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Date Posted: March 10, 2020

Intimate Things Happen in the Darkness

For a long time now, I have kept a practice of having paper and pen on the shelf by my side of the bed. Very often, I wake up in the middle of the night with a sudden thought or random insight, and I need to write it down.  While there are strange and random ones to be sure that swirl in, I consider many of these nuggets gifts, and they have helped me understand the complexities of my life.  

Cynthia, Cheryl, and I often meet up in the morning and share what dreams we had during the night, our encounters with some truth about ourselves and what we are struggling with and yearning for.  I am deeply grateful for these relationships of the heart. These night-time nuggets are so important, because they remind me of how the Spirit moves in my lives, often in times of darkness and vulnerability.  

Intimate things happen in the darkness. 

Last week, I took this story from Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus under the cover of darkness with me into my sleep, holding it there as I slipped into that vulnerable space.  I should not have been surprised when I woke up in the middle of the night with the words of St. John of the Cross in my heart. Listen to his words as you hold today’s Gospel text:

On a dark night,

Inflamed by love-longing–

O exquisite risk!–

Undetected  I slipped away.

My house, at last, grown still.

Secure in the darkness,

I climbed the secret ladder in disguise–

O exquisite risk!–

Concealed by the darkness.

My house, at last, grown still.

That sweet night: a secret.

Nobody saw me;

I did not see a thing.

No other light, no other guide

Than the one burning in my heart.

This light led the way

More clearly than the risen sun

To where he was waiting for me

–The one I knew so intimately–

In a place where no one could find us.(1)

The image that St. John of the Cross lays out in his poem The Dark Night of the Soul is so powerful when laid alongside Nicodemus heading out under cover of darkness to meet Jesus.  

“He came to Jesus by night,” the text says.  Beautiful. In both these we see this movement away from the typical, the known, the expected, into a space of vulnerability and deeper awareness and intimacy.  

O exquisite risk! Mirabai Starr writes in her translation.

When Nicodemus has his moment with Jesus, he gets to the heart of the matter with his questions about life, salvation, and wholeness. When Jesus responds with this nugget of “no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above,” I think St. John the Evangelist has Nicodemus ask the expected logical question so that we can receive the deeper spiritual reality. 

His logical question: Do we enter back into our mother’s womb to be born again?  Jesus’ mystical response: “No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit.” And then he lays before him images of “what is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit,” and “the wind blows where it chooses.” We see the effect or impact of the wind’s movement around us, but we cannot tell where it comes from.  And we shouldn’t even bother trying to contain it (We keep going down that road, don’t we?).  

As St. John of the Cross imagines the encounter of grace beyond grasping:

Wind blew down from the tower,

Parting the locks of his hair.

With his gentle hand 

He wounded my neck

And all my senses were suspended.

As St. John the Evangelist describes Nicodemus’ response:

“How can these things be?”

Jesus takes a further step in this encounter in the darkness to open Nicodemus’ and our heart, to a glimpse of Divine Love.  While the words he tells him are so very familiar to us, I think they only truly come alive when we realize they were spoken in that encounter in the darkness.  Intimate things happen in the darkness.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

See, only when our senses are suspended, as St. John of the Cross describes, only when our rational capacities are exceeded, as Nicodemus realizes, do we even begin to glimpse the transforming power of God’s love.  This is a love that takes root in our heart–because the seed has always been there after all–to bear the fruit of a transformed life.  

Only when this controlling, grasping side of ourselves is suspended–taken into that darkness as the image lays before us–do we realize more fully how we are being embraced by the Divine Love.  

We have to step beyond–be carried beyond–the impulses we have to control, realizing how those grasping tendencies begin to control us–even as we thought that “we” were the ones doing the controlling.  It’s worth pondering.  

As Mirabai Starr writes, “The soul cannot enter into the fusion of divine love with its shadow clinging to its skirt. It must strip itself of identification with the small self and step naked into the garden where the Beloved is waiting.”(2)

“Nicodemus came to Jesus by night.”

On a dark night

Inflamed by love-longing–

O exquisite risk!–

Undetected I slipped away.

My house, at last, grown still.

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

We consent to God’s indwelling presence that yearns to transform us so fully that we share intimately in the Divine Life itself.  We are made whole and we are brought to the fullness of joy and peace.  

Intimate things happen in the darkness. 

St. John of the Cross ends his poem with images that we can take further into our Lenten journey–and our entire lives:

I lost myself. Forgot myself.

I lay my face against the Beloved’s face.

Everything fell away and I left myself behind,

Abandoning my cares

Among the lilies, forgotten. 

O exquisite risk!

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Lent II
March 8, 2020

  1. I love Mirabai Starr’s translation of St. John of the Cross. The Dark Night of the Soul  (New York: Riverhead Books, 2002)
  2. Starr, Dark Night, 17