When you bolt upright at 2:00 AM in a foreign country with the only thought being, “I’m going to die,” there are very few next steps that seem illogical.
I was already awake, staring through the tiny holes in my mosquito netting and praying that sleep would ambush my body. We had landed in Kenya more than 24 hours prior to this terrifying moment, and I had slept less than four hours out of the previous three days. A terrible intersection of antibiotic and anti-malarial drugs pressed my heart rate into strange and unusual rhythms.
I sent a quick text message to my wife: “I think I might be dying. Pray for me.”
Not a brilliant move, considering I was lodged firmly on the other side of the globe and separated from my now anxious bride by well over 20 hours of flight time. I had to reach out, I needed to feel connection, and texting my wife was that connection. It seemed logical at the time. It also seemed logical to believe that God was not present.
Ministry had taken a great toll on me; I had overcommitted myself frequently during the previous months, and thus I stood well in line to take an enormous tumble without rest and recuperation. A trip to Kenya to lead 4 days of retreats for local pastors is not the dictionary definition of rest and recuperation, but I went into it with the highest of hopes. The dark reached out, gripped my hope, and seemed to swallow it whole.
Would I die, expire right there in the lonely Kenyan night surrounded by microfiber netting and a quietly dozing roommate? Was this considered dying for the Gospel? Would I trust the medical staff at the local hospital?
When there is little to know, the questions abound, but in the face of abundant information, the questions vanish. This is the tension, the linchpin of what is known as the “dark night of the senses,” or the “dark night of the soul.” In the original work of St. John of the Cross, these are distinct and often distant stages, yet the feelings are so eerily similar that one is often mistaken for the other.
When we experience the absence of God, there is no map, no manual to help us clearly and distinctly know how or why we are where we are. We simply know the sense is gone, and we begin to wonder if our soul is gone.
I turned to the 23rd Psalm for the remainder of the trip. It turned out to be a helpful breath prayer, as I tossed the malarial meds …
… even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death … (23:4, ESV)
I meditated on it as I took a bit of melatonin to help my profoundly confused body discover its right rhythm …
… I will fear no evil for you are with me … (23:4, ESV)
I repeated it while I taught and talked with the generous and beautiful pastors of Nairobi’s profoundly dark slums …
… your rod and staff they comfort me … (23:4, ESV)
The poetic irony was not lost on me, however, the Westerner walking amongst the poorest of the poor—who daily cheated the talons of darkness—now clutching his chest and wondering if it all was coming to a close. A mzungu (“white man”) chatting with pastors who walked with abandoned, raped little girls who now had to face the reality of a life with HIV and without parents to guide and provide for them. Pastors who worked two jobs to live on an income that would not sustain them, leading people who lived on less than they did and were struggling to find hope in the darkness.
Yet in their smiles, songs, waves and greetings there was a profound well of hope springing up to eternal life. It broke me completely. As I claimed my own demise, they trumpeted a rise above it all. I had lost the sense of God and His presence, but they incarnated it for me. They lived it with special color that had unlimited scope and range—it burned orange, green and black into my soul. My senses may have been dulled to God but these lovely wounded drove compassionate spikes through the seemingly iron-clad darkness.
My dark night of the senses would be brief—a mere “trailer” compared to the experience of others—and perhaps that is a legitimate way to describe it. A preview of coming attractions, and in that realization I am blessed. I know what it is like to wake startled in the dark without the warm wind of God within reach. I doubt I will be composed and mature when it arrives anew, but I know what to expect. I know to breathe. I know to listen to the songs of the oppressed and realize my place in the emotional cosmology of the divinely begotten flesh and understand how small my senses are in the first place. Moreover, I know He is present. What I do not know does not preclude what I cannot understand. God is present in the darkest valleys and in the valley of the shadow where questions often live, He is with us.
Photo (Flickr CC) by mammal