Christians like to talk a lot of trash about idol worshipers: those backwards folks in the Bible, who, for example, made a golden calf even as Moses received the Torah. Such stories are commonly interpreted to implicate all of us. Our desire for money. Our reverence for education. Our devotion to our children or spouses or parents.Who can blame us, really? We are tactile beings; loving a thing without also wanting to touch it is hard for us. Who wouldn’t trade abstraction for a god whose feet we can kiss? However misguided such an impulse might be, surely it is forgivable.
Years ago, when I dabbled in voodoo, I liked making offerings to Erzulie and Papa Legba. I liked imagining my offerings had been received, and that the gods were pleased. This same desire drove me to light candles at the Orthodox Church, and kiss the icons’ mournful, painted faces.
This desire to touch what is holy is also why I went to a Greek monastery on Monday evening, even though I haven’t been to the Orthodox Church in two years. It was the beginning of Holy Week. I will go as an outsider, I told myself. I will go as a guest, with eyes full of wonder—the way I came to the church five years ago, knowing nothing.
The room was sprinkled with fresh bay leaves and redolent with incense. Monks were chanting. It could have been great — it should have been great. I really wanted it to be great. But it was kind of meh. And I realized: I am still groping through my dark night. In my impatience be over it, or through it, I’d closed my eyes and fooled myself into thinking the darkness was a thing I could end when I chose. That it was something I could control.
We often use the phrase “Dark Night of the Soul” to indicate anyone going through a hard time. But a true dark night of the soul as meant by St. John of the Cross, who originated the term, means spiritual annihilation. Everything that previously made sense—the noble causes to which one devoted one’s life, the notions one had about God/church/the soul/the afterlife—all of it suddenly turns to dust. It comes without warning, and to those for whom it comes, there is no language, practice, or teaching that can undo it.
Picture an astronaut suddenly separated from from her craft, drawn helplessly toward the horizon of a black hole. As she drifts away from everything she’s ever known, she notes with irony that the stars look no nearer now than they seemed on earth.
This was how I felt two years ago, when the Orthodox Church and its concomitant practices — practices that once thrilled me — became ashes in my mouth.
No one understood. I scarcely understood it myself. Because I couldn’t explain it well, I didn’t tell many people. The people I did talk to alternately congratulated me, or chastised me for losing my religion. There were, and still are, people in my life who grieve the person they lost when my dark night descended.
It’s understandable. Dark nights happen to some and not others, and only God knows why. St. John of the Cross called it a holy experience. Tell that to my priest, I wanted to say. Tell it to my husband, who still mourns the “nice Christian girl” he thought he married. It doesn’t feel blessed, it feels like a wilderness.
But it’s not all bad. There’s a kind of abandon in it.
I cannot write about this without also admitting that last year I had what can only be described as a mystical experience. I have not written about it here, or anywhere, and suspect I never will. It would be impossible to describe without falling into hyperbole or overly poetic language. What I can tell you is that experience was the single most beautiful thing that has ever happened to me, and it changed me forever.
It also changed the way I think about God. In the blink of an eye, “God is love” went from being a metaphor I didn’t really understand, to a tender and visceral truth. If I could, if I knew how, I would summon that experience again and again. I would live in it, and never leave.
And yet, returning to the church was never a choice; it was an impossibility. Unfolding in my heart was—and is—a kind of spiritual entropy. I knew this before my mystical experience and nothing about the experience pointed me back in the direction from which I’d come. In some ways this was a relief. In others, it was a disappointment.
For someone like me, whose heart burns with God-lust, who grasps at anything that might lead me to the Divine, whose needle always points toward a kingdom whose gates I can’t seem to find—for someone like me, there is sorrow in learning that no one path, no matter how well-trodden, leads to God. God lives in the wild, a nomad with no fixed abode. You do not find God; God finds you. Sometimes only once. Sometimes not at all. And none of us can say why.
As you might suspect, I desperately wanted to be moved by the services at the monastery Monday night. Instead I bridled at the way men were allowed to kiss the icons before the women were. Are we not all one in Jesus Christ, I wondered? But this was not the issue, not really. Neither was the priest whose face glowed in the light from his phone, behind the iconostasis. My soul was like an octopus, groping the dim reaches of the sanctuary for God: Not here, not here. Not here.
But beyond the windows, swallows swooped through the exterior courtyard. Their shadows flickered through the golden panels of evening sun cast onto the monastery’s ceiling, and I thought about the archangels for whom the monastery was named. Did they also dip and soar beyond the walls? The birds’ flight was joyful and yet singularly full of purpose. Make me like that, I prayed.
I looked to the nearby icon of the Virgin for comfort or some sign that my prayer had been heard, but she only looked away from me with drooping, sorrow-filled eyes, offering her tiny son to the world. Jesus, too, seemed to be looking beyond me, over my shoulder or at the crown of my head. Only the image of John the Baptist would meet my gaze. The wild man, dweller-in-the-desert. Wearer of skins and eater of insects. The narrow fingers of one hand curled against his bony chest. He was pointing at something.
He was pointing at his own heart.
Stop searching, he seemed to be saying. Go within. You carry the only gate, right here, inside of you.
But I don’t know how to open it.
So I lit a candle in front of his icon instead.