our darker hallways and to allow God to challenge us, move us, heal us. Lent is always a movement toward freedom and forgiveness, opening us to risk love more readily.