Worship in the Dark: John of the Cross, Emotional Worship, and Me

Worship in the Dark

In my own devotional time right now, I’m reading a few pages of the works of John of the Cross.

I’d read a little bit in John’s works before, but I recently heard Randy Harris make a comment about how going back to it can feel like it’s a totally different book, and so I’ve gone back in, and I’m finding that to be largely true. I’m reading a few pages most days, maybe a chapter or two, and slowly digesting it, turning it over. I started with The Ascent of Mount Carmel.

As John speaks in the early part of Ascent, it’s repeatedly felt like what he has to say about discursive meditation resonates with some feelings I have about worship, particularly that structured in so-called contemporary forms. Namely, these heavily sensory forms of corporate praise, designed to evoke emotion, simply don’t for me often. For a while, this was pretty frustrating, as I felt like I was losing a sort of capacity that the modern church equates heavily with spirituality—indeed, this often made me wonder if I was being hollowed out, and whether my heart was becoming disconnected from the Lord in a way that was leading me to become something like the trope of the hypocritical spiritual leader that doesn’t really believe what they’re selling that is often highlighted/parodied in our culture. Pretty scary stuff, particularly as I treasure and try to cultivate a sense of authenticity!

However, I don’t think that’s actually the case, because I did feel connected to the Lord in other ways—in the communal silences of the eucharist, or in times of shared prayer with our shepherds (or others, but particularly with our shepherds) or in certain friendship spaces, or in just times by myself. Over time, I just came to moments of worship, particularly singing times, as something that didn’t really do it for me (whatever that means), but that I generally saw as helpful for others. (Some forms of singing, I still really enjoy—particularly songs that proclaim God’s lordship. I feel like now, what I really like are songs that make proclamations. I think they feel like protest songs, and I do find that fruitful.)

Anyway, as I’ve read John, it’s often occurred to me that some of what he says about meditation feels similar to that. Like the sorts of worship that attempt to evoke a certain emotional intensity are sort of like the form of meditation that relies on the imagination, and I feel like it’s giving me further permission to let go of the desire to force that sort of emotion on myself, or work myself into that particular emotional place, and to allow myself some peace in that. I’m not quite sure how to describe the alternative path, but I do think that I’m coming to a place where I approach worship (aside from preaching!) as something that I passively receive or recognize God’s presence in, rather than working myself towards an emotional experience of that. Here’s a passage that seems to resonate with what I think the path forward may look like:

“When spiritual persons cannot meditate, they should learn to remain in God’s presence with a loving attention and a tranquil intellect, even though they seem to themselves to be idle. For little by little and very soon the divine calm and peace with a wondrous, sublime knowledge of God, enveloped in divine love, will be infused into their souls. They should not interfere with forms or discursive meditations and imaginations. Otherwise the soul will be disquieted and drawn out of its peaceful contentment to distaste and repugnance. And if, as we said, scruples about their inactivity arise, they should remember that pacification of the soul (making it calm and peaceful, native and desireless) is no small accomplishment. This, indeed, is what our Lord asks of us through David: Vacate and videte quondam ego sum Deus [Ps 46:10]. This would be like saying: Learn to be empty of all things—interiorly and exteriorly—and you will behold that I am God.” (Ascent 2.15.5)

That last line is pretty great. I’ll probably have more to post about this on another time, but if nothing else, I wanted to post it for those who may be feeling something similar, as though they’re not really sure how to make themselves feel the things in worship that it seems like they are supposed to. John writes about how sometimes seeking the Lord in faith feels like following in the dark—and sometimes everything around us that seems like light is really trying to lead us away from the dim light of faith. As I’ve reflected on that idea, I’ve come to believe that it’s important that we learn to worship in the dark—to give worship to God even when the faith that we are acting on doesn’t reward us emotionally like we expect. We give worship even when faith refuses to behave in such a way as to resolve all the ambiguities around us, or when it doesn’t trip the particular emotional triggers or imaginative experiences that we might expect. The road of faith does not always track with what we think or feel…sometimes it is just a matter of one step in front of another, seeking the Lord and being willing to keep seeking, following the sound of God’s call, even though we’re walking in the dark.

I think that it is okay if all of the emotions don’t sweep you away in passion-ate worship, and if you’re in a place where you feel distant from all of that, don’t allow it to discourage you too thoroughly. In some situations, that might even be good, a sign that some things that were helpful for you before are now giving way to another stage of your faith’s development and maturity, although I would resist elevating that in relation to somebody else’s more emotive experience—that may be just what they need, and their different experience may be different than yours in ways that you cannot perceive. Comparison in this sort of thing just isn’t our friend.