My "Dark Night Of The Soul"

Reading Walter Brueggemann’s contrasting of Psalms 73 and 139 in an essay entitled, “The Cunning Little Secret of Certitude,” in his book The Covenanted Self (see a previous  post), I remembered how Psalm 73 saved me from my own “dark night of the soul” that followed the ending of what I thought would be a lifelong relationship within weeks of my mother’s death in 1999.

The psalmist compares our lot with the prosperous who are “sound and sleek…always at ease, they increase their riches.” I wrote about it in The Final Deadline:What Death Has Taught Me about Life (pp 119-121). 

I offer these excerpts here in the hopes that those who experience their own “dark nights” may find encouragement.

I felt worse than unloved, I felt unlovable, unattractive, undesirable. Life now seemed like such a challenge that taking things “one day at a time” seemed like too big a chunk. It was “one thing at a time” for me: “Okay, I’ve completed this task. Now I will…” …

Three more friends died of AIDS that year. I worried if I would be able to keep my home or manage the bills that we had paid jointly. I endured a bad working relationship that threatened the greater part of my income. I dated people who turned out to be scary in one way or another. I drank too much. I acted out sexually. My car died on a busy interstate in downtown Atlanta in the middle of the night. Over the course of several months I had three flat tires. My wallet was stolen. The final insult came as I watched helplessly—despite my best efforts—as a fungus killed my lawn!

That year I scrutinized myself, and not just in relation to the death of the relationship.

I considered also the death of my relationship with the church, called to ministry yet denied ordination because of my sexual identity. My hopes to reform the church remained, but I came to believe for the first time that it would not happen in my lifetime.

If I had been straight or closeted or already ordained or simply less visible as a spokesperson for our movement, I might have been gainfully employed all these years, increasing my seniority and salary and benefits and retirement with each passing year, plus having ample time and income for study leaves and sabbaticals and vacations.

As it was, I had little to show financially for all the speaking and writing and editing and ministry and unrelated jobs I had cobbled together over the years to survive. I am chagrined to say I began to look with envy at those whose heterosexuality or closet or prior ordination or minimal visibility afforded them more profitable positions and opportunities in church work.

Underemployed men and women find it difficult to hold our heads high in a culture that not only views prosperity as a sign of worth, but advantages it.

Even leaders of my own LGBT community treated me as deficient because I did not have the title “reverend,” even though it was solely because I was out as a gay man. And younger people who were the beneficiaries of my and others’ early activism seemed to have little idea or care for who we were and what we had done.

In a dream I had, a colleague pushed me aside in favor of a new cause célebre, saying “You’re Old Testament!” implying the other was “New Testament.” By my opponents I had been accused of being a “militant,” while a leader in my own movement actually implied I was an “Uncle Tom.”

I had already stopped going to church, but for broader reasons than my denomination’s prejudices. It just wasn’t working for me anymore. The worship experience no longer inspired me. It did not help me think. It did not make me wonder. I found my morning-prayer time much more helpful.

I noticed a gnawing skepticism and cynicism growing within me by the second year after my great losses.

My anger and impatience with the church and the government failing to recognize gay rights and marriages filled me with disgust for both. Saccharine-sweet people got on my nerves. I read most of Gore Vidal’s books, reveling in his cynicism about American society and culture, amused by his cutting remarks about “sky-god” religions. I had been quite the optimist all of my life. I was becoming a curmudgeon. The Psalmist captured my experience:

My heart grew embittered,
my affections dried up,
I was stupid and uncomprehending,
a clumsy animal in your presence.

Even so, I stayed in your presence,
you grasped me by the right hand;
you will guide me with advice,
and will draw me in the wake of your glory.

Psalm 73:21-24 (NJB)

“Even so, I stayed in your presence.” In my morning prayer, I discovered something new in one of Jesus’ parables, one that I had read dozens of times over the years and about which I had reservations. Jesus tells the story of a wedding feast to which the invited guests will not come. And I “heard” God saying to me, “Come in to the party.” Let go of your negative feelings, however justified you may feel in having them. “Come in to the party.”

And that became my mantra whenever I sensed resentment, envy, bitterness, anger, or withdrawal bubbling up within me.

I remembered also the elder brother whose father begs him to “come in to the party” celebrating his prodigal brother’s return, and of the master who asserts his right to pay his kvetching servants equally though they were hired at different times of the day.

Believe it or not, this simple little phrase did much to get me over myself and into showing the proper reverence for the joy that is life, what the poet William Blake called “organized innocence” that can wonder at the world, play while experiencing suffering and addressing injustice, pray in the midst of distractions and disillusionment, achieve in the face of setbacks and failures, and love while enduring rejection and isolation.

“Come in to the party” is another way of hearing “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” This was and is the gospel Jesus and his followers proclaim in our better moments. “Come in to the party.”

Originally published on Progressive Christian Reflections; Image via flickr user John Harvey

Comments (1)

I needed this after trying (and failing) to go to two drastically different church services. I'm tired of hearing bashing about marriage equality. I'm tired of the mental translations that I keep having to make. I can't find anywhere that welcomes me after they find out what I believe or that I have bipolar disorder. I was a clergy for five years but now I'm a leper, not wanted or loved. No one even cares about my struggle any longer. They have all walked away. "You should just say you agree with the church and quit being public about how you feel the church is wrong." I am not going to say things I don't believe. So thank you, I'm in a dark night and it's nice to know there is a dawn eventually.

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