After a car accident, author Mary Swander experienced agonizing chronic pain that was later traced to a spinal cord infection. She began to seek out nontraditional healing remedies in the American Southwest, where she met Father Sergei, an Orthodox priest ministering to poor Latino communities. When Swander asked Fr. Sergei how to cope with depression, Fr. Sergei responded by telling the story of St. John of the Cross, a Spanish monk who struggled with his own "dark night of the soul."
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?"
"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."
"His own monks put him in prison?"
"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."
Father Sergei paused, wincing and holding his side in pain. "I told you I have liver and kidney damage from my beatings," Father Sergei said. "Lu across the street gives me herbs. Sí, her herbs have kept me alive for many years. But what has really been my salvation is forgiveness. I let go of my anger. I don't hold on to fury. I don't even let it enter my system. I forgive from the start. Every time I was beaten, I forgave. That's what the Gospel means when it says that we must forgive our enemies. We must literally forgive and not go down the path of hate in the first place. St. John forgave his tormentors even while they imprisoned him. He is a model for all of us."
"Does forgiveness carry you through the dark night?"
"Forgiveness allows you to fall deeper into the dark night."
"I told you that you want to sink down into the dark night and stay there," Father Sergei said. "You are fighting so hard to get out. You must enter into that void, because then you make the great discovery that God is the void, God is the dark night."
"How could God be the dark night?"
"How could you be listening to bagpipe music in the middle of the Albuquerque barrio?" Father Sergei laughed. "You'll find the Divine in paradox, in contradictions, in the moment of surprise. You're not going to find the Divine in some safe, cozy little apartment where everything moves along at a predictable pace."
The bagpipe music picked up its beat, the dirge shifting into a faster reel. "You can get through the morass," Father Sergei reassured me. "St. John understood that God is the abyss, the dry desert. When you abandon yourself to this dark presence, this inner guide, you are led to the other side. You persevere. The sufferer finds comfort in knowing that all pain contains the hand of God. Suffering is a purification process, clearing away the debris of attachment and making way for the Divine light. For St. John, pain was not a misfortune but a value when endured with and for Christ. Not that St. John advocated suffering. Oh, no. During this time there were monks who whipped and beat themselves in an attempt to purify themselves. The Penitentes, we called them in New Mexico. Fray John referred to these acts as the `penance of beasts.' "
"So, you mustn't beat up on yourself."
"Never. Never physically nor emotionally. No. St. John, like St. Teresa and all the other mystics, learned to detach. We might think of the practice of detachment as watching life go by as if it were a movie. It's there to view, to enjoy, but we mustn't become embroiled in its anxieties. You see, it's another contradiction. The soul must leave all things by denying its appetite for them. The soul advances by abandonment, finding truth in God. When all has been strained away, our emptiness will be filled with a new presence, a union with God. Appetites interfere with this union. You must let the union happen. You must allow yourself to be carried along by God as a child does before it learns to walk.
"St. John viewed the world from a different perspective. Literally, in his writings and sketches, he imagines himself gazing down at the world from the top of a summit. He detaches himself to merge with God, body and soul, becoming one. St. John described this merging in terms of courtly love-the imagery of his day. The soul is the bride. Christ is the groom. Their union is permanent. The soul `breathes in God just as God breathes in her. Of me are the heavens and of me is the earth.' Oh, St. John was a harto santo-a real saint. That's what St. Teresa called him when he became her confessor."
"But should we always live like St. John in such sanctity?" I asked Father Sergei. "Shouldn't we ever fight back?"
"Oh, I didn't say that."
"But you let the gangs beat you up . . ."
"Have you never heard of nonviolent passive resistance? Of Gandhi? One of the first tenets of Buddhism is that you are the center of the world-not in an egocentric way, not in the way that St. Francis objected to, but in a way that allows you to realize that your small actions, whether good or bad, have an effect on the universe. You see, that's St. John's example with his tormentors. Who knows which of those gang members will absorb my message of love-maybe none of them. But at least it gave them pause. It made them become aware for one small moment of their own lives. Perhaps they were one tiny step closer to what Buddha said about life, that it is neither brown, black, nor white, that it is neither tall nor short, fat nor thin. That life just is."
Perhaps pain and suffering just are, I thought. A part of life, a part of the whole. Sister Death, Brother Pain. If I thought of them in more intimate, integral terms, they could take on personas, different faces, different personalities. What if we didn't have suffering? I asked myself. Imagine that world. How would the human psyche change? I came back to St. Teresa and St. John's idea of detachment. In the Divine light, detached, free of the bonds of attachment, humans could live at a higher, deeper level-one with more compassion, awareness, and gratitude. One with more passion and even more humor.
The younger monk trilled the final bar of his reel, the notes carrying far in the dry air, up and over the barrio. He bowed to us and disappeared back into the house, his set of pipes clacking on his back.