I first encountered the text about ten years ago as part of the required reading for the Formation in Direction Program (F-IN-D), which trains spiritual directors for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. This text was coupled with May’s Care of Mind/Care of Spirit: A Psychiatrist Explores Spiritual Direction to provide the students with a thorough view of the spiritual journey through the eyes of a psychological professional.
At that time, I was embroiled in a very toxic parish life which prevented me from appreciating the depth of understanding which May brings to the “dark night” experience. Frankly, the only point which I thought worthy to note was the author’s distinctions between clinical depression and the dark night. Eight years later, I am now able to more fully appreciate May’s treatment of both St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila as guides to the journey of the soul.
In the introduction May writes, “the bad news is that bad things happen to everyone, and they have nothing to do with whether you are a good or bad person, how effectively you’ve taken charge of your life, or how carefully you’ve planned for the future. The good news, or at least part of it, is that good things happen to everyone too” (1). I struggled through the demise of my most recent pastorate battling with the first part of this statement, while unable to recognize the truth of the second part.
May continues, “I no longer have to worry myself to death about what I did right or wrong to cause a good or bad experience—because there really is no way of knowing” (2). It was not until after the closure of the congregation that many of May’s insights into the dark night began to illuminate what I experienced. Many of the negative experiences are not readily attributable to myself or my antagonists in the parish, and likewise, most of the positives have no easily distinguishable origin either. This idea has served to accelerate my healing process since leaving the parish ministry. If one has markedly less control over events than one thinks, the idea of culpability and responsibility are greatly diminished.
A key insight is May’s understanding that “each experience of the dark night gives its gifts, leaving us freer than we were before, more available, more responsive, and more grateful. . .freedom and gratitude are abiding characteristics of the dark night. But they don’t arrive until the darkness passes. They come with the dawn” (3). Standing firmly in the early morning hours of the “dawn,” I can reflect upon the many gifts which I received during my long period of darkness, and recognize that these things have truly broken me free of major attachments which were disordered and brought me to a new level of balance or detachment that allows for freedom in future responsiveness to God.
Several theological distinctions of St. John and St. Teresa have been particularly powerful in reshaping my understanding of the dark night and the soul’s journey to union with God. In fact, this very language of “journey to union with God” is something which I have struggled to drop. May writes, “Teresa and John speak expediently of finding God and growing toward union with God. They do not believe this is something that can really be achieved, however, for the simple reason that union with God already exists. Everyone always has been and always will be in union with God. . .We are born in union with God. . .union with the Divine is our human nature. . .God is present is substance in each soul, even that of the greatest sinner in the world. And this kind of union with God always exists, in all creatures” (42-43). Talk like this would have gotten me thrown out of seminary, and yet, not hearing anything about this led me to embrace an image of God as detached and distant, non-responsive and unapproachable except through Word and Sacrament. To recognize the truth of St. John and St. Teresa’s understanding was a huge breakthrough for me.
I was profoundly impacted by May’s insight into the human-divine relationship in his statement, “the soul is attracted to the deepest center of God like the stone is attracted to the deepest center of the earth—and that this attraction is mutual” (47). The idea of the human and divine moving toward each other, with intention and desire, is something which I had not been exposed to in seminary (other than with respect to the Incarnation, and that always with a linkage to the atonement, so there was never a sense of simple “desire” to “hang out and be with” as a normal relationship).
Implications of Spiritual Direction for Recovery from Addiction
In the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment (Dec 2008), a group of researchers from the University of New Mexico Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Addictions published a study entitled, Spiritual direction in addiction treatment: two clinical trials, which concluded that while “spirituality has long been regarded as an important component of recovery from addiction. . .those randomly assigned to spiritual direction unexpectedly showed significantly less improvement on depression and anxiety, relative to TAU controls.”
While I am in no position to comment on the validity of this research, May disagrees with the findings. “We know many of the specific kinds of molecular changes that take place in verve cells in the presence of addictive chemicals. . .with all its technological advances, however, neuroscience has yet to produce a cure for addiction. Nor has medical science been able to replace the essential spiritual nature of recovery from addiction” (160).
If addiction is grouped among the “attachments,” and one of the end products of the dark night experience is the removal of attachments, then by definition one’s connection with God must improve, hence there must be a spiritual substrate to addiction recovery. As “union” becomes progressively “realized” (contra “achieved”), this must have a positive effect in regard to depression and anxiety. “I have discussed the way in which attachments bind the energy of the human spirit and create idols to which we become enslaved. It is precisely from such enslavement that the dark night works to free us” (160).
May identifies a special permutation of the dark night experience which often comes to people undergoing a spiritual awakening as part of their addiction recovery. “. . .what I’ve called a ‘dark night of recovery’”(161). This is an interesting phenomenon in which the person moves into a profound awareness of the absolute necessity of God acting as the change agent. After a period of time at this level of relationship, God moves the person to receive Him as even more—as lover of the soul. “Of course, I want to be your saving Higher Power. But I also want to be your deepest love” (162). Then, May notes, people who have success in remaining clean and sober over an extended period of time often transform the recovery process into an idol. “Later, one may come to realize that recovery, as the most important thing in life, had become an idol. God was a means to an end—recovery. Then in darkness, after the heart said yes and love grew, the idol of recovery teetered and fell. The powers had shifted. Recovery is now no longer the end, but only a means in the service of love” (163).
While not having personally walked this path, I can appreciate May’s teaching. As a parish pastor, I have assisted numerous individuals to seek treatment for various addictions and in my experience I have found those who are successful often times follow May’s roadmap quite predictably. To understand that even the wonderfully power thing which “saved” the person is ultimately an idol which needs to be dethroned is profoundly important for both director and directee as their relationship matures through the seasons.
The meaning of May’s statement that “God is nada, no-thing” for the director’s understanding of God.
May writes, “Finally, in fact, it cannot be any image at all, for God is nada, no-thing. . .It is neither the name (God, Allah, or Krishna) nor the man (Jesus or Buddha) that is the final object of this loving desire. It is something far deeper and far greater than any identification whatsoever” (179). I have always viewed the word "nada" ("nothing" in English) as a short hand summary of St. John of the Cross’ whole mystical theology. The term comes from his hand drawn sketch of Mount Carmel which he prefaced to his book “The Ascent of Mount Carmel,” a metaphor he used to describe the journey toward union with God. To “climb the mountain,” he drew two paths to the summit and along these paths he placed both spiritual and carnal “goods” that one typically encounters along the way. He draws the paths so that they lead to dead ends along the ascent except for a narrow path right in the middle of the sketch. This one leads straight to the top of Mount Carmel and the caption reads “and on this path is nada, nada, nada, and still at the summit nada.”
I finds sound scriptural basis for St. John’s idea. For example, in the first epistle of St. John, the author writes, “No one has ever seen God; but as long as we love one another God will live in us and his love will be complete in us” (1 Jn 4:12). A few verses later, he restates his point, saying, “A man who does not love the brother that he can see cannot love God, whom he has never seen” (4:20). Because the person cannot “see” God, the way to God is “dark” and the journey is illuminated by faith alone. Because faith alone is the means, the experience of God is darkness to the senses. Hence, whatever the senses apprehend has to be rejected as “not” God. This progressive rejection of sensory input and transformation of the inner spiritual senses is painful because it requires detachment and withdrawal from things not purely for God's glory—which is essentially everything! Hence, the “nada, nada, nada” is experienced as pure darkness because the finite capacity of humans cannot fully comprehend the infinite and unfathomable God.
My understanding of the teaching of St. John of the Cross is that the expected and normal progression of Christian discipleship/maturity in the faith ought to eventually lead the person to dwell in this “nada” of darkness. Because people tend to find what they are looking for, when it comes to “looking for God” it matters what expect to find. If one’s model is dependent on God interacting with one on a powerfully sensory level (ie. St. Paul’s “Damascus Road” experience of light, sound, blindness, prophetic speech, physical healing, etc), one is destined to be ultimately disappointed—even if the experience does happen, because even the senses simply responding to the “presence” of God. The experience is “of” God—not “God Himself” so to speak.
In the Lutheran tradition, because sensory experience is discounted, the only other avenue of encounter is through the intellect. Again, this path ends in “nada” because even the most perfectly formed, coherent, plausible ideas “about” God are still not “God Himself.” This leaves the pilgrim with only one road up the mountain, consisting of silence and darkness.
This essay has described how May’s text has illuminated my experience of spiritual darkness, the implications of spiritual direction for recovery from addiction, and the meaning of May’s statement (p. 179) that “God is nada, no-thing” for the director’s understanding of God. I have found great theological substance in the apophatic tradition and wonderful guidance from both St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila in navigating the spiritual journey.
 J Subst Abuse Treat. 2008 Dec;35(4):434-42. Epub 2008 Jul 26.
 Chart from Ascent of Mount Carmel