A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 25, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: “Stanzas of the Soul” by John of the Cross and Psalm 42
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

You may think the annual Niles Flea Market is big, but every 500 years the church universal holds a rummage sale, and when that happens, watch out! You may remember Pastor Brenda or me talking about this before. I was introduced to the idea by Phyllis Tickle. Phyllis Tickle says she got the idea from Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer.[1] This is how Tickle explains it:

Phyllis Tickle

“[A]bout every 500 years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable … hard shell, that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.”

Around the year 500, the Christian world was thrown into chaos with the fall of the Roman Empire. Gregory the Great created a church run by monasteries and convents. About 500 years later, the Eastern and Western churches split in what is called “The Great Schism,” and a church that vested all power in the bishop of Rome (also known as the Pope), was created. About 500 years after that, in the 1500s, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and others sought to reform the calcified Roman Catholic church and ended up starting Protestant churches. And 500 years after that – well, we’re living 500 years after that, and something new is beginning to emerge.

When these mighty upheavals have happened, Tickle says, “history shows us, there are always at least three consistent results or corollary events. First, a new, more vital form of Christianity does indeed emerge”[2] – the monastic movement, the Roman Catholic church, the Protestant churches.

“Second, the organized expression of Christianity that up until then had been the dominant one is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of its former self.”[3] In other words, while a new movement is born, the old movement is (typically reluctantly) renewed.

Tickle also notes, “The third result is of equal, if not greater, significance. Every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity have been broken open, the faith has spread – and been spread – dramatically into new geographic and demographic areas, thereby increasing exponentially the range and depth of Christianity’s reach as a result of its time of unease and distress.  Thus, for example, the birth of Protestantism not only established a new, powerful way of being Christian, but it also forced Roman Catholicism to make changes in its own structures and praxis. As a result of both those changes, Christianity was spread over far more of the earth’s territories than had ever been true in the past.”[4]

While Tickle is particularly excited by this third result, it is the second result, the renewal of the existing movement, that most interests me for today’s sermon.

St. John of the Cross

The man we now know as John of the Cross was born in the midst of the 1500s, in the midst of the last rummage sale. He was born in 1542 in Spain to a father who had been disowned by his merchant-class father (John’s grandfather) because John’s father married for love rather than social status. Thus, John grew up in poverty, a poverty made worse when his father died. He joined the Carmelite order friars in 1563, taking on the name John of St. Matthias.

In 1567, he met Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite nun who was trying to reform her order of women religious. She encouraged John to do the same among the friars, a task he undertook. It was at this time, undertaking his mission, that John changed his religious name to John of the Cross. His mission to reform his order encountered both support and resistance. He was kidnapped twice and imprisoned, including spending nine months in the monastery prison in Toledo.[5]

In this quick sketch of John’s life we see what Tickle talks about. As the calcified institution that was the Roman Catholic church was dealing with the Protestant Reformation, a movement within Catholicism was trying to reform as well. Eventually, John’s efforts took root, for in the 1700s John was named a Saint and in the 1900s he was named a “Doctor of the Church.”[6] But initially, as Tickle points out is typical, his attempts at reformation were met with resistance.

His imprisonment in Toledo is key to our sermon today. This is how Barbara Brown Taylor describes it:

Barbara Brown Taylor

“When John refused to renounce his work with Teresa, he was beaten and thrown into the monastery prison, where he survived on little more than bread and water. He was not allowed to bathe or change his clothes. He was not permitted to leave his cell, except for the ‘circular discipline’ of being flogged by other monks.

“After two months, John was placed in solitary confinement, where the only light he saw came through a slit in his prison wall. It was there that he began to compose his greatest works – first by memorizing the words in the dark and later, thanks to a kind jailer, by writing them down. When he escaped after nine months, he fled to the south of Spain, where the reformed Carmelites were freer from persecution. There he continued to write down what he learned in the dark.”[7]

His most famous work is called, The Dark Night of the Soul. Most people who hear the title “assume that it is a memoir of a survivor describing the worst period of his life. Because we have been programed to equate “dark” with evil and sinister, we expect this work to tell us about “how awful it was but how John got through it by hanging on to his faith in God no matter what happened to him.”[8] But the work starts with the poem we heard read, and that poem sure sounds to me like a love poem.[9] And it is. For out of John’s time of hardship came a gift: a deep, passionate love of God. Not an understanding about God, but a deep, passionate love of God.

John starts with that love poem, and then goes on to expound on the poem – for 100 pages. And it’s not easy reading. So I have relied much more on what others have written about what John wrote.

Taylor explains the challenges: “In the first place, John does not have much to say about religion. His language is passionate and speaks directly to the senses. For him, the dark night is a love story, full of the painful joy of seeking the most elusive lover of all. In the second place, he is no help at all to anyone seeking a better grip on God. One of the central functions of the dark night, he says, is to convince those who grasp after things that God cannot be grasped. In John’s native Spanish, his word for God is nada. God is no-thing. God is not a thing. And since God is not a thing, God cannot be held on to. God can only be encountered as that which eclipses the reality of all other things.”[10]

The idea that God is nada is, at first, disturbing to me. God as no-thingness is awfully close to nothingness. And I tend to abhor a vacuum. Yet, somehow, the idea that God is nada seems also very accurate. When I started out my journey, I was carrying an image of God that was somehow a cross between an image Santa and an image of the Abraham Lincoln seated on the large chair, the throne of the Lincoln Memorial. And somewhere along the way, I let go of that baggage.

Other images have come and gone, and the one that I have left is perhaps more easy to describe by telling you want it isn’t than by telling you what it is. It isn’t a person; it isn’t a thing; it isn’t a being – or at least not a being separate from, or not a being only separate from, or … The one thing I know for sure is that my image isn’t complete.

“‘If you have understood, then what you have understood is not God,’ Saint Augustine said in the fourth century. Sixteen hundred years later, the Northern Irish theologian Peter Rollins says the same thing with equal force. God is an event, he says, ‘not a fact to be grasped but an incoming to be undergone.’”[11]

The dark night of the soul tends to come in the midst of crisis. Descriptions of the coming of the dark night have in common a sense of “the soul being tested, often to the point of losing faith, by circumstances beyond all control.”[12] When this crisis comes, it seems as if God is absent. If God is light, then God is gone. “There is no soft glowing space of safety in this dark night. There is no comforting sound coming out of it, reassuring the soul that all will be well.”[13]

For some people, when this dark night descends, it is really important to see a doctor. The dark night and a depression can seem very similar and can be easily confused. John “makes a distinction between tinieblas, the kind of darkness you would be wise to turn away from, and oscura, which simple means obscure, or difficult to see.… Like tinieblas, depression can take people apart without putting them back together again, while la noche oscura is for healing.… [W]hen depression passes, all is restored; when the dark night passes, all is transformed.”[14]

“God puts out our lights to keep us safe, John says, because we are never more in danger of stumbling than when we think we know where we are going. When we can no longer see the path we are on, when we can no longer read the maps we have brought with us or sense anything in the dark that might tell us where we are, then and only then are we vulnerable to God’s protection. This remains true even when we cannot discern God’s presence. The only thing the dark night requires of us is to remain conscious. If we can stay with the moment in which God seems most absent, the night will do the rest.”[15]

Perhaps you can see why I picked this particular quote for the thought for quiet reflection printed in your bulletin. A fuller version goes like this:

Minnie Louise Haskins

“And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
“And he replied: ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’
“So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.”[16]

We started this series because both Pastor Brenda and I found Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, to be inspiring and because we thought that during this time when we are between buildings, we, as a church, are wandering. And for some, perhaps for many, this time may feel like we’re aren’t just wandering, but that we’re wandering in the dark. So, learning to walk in the dark seemed an apt task for this season.

This series has one more sermon that Pastor Brenda will offer in two weeks (we’ll both be on Study Leave next Sunday), so what I’m about to say isn’t the conclusion of the series. It’s only the conclusion of this sermon. That said, all of my sermons so far have been about finding some aspect of gift in the dark, about seeing not being able to see as a gift. That is certainly the case for the dark night of the soul – it is a gift. It is a gift that comes at great cost. One must wander through the valley of the shadow of the death of faith.

But that valley can be a teacher. It can teach us that everything we thought we knew, especially about God, isn’t … well, it’s not so much that everything we thought we knew about God is wrong, as it is completely incomplete. It is limited, and limiting. Therefore our faith is always incomplete, always limited, always limiting. And therefore, faith is really about the journey toward completeness, and not about completeness itself. The journey is the thing … or, perhaps, the no-thing.

“The only thing the dark night requires of us is to remain conscious. If we can stay with the moment in which God seems most absent, the night will do the rest.”[17]


[1] Phyllis Tickle, “The Great Emergence,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/magazine/2008/08/great-emergence (posted August 2008; accessed 24 January 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Don Mullan, The Little Book of St. John of the Cross (Dublin: The Columbia Press, 2003), 7-9.

[6] Ibid, 10.

[7] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 136-137.

[8] Ibid, 137.

[9] See page 16 of The Dark Night of the Soul at http://www.basilica.org/pages/ebooks/St.%20John%20of%20the%20Cross-Dark%20night%20of%20the%20soul.pdf.

[10] Taylor, 137-138.

[11] Ibid, 144.

[12] Ibid, 133-134.

[13] Ibid, 134.

[14] Ibid, 136.

[15] Ibid, 146-147.

[16] From Minnie Louise Haskins, “God Knows,” quoted from “The Gate of the Year,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gate_of_the_Year (accessed 24 January 2015).

[17] Taylor, 147.