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The Dark Night on Cold Mountain

When one of the monks was asked what he was doing in solitude, he took a stick and stirred up the mud in a puddle and asked the visitor to tell him what he could see.  “Nothing,” came the answer.  They sat for a while in silence, the mud settled, the water became clear and reflective again.  “Now what can you see?” he asked his visitor, and now his guest could now see his own reflection. “That is what I’m doing here,” he said.

Notes from the Trail

A mysterious mixture of excitement and anxious trepidation swept over me as I stood before the trailhead at the base of Cold Mountain – as if half of my heart was driving me forward to find the source of its deep longing and the other half of my heart was wary of impending doom.  By the end of the journey I would realize that my heart was right on both of these accounts, just not in ways that I would have anticipated.  But at the beginning of the trailhead, I sensed these ambiguous stirrings in my soul as I embarked on a four-day hike in complete solitude on a lonely thirty-mile trail in North Carolina.  My only companion would be the book of Psalms and the 19th-century Russian story entitled The Way of a Pilgrim.

A friend of mine drove me to the trailhead, which was about an hour and a half into the guts of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  We hugged, he prayed a blessing over me, and then he left me to begin my journey, which began with a five-mile ascent.  I paused a few times to pray the Psalms, and give my back a rest from the thirty-five pound pack I was carrying.  I made it to the ridge-line of the Great Balsam Mountains, just on the shoulder of Cold Mountain.  This is where I would camp for the night.  When I arrived to this campsite I no longer had the activity of walking to occupy my mind.  I sat down and surveyed area.  Several level clearings large enough for a few tents with small red spruce trees scattered about.  On either side of these clearings the ridge sloped downward into thick woods that cloaked either side of the mountain.

As the wind softly breathed through the trees I became aware of how alone I was.  I was not only five miles up a mountain, but I was about another twenty-five miles away from civilization.  I turned on my cell phone – one bar.  OK, I thought to myself, I have that going for me.  I then turned it off and put it away.  I looked up and was again greeted by loneliness.  I then felt the deep urge to do something to distract me. I set up my tent and got everything situated for a comfortable night.  I sat in front of my tent and read a few more Psalms.  I set my Bible down and began to look around.  Loneliness.  It was then I remembered that I needed to get water for the night and the next day.

The trail guide mentioned that there was a water source about a quarter mile down the other side of the mountain.  So, I grabbed my water-filter pump and water pouch made my way down the barely discernible trail that allegedly led to water.  After about ten minutes, the sun began to sink behind the western Blue Ridge Mountains mountains and the trail began to slowly dissolved into woods.  In need of water, I made the decision to continue down the side of the mountain without the use of a trail until I faintly found the water source.  However, after I had fully resupplied my water, darkness had seeped into the woods and left me surrounded by nothing but the shadowy presence of trees and the blackness of the ground.  As the darkness filled the forest, so fear filled my soul with a thousand possible dangers.  For about an hour I journeyed in the darkness and the night up the mountain, not knowing if it would lead me to the right ridge-line.  On several occasions I found myself standing before steep embankments that forced me to wander even further along a sidelong rout, deeper into darkness and fear.

My soul leapt when I finally met the trail on the ridge.  I began walking in the direction the direction of my camp, I hoped.  Thankfully I choose correctly and came upon my small tent sitting alone in the darkness.  I used a bit of water to wash up and settled in.  But now, even more intensely than before, I became aware of my aloneness.  Not only was I alone, but now darkness had completely enclosed upon me.  There could be someone out there, I thought.  I reached for my bible and opened up the Psalms and began reading again where I had left off…

“Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?
 Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”
~ Psalm 10

Seriously, these were the words of the Psalmist that I read in my time of deep angst.  I was wanting something that would make settle my anxious spirit, not something that would confirm my anxiousness.  These words seemed to imply to me that God could hear me, God could see me, but God was simply hidden from me.

Then it hit me, I could be seen but could not see. Whether it was a menacing presence, a curious critter, or simply the life of a tree swaying in the breeze, all I could see was darkness. I was perceptible by all, while being able to perceive nothing but myself.  I also became aware of a very deep desire that many of us have but rarely recognize, and that is the desire to manicure how were are perceived.  But when I entered the darkness and solitude I had to relinquish the idol of the false self.  There were no faces to read, there was no one to impress, there was no one to manipulate, there was no one I could manufacture any sort of image toward.  There was just me, in the darkness, with no control over how I was being perceived or even if I was being perceived.

And when I began to try and pray, all I could find my self praying was, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”

This may sound melodramatic, but all sorts of thoughts come to the forefront of the mind, especially at night.  These thoughts and emotions seem to have a life and power of their own.  So deep were these stirrings that I prayed to God to come near, to comfort me, to be with me.  As I cried out to the lord, I realized too that God was not to be found in a warm and illuminating presence of light.  Tonight, God was shrouded in darkness

20Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid;
for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.’
21Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.
~ Ex 20:20-21

Thankfully, there have been countless christian saints who have navigated these dark nights of the soul and have lived to tell the tail. These nights are dangerous, but they are only dangerous to those parts of our selves that must be left in the darkness so that we are able to truly walk in the light.

Part II: How John of the Cross helps us navigate through the “Dark Night of the Soul”