(Note: I couldn’t help but think of this little bit of writing of mine during Mass today, as the Gospel was the raising of Lazarus. Frankly, I think it is one of the best things I’ve ever written and sums up much of my life for the last few years. I hope you find it edifying to read as it was to write.)
“Now there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud.” Jeremiah 38:6.
One of my all-time favorite stories from the Old Testament is the story of the Prophet Jeremiah being thrown into a waterless cistern. Opposed to his preaching, a group of men abducted the Prophet and using ropes, they threw him into the Cistern that was full of mud. The goal here, of course, was not to kill the Prophet, but simply to let him suffer – to let him die as slow and painful a death as possible. Scripture does not say for how long the Prophet was there, but it makes sure that we know that he sank in the mud.
Into that dank darkness of a dome-shaped room with a singular opening at its top, the Prophet was thrown. I’ve always wondered what he did while he sank in the mud. Did he wipe the sludge off his mouth, roll over to face that small opening and sing the Psalms and Lamentations in minor tones, “Why have you forsaken me, my God? Why are you so far from my cry?” Did he crawl through muddy darkness, groping for the walls and upon reaching them, try to frantically claw his way to that opening high above in the ceiling? Did he fall back into the brown ooze after each failed attempt? Did he scream his voice hoarse at those who had done this about the gross injustice of it all – how they will be sorry when the divine justice rains down like fire? Scripture says he did none of these things — it says simply that he sank in the mud.
Perhaps after being thrown into the darkness of that waterless cistern, he groped his way to the wall, wiped the mud off his mouth and eyes and waited. Perhaps he watched as the square-shaped light from the sun began its linear move on the mud, marking sunrise and sunset. He waited, watching the reverse progression of the soft light of the moon as it waxed and waned in brightness throughout his time there. He sank in the mud as he could hear the whispers and taunts from the voices through the opening. Occasionally, through the same square-shaped opening, he could see their faces — drunk in loud celebration — by the faint flickers of their torches. They feasted, for they had rid themselves of this meddlesome Prophet, but he starved; they were drunk with wine, but he was sober as a heart attack; they thought they were masters of their own fate, but he sank in the mud, powerless to do anything about it.
I imagine that this is very similar to what Lazarus experienced as he was laid dead in his cave, awaiting the Word. I wonder what Lazarus thought about during all this as his stench became overwhelming. (John 11:39) Did he curse God, who had left him here to die because Jesus had taken so long? Did he open his voiceless mouth in Psalms and Lamentations before the Lord? Did he even know the power of Christ to raise him? Or did he, like his sister, believe in the general resurrection of the dead? (11:24) Regardless, like the Prophet Jeremiah, he sank in the mud of his own rotting flesh, wrapped in cloths and powerless to do anything about it.
Many words have been written and said about the Spirituality of Mary and Martha – Lazarus’ sisters. We know it well enough: Mary, the contemplative who sits at Jesus’ feet and Martha, the busybody who ignores Him for the dishes. But we never talk about the Spirituality of Lazarus: the spirituality of a dead man who is powerless, save for waiting for the Lord. The active Martha’s are told to quiet down and choose the better part, the more passive Mary’s are encouraged but it is only to the completely dead Lazarus that resurrection happens. We would do well to remember this when discussing prayer and spirituality, for miracles happen to those who sink in the mud of life and are completely powerless to do anything about it.
I presume the reason why we don’t hear much about the Spirituality of Lazarus and the Prophet Jeremiah, is because we believe we are masters of our own spiritual journey. And we love the story of Mary and Martha, because it is all about choice, isn’t it? Martha just needs to spend a few more hours doing “spiritual” things doesn’t she – she should really pick up Yoga or read her Prayer Book or mind her beads, shouldn’t she? And Mary! “Mary hath chosen the better part”, hasn’t she? And we contemplate what wonders happen to the soul when it spends a few moments alone with Jesus, in spite of the dirty dishes. We go home, fortified in our desire to choose to spend more time doing more “spiritual” things. And we are fortified for good reason, thanks be to God.
What our typical discussions of spirituality (and of Mary and Martha) fail to leave out is that this life is a muddy cistern. This life is being dead in a cave. Our idea of “spirituality” is all about making an illusion that we actually not in a cistern or dead. So, we hang up lovely pictures on the cistern wall and contemplate how beautiful life is in this muddy cistern. We speak to each other with beautiful words, all while holding our noses out each others’ stench, pretending like we’re not already dead. We look at the sun’s light on the floor through that small opening and smile about how lovely it is to be outside. We smile naively because we do not know what terrible bondage we are in — even though we talk much about freedom and “making good decisions”. Now hear me clear here: this life is a wonderful mystery and we are to be good stewards of our own life and the lives of others. But, as St. Therese of Lisieux was fond of saying, “The world is thy ship, but not thy home.”
The Dark Night of the Soul never lets you forget the fact that this temporal life is transitory. It never lets you forget the fact that you were made for another life, for the life of the world to come. For the first time, perhaps, we see that “spiritual” things – wonderful though they are in bringing us in union with Christ — do not change the fact that this life is a muddy cistern and being dead in a cave. That when the rapture ends, when our beautiful words cease being spoken, when the good feelings stop, there we are in a muddy cistern, dead in a cave. And as marvelous as this life can be, we will never again be tricked into the illusion that it is anything but a muddy cistern, being dead in the cave. As sweet as this life is, it sucks. When the wool is pulled from our eyes, we see that we are sinking in the mud, and our flesh is rotting and we are powerless to do anything about it.
When our eyes open to the darkness for the first time, it is frightening! We thought the mud was beautiful and the stench of death as a sweet perfume! We cry out in pain, “My God! Why have you left me?” Yet, it is our former illusions about Him and Reality that are crumbling around us – not His presence. We do everything we can to frantically save those illusions. Lesser men – such as myself — may try to claw their way out (the spiritus vertiginus and the spirit of fornication). They may call down fire from heaven on their oppressors, unsure if God really wants them to be there (the spirit of blasphemy). They curse God and wonder why He has left them. But the Prophet Jeremiah and Lazarus, in their Dark Nights of the Soul down there in that muddy cistern, in that cave of death, did nothing but wait and sink in the mud. They might have said in the words of the Psalmist to their anxious selves, “In the Lord have I taken refuge; how then can you say to me, ‘Fly away like a bird to the hilltop’?” (11:1) For the miracle of resurrection and rescue happen for such as these who are powerless.
So, too, shall I wait, as my world crashes around me, as relationships end, as I change, as my prayers change, as I feel only the poverty of loneliness. I shall wait as lies are exposed in the harsh light of darkness. I shall wait as I am powerless to do anything about it. I shall wait with Lazarus until I hear that voice say, “Come forth!” I shall wait with the Prophet Jeremiah until friendly ropes are lowered, covered with the old rags of a King’s garments.
I shall wait until I hear that voice so familiar to my soul (like an old sweater) say to me in my Dark Night, “Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone . . .” (SS 2:10-11) And I shall mount up with wings of the dawn to Him who is All-Love and All-Goodness into that life without sorrow of the world without end — the world for which I was made.
I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lillies.
The Dark Night of the Soul, Prologue.