Excerpted from The Desert Pilgrim with permission of Viking.
"What if you can't hang on to hope?" I asked Father Sergei. "What if you sink down into depression like St. Francis and stay in that state?"
One of the younger monks appeared at the back door of the monastery, his brown habit flowing to his sandaled feet, bagpipes in hand. He turned toward Father Sergei. "Is it all right if I practice my pipes?"
"Of course!" Father Sergei waved him on, then explained, "That monk is musical, so here we are in the middle of the barrio dancing to-what else?-Scottish bagpipe music." The younger monk blew into his reed, emitting a low, mournful drone.
"So what if you sink into a deep depression and stay there?" Father Sergei repeated. "So what if?"
"How do you pull yourself out?"
"Why force yourself out? Why not just stay there?""Oh, because it feels awful.""So are we talking about despair?""Yes.""A despair that's so black that you feel like you've been abandoned by everyone including God?""You've got it.""Aha! Then we're no longer talking about mere depression. We're talking about the `dark night of the soul,' as St. John of the Cross called it. St. John was one of us. He was of converso stock. A small guy-just four feet eleven-but full of big ideas. He became a Carmelite and friends with St. Teresa of Avila. Together they set out to reform their order. John's fellow Carmelites arrested him and dumped him in prison for nine months."
"Sí. Reformers are never very popular among their own. He was stashed in a six-by-ten cell. There was little light. Fray John was repeatedly beaten, and his body bore the marks the rest of his life. Just like St. Francis, St. John suffered horribly in solitary confinement, but it also launched him into mysticism. He went with the experience and began some of his famous poems there."The rhythm of the younger monk's music kept up a steady tempo. The monk tapped his foot and swayed slightly with the beat. I pictured St. John, alone, disheveled, despondent in his filthy cell, penning those lines, "One dark night . . . O guiding light! / O night more lovely than the dawn," to the musical accompaniment of the bagpipes."But how quickly fortunes turn," Father Sergei said, his fingers tapping time to the music against his leg. "John finally escaped from prison and became a head honcho in the Carmelites. But here's the important thing: He didn't become stuck-up and let his power go to his head. He continued to work like a real person, scrubbing the abbey floors and tiles, doing carpentry, and working in the garden. He showed solidarity with the worker and compassion toward the ill. He knew how to care for the sick, comfort them, and give them hope."But unlike St. Francis," Father Sergei continued, "St. John's fame didn't arise from his acts of charity. He founded another kind of healing ministry-an exploration of the interior of the soul. And what did the dark night of the soul mean to St. John? It was a metaphor for his experience of solitary confinement. His physical imprisonment became the symbolic walls of a deep depression-that despair we were talking about. There, you can see only darkness and experience nothingness, no joy or hope. Life no longer has passion, mission, or direction. Prayer becomes a burden. In the blackness, you renounce all desire, all grounding in previous securities, ideas of religion, concepts of God, even of mysticism. It is as if you have to open a void and fall into it to obtain higher consciousness."
"But how can you move to higher consciousness in solitary confinement? I'd be so pissed at the people who put me there."