An old classmate of mine described his commute to work in New York City the morning after the 2016 presidential election. The subway was eerily quiet, with each passenger both contributing to and receiving the effect of the communal pall that fell over the car. Not your typical reaction to the results of an election process that happens every four years.
What would this election mean for America? What would 2017 have in store for us?
The social experiment that is the Trump Administration has proven to be the catalyst for a seismic shift in daily American life, thought, and collective consciousness. There is no doubt that the divisive political climate has contributed to real changes in our lives.
Friendships have broken up. Social media has been more intensely combative than its usual level of friction. Family dinners have turned into ideological sparring matches.
And individuals have been affected spiritually, mentally and emotionally. I explained to my therapist the melancholia that seemed to set in after 45’s election. And while I felt a bit silly bringing it up, she told me that this reaction was widespread and that many people she spoke to felt the same way. At the same time, man were feeling a fire for resistance and change.
It became official: America found itself in the dark night of the soul.
At this point, you may be asking yourself: what the heck is the “dark night of the soul?” Well, I assure that it isn’t emo purple prose which I conjured up to sound dramatic. It is a term that I came across while studying Christian contemplative and monastic tradition, mostly in an attempt to help to heal myself of the creative and spiritual malaise that I’ve felt for some time now.
My search for inspirational reading led me to the work of St. John of the Cross. Born nearly three decades after the well-known figure Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross followed in her tradition of mysticism and monastic life in 16th century Spain.
Cross wrote a poem describing the journey into the Christian life. Most Christians begin their walk by simply trying to avoid sin, living in the Christian way. But after this elementary level of discipleship has run its course, a Christian may feel a longing to feel and live in closeness to God.
The Dark Night is not to be confused with depression or general malaise. It is a season of transition and sometimes painful pruning, where God begins to transform the soul of a Christian from one that lives a more superficial Christian life, to one that lives with a deep reverence for Christ as well as a sense of inner peace.
In Maslow’s studies on the hierarchy of needs, the result of the dark night would be similar to what Maslow called the search for self-actualization. Self-actualization is what humans may achieve after their more primary and secondary needs are met (like food, shelter, familial love and healthy self-esteem). A person could live their life in the lower parts of the pyramid, but one who wishes to know themselves more deeply and live up to their highest potential will work to achieve a place of self-actualization.
It is during this dark night of the soul that God works in the beginner’s soul to purge the desire for sensual pleasures and helps the soul recognize and enjoy spiritual pleasures. The soul will reap additional benefits from a successful journey through this dark night such as humility, delight in peace, and a more profound reverence for God. The dark night is something to be endured to reach the brilliance of God’s light on the other side.
I believe that America is at a spiritual crossroads. In our religious past we’ve lived through the first and second great awakenings, the baby boomer-driven rise of the church in the “age of Billy Graham,” and now, a time when the church means less and less to Americans. The reign of the “religious nones.”
But now, more than ever, I have hope for the future of American Christianity. I believe that America has found its way into the dark night of the soul. A place where we are being drawn closer to God through our pursuits for justice, equality, and love. While the 81% of evangelicals who voted for Trump loudly dominate the American religious landscape, I believe that especially prophetic voices are arising out of the midst of the discontent chaos. Prophetic voices that are speaking up for America’s widows and orphans; the poor, trans people, undocumented people, and those without healthcare. The vulnerable and the marginalized.
Perhaps this period of spiritual darkness will bring Americans into a place where we are living a life that is closer to God’s kindom, a place with compassion and justice at its core.