A Good Companion for the Dark Night

St. Paul of the Cross (1694-1775)

St. Paul of the Cross (1694-1775)


Alister McGrath in his book The Journey wrote about spiritual “hitchhiking” (Doubleday 2000).

The journey is long and tiring… There will be moments when we sit down on the side of the road in dejection and wonder why we even bothered setting out in the first place…  But there is another thought… Others have made this same journey before us.  They have experienced its highs and lows firsthand. They developed ways of coping with the tiredness, cynicism, and downright waywardness they knew on that journey.  Its milestones are stained with their tears. And some of them have passed on their experiences and insights to those who follow.  We are not alone; we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1-2) who are shouting encouragement and advice to us as we struggle onward.  So how can we make the best use of this wisdom – wisdom that has been quarried from the living stone of past lives of faith and tested on the journey of faith?  And one answer is to hitchhike, to catch a ride with others who are much better at this kind of thing than we are…  To hitchhike is to get a free ride and travel in company.  By the end of our ride, we are farther along the road than when we started, and we have enjoyed company along the way.  To hitch a ride is to learn more about people and life as well as move along the road to our destination.  It is to learn from the wisdom of others, who accompany us for a while along the road before dropping us off. (29-31)

Last week I wrote about “The Dark Night of the Soul” and how I learned make sense of my own experience of it.  This was one of the most important discoveries in my spiritual life.  And this week I want to introduce you to a good friend of mine whose experience with and insight into the Dark Night of the Soul has carried me farther along the road than where I started.  His name is Paolo Francesco Danei and he was born the son of a wealthy merchant in Northern Italy.  He was a contemporary of many our nation’s founding fathers, albeit, living half a world away.  His spirituality is summarized by the prepositional modifier that’s traditionally been attached to his name.  Paolo is known as St. Paul “of the Cross,” and the brothers and sisters of his Order are called the “Passionists.”  All of this “fits” because Paolo believed and taught that the Passion of Jesus Christ is the greatest “work and sign of God’s love.”  Not just an event of ancient history, St. Paul of the Cross regarded the Passion of Jesus Christ to be a present experience of God’s love that we need “to contemplate and allow to penetrate us.” This why “Passionist” brothers and sisters wear an embroidered cross over a heart on their black habits with words in Hebrew, Greek and Latin that say “The Passion of Christ.” This is their mission in a nutshell, to show people how to live their lives with the Passion of Christ constantly in their hearts.




For Paolo this became especially important because of the extreme spiritual and emotional hardship that he faced.  Beginning approximately a dozen years after his ordination to the priesthood and lasting for the next 45 years, St. Paul of the Cross knew nothing but the desolating experience Dark Night of the Soul.  He actually died with his brothers gathered around his bed reading the Gospels’ accounts of Christ’s crucifixion –

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is to say, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27: 45)

And when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is, being interpreted, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” (Mark 15: 33)

And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst. And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” and having said thus, he gave up the ghost. (Luke 23: 44)

It was this sense of forsakenness and experience of darkness that was Paolo’s daily bread.  But rather than leading him to utter despair, Paolo’s long experience of the Dark Night of the Soul taught him instead how to commit himself more completely to the Father’s hands and to trust Him no matter what he felt or didn’t feel.  His sustained meditation on the Passion of Jesus Christ, and his keen personal appreciation of everything that Christ had suffered on his behalf – the inner anguish, the terrible fear and depression, the abandonment by His friends, the betrayal, the deprivation of His freedom, the injustices, the lies that were told about Him, the bodily pain and utter fatigue, the misunderstanding, helplessness, powerlessness, sense of failure, the feelings of being abandoned by God the Father and finally death itself – provided Paolo with the strength and the grace that he needed to see his own journey of faith through to its end.

Writing the Introduction to a study of “The Mysticism of the Passion in St. Paul of the Cross,” the Protestant Theologian Jurgen Moltmann observed –

We need nothing so urgently as the “wisdom of the cross” …since it is the liberating and redeeming truth of God and of man. …The cross… is the revelation of God’s love…  Whoever recognizes the Crucified One recognizes the abyss of God’s love, so full of sorrows; (and) whoever recognizes the Crucified One will recognize that people for whom He suffered and died.  …The cross does not belong to an elite; it leads rather to a solidarity with abandoned people.

My feelings are way too fickle and fleeting to be the foundation of my faithfulness.  If I only loved God and my neighbor when I felt like it, then believe me when I tell you that with my wintry soul by spiritual temperament and my diagnosis of clinical depression with which I struggle every single day, that there would be long stretches in my life when I would do nothing.  But rather than depending on my subjective feelings for spiritual motivation, I have resolved with St. Paul of the Cross to be driven instead by the objective facts of what God has done for me in Jesus Christ.


Jesus on the cross


Emotions are not a means of grace.
The preaching the Word is.
Baptism is.
The Lord’s Supper is.
The Lord’s Day is.

Each of these Gospel Ordinances in their own way anchors us to the “hard historical facts” (Alister McGrath) of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. This all really happened, and it happened “for us men and for our salvation” as the Nicene Creed put it so concisely.  And this is true not because it makes me feel this way or that way.  It’s objectively true apart from whatever I might be feeling, or not feeling.  And it is from that firm place that I try to step everyday into a life of love – love for God and love for neighbor.

Whenever George Tyrell of 19th century England grew weary in his mission of trying to change the thinking of the church in his day, whenever he found himself tempted to give up the struggle, he said that he would look at crucifix, and “always the figure of that strange man hanging on the cross sends me back to my tasks again.” And this is what my friend St. Paul of the Cross has taught me to do as well.  “God can work in us,” he said, “only when we pass through the door which is Jesus Christ and His most holy Passion, which is the greatest and most stupendous work of His love.”  DBS+




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