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Dark Night of the Soul


Dark Night of the Soul

John of the Cross was a 16th-Century Carmelite priest who was canonized a saint and declared a Doctor of the Church. He is remembered primarily for his writing, particularly his poetry. His most famous poem is known as Dark Night of the Soul, which John describes as a commentary on the soul's journey to mystical union with God. The imagery of the poem, however, lends itself to other interpretations, and its putative title—John himself didn't title the poem—is often used to describe an experience of great loss, not enlightenment.

N.B. The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony is unique among the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church: the bride and groom are the Ministers of the sacrament. The presiding priest or deacon is merely the official witness for the church.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

He reflexively crossed himself, hesitating for a moment with his fingers on his right shoulder as an image of dogs hearing a bell intruded. He noticed that beside him in the pew she was still carrying out her extended version of the sacramental, replete with multiple crossings and finger kissing, apparently believing that public shows of overweening piety convinced everyone of her inescapable goodness, if not saintliness. Thinking back over their 19 years, he had to admit that he had been taken in. No wonder he hadn't seen what others had long since divined; it simply hadn't occurred to him that she wasn't the loving, faithful wife she portrayed so well.

On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings
--oh, happy chance!--
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault...

Oops. There he goes again, saying the older Novus Ordo version. Damned if he would publicly beat his breast to demonstrate the Catholic guilt he was supposed to feel (he had to smother his smile at the irony of his pondering damnation for flouting the Magisterium during the Confiteor).

As he heard her mechanically reciting the words, he wondered if she ever really listened to those words. Somehow he doubted it, just as he doubted that she ever confessed her manifold sins to a priest. After all, Confession—now, unfortunately, saddled with the mealy-mouthed moniker Sacrament of Reconciliation—required the sinner to repent, to believe that she had knowingly committed a sin, that she was truly sorry she had done it. Worse yet, it ends with the priest admonishing the sinner to go and sin no more. Fat chance.

She was convinced that what she did for ten years or more wasn't a sin, and she fully intended to continue doing it. After all, it was his fault, not hers. She told him that twice, the first time regretfully, the second time angrily. Last night.

"You didn't want me any more. I thought it was me, that I wasn't desirable any more. When someone told me—no, when someone showed me that I was still desirable, I was overwhelmed, I was lost. I didn't want it to happen, and it wouldn't have if you hadn't given up on me."

"That's bullshit, and you know it!" She winced at the language, knowing how angry he must be to use it to her. "I didn't give up on you, you gave up on me without giving me a chance. Why didn't you say something, why didn't you tell me that if I didn't start servicing you, you'd go find somebody else to do it?"

"God, you never will understand, will you?" Her voice lost what little apologetic tone it may have had. "Servicing me? A horse breeder sells stud service! A cattle rancher has to make sure his cows are serviced if he wants any calves!" She took some deep breaths, fought her tears.

"I wanted you to want me, to make love to me, but all I got was a sloppy kiss, a little breast work, a quick crotch massage, then wham-bamm, roll over without a thank you ma'am, and cuddle like we just shared some transcendent experience. And that was only the once every month or two you didn't turn me down. When I finally stopped asking almost six months ago, you obviously were relieved." He realized that he hadn't noticed how many nights he was relieved.

She lost the battle, the tears flowed, her voice broke into a soft wail. "What was I supposed to do? I wasn't desirable enough to seduce you or strong enough rape you."

In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised
--oh, happy chance!--
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.

A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Matthew.

When the hoary one-liner "Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Willie" popped into his head, he wasn't quick enough to smother his chuckle; she turned and gave him The Look. Once that would have chilled him; this time he just looked back with a blank stare. She quickly turned back to face the priest and made a great show of tracing a cross with her thumb on her forehead, lips, and heart. How she loved these opportunities to show her Pharisaic scrupulosity, to show how steeped she was in the rituals of her faith. If she were a Jewish man he was sure she would have the widest phylacteries and the longest tassels.

The priest read Matthew's testimony, raised the Book of the Gospels and kissed the page, then tucked the book away in the ambo. He brought up a sheaf of papers and mumbled a clumsy segue into his homily. Sure enough, yet another dull exegesis cribbed from some free online preaching service. He would go on for 15 or 20 minutes, long enough for almost every mind in the pews to wander off to more interesting trains of thought—afternoon barbecues or shopping lists or ball games or...

He wondered if her mind wandered to last night, when she got an unexpected call on her cell phone at 5:30 to work a half shift but didn't get home until just after midnight. When she came in from the garage she didn't expect to find him sitting in the semi-dark kitchen drinking a cup of tea. He looked up but didn't say anything.

"Oh! ...You startled me. I didn't expect you to still be up." She was flustered, absently tugging the waistband of her skirt and the collar of her blouse, smoothing her hair.

"No, I don't suppose you did. I wasn't sleepy. Watched a boring movie, tried to read some Pynchon." He was teaching a senior seminar on 20th Century American Novelists and was never confident of his grasp of Pynchon's postmodernism—nor her postmonogamism. "How many lives did we save tonight?"

She flinched as if he had slapped her. "What do you mean by that? You think I enjoy getting called out on Saturday night?" She was obviously angry at not being able to enter quietly, take a shower, and try to slip into bed without waking him. "Thanks for being so understanding. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm tired and ready for bed." She headed for the stairs to their bedroom.

"I called the hospital this time."

In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide,
save that which burned in my heart.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, of all things visible and invisible...

Except he really didn't, not anymore. Faith was choosing to believe something without needing proof, to accept without question. Once he had faith, in himself, in her, in their love. He knew they were destined to share their love until they died. Their vows may not have included the words "forsaking all others", but who could miss the intent of "I will love you and honor you all the days of my life" or "take this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

What if someone repeated both those vows while staring into the eyes of the other Minister of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, the putative spouse one was preparing to spend the rest of their life with? Weren't those promises of love and honor and fidelity, of faithfulness, meant to last forever? Weren't those promises sealed with the most holy of prayers? How can anyone justify ignoring those promises?

This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he
(well I knew who!) was awaiting me
-- A place where none appeared.

Confident that our God hears our petitions, let us offer our prayers for those in need.

Somehow the call to prayer left him unmoved. Oh, by all means, let us pray that the leaders of the Church and leaders of nations and captains of commerce are guided by Christ's call for compassion and forgiveness; that police and firefighters and soldiers and all others who protect us are safe from harm; that the sick and the sorrowing are comforted by God's love; that our departed loved ones are welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven. But don't let's forget "From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggetty beasties, good Lord deliver us."

He let the sarcasm in his mind curdle into something more bitter. But while we're at it, why couldn't we have prayed that he hadn't been blessed with a tumor that pumped out such strong testosterone agonists that his libido started shriveling before they had been married even ten years, that he seldom felt the desire to divert enough blood to grow Little Willy to Big Bad Bill, that he developed a rack of man boobs surely the envy of modestly endowed women?

He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to blot out reality. Why didn't we pray that his bloody doctors would have noticed that he suffered from gynecomastia—yes, damnit, suffered from! Why didn't they have his blood tested for testosterone and, when they didn't find any, ask themselves why? Why didn't we pray that the fucking tumor (sorry) was benign? Why didn't we pray that he could once again believe that it mattered whether he lived or died?

Why didn't we pray for such important things, gracious and loving God?

But of course, the tumor on his adrenal gland was molto malignant. He had to check into pre-op before sunrise tomorrow so they could get ready to cut it out of him. Why had he lost his temper last night and told her he had cancer, why didn't he just say he was going on a week-long business trip? Then she wouldn't have panicked, afraid that he might die, wouldn't have confessed not only last night's assignation, but named every other man she had bedded. Surely her orthodoxy wouldn't let her kid herself that confessing to him would absolve her. Not that she needed absolution, oh no, of course not.

Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

As usual, he stumbled over the New and Improved version and wondered yet again how latter-day Pharisees could so easily forget the parsimonious wisdom of William of Ockam. How could this new version be considered an improvement over the earlier, but vastly more elegant "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed."

The new version might hew more closely to the Gospel story of the Centurion whose servant Jesus healed, but applying that wise Franciscan monk's eponymous Razor would reduce the exhortation by a fourth and, better yet, more clearly tie God's healing grace to those who receive the Eucharist with humble and contrite heart.

He wondered if she felt absolved of all failings—heaven knows she didn't sin—each time she received the Eucharist. He wondered if her heart were humble or contrite when she experienced her orgasms at the hands—oh come on, a lot more than just the hands—of a host of his friends and co-workers for the last decade and more. He wondered what crossed her mind when Paul's letters or Jesus spoke of love. He wondered if she ever thought of him as she spread her legs for her next endorphin release.

But he knew the answers. She didn't believe she was absolved because she hadn't done anything that required absolution. She was neither humble nor contrite, she was clever and careful. She knew it had nothing to do with love, it was just satisfying a physical need like hunger or thirst. Of course she didn't think of him, why should she? He couldn't satisfy that need so she simply satisfied it with someone else. A lot of someone elses. Nothing more than that.

What was it she said last night, after he told her he had called the hospital?

She stopped, then spoke without turning. "I got something to eat before I came home. It took a long time, they were short a server."

"You forgot your ID badge. I called 15 minutes after you left. They said no one was called in." Emotionless. He could be telling her it was time to change the oil in the Suburban.

She stood frozen by her fear, afraid that he could hear her heart pounding, unable to find any words.

"Sit. I'll fix you a cup of tea. Or maybe you'd rather have something stronger. We need to talk"

She still wouldn't turn around. "Yes, you're right, we do need to talk. But I'll shower and change first."

He stood up and walked around to face her. "No, we'll talk now. Go. Sit. The squishy panties will keep you focused on our subject." Never before had he ordered her around like that. He watched as she paled and looked at him with pleading eyes, but he stood in her way until she turned around and sat at the kitchen table. He didn't miss her quick frown when she sat.

He fixed her tea and sat across from her. "When were you planning to stop? Or were you just going to keep it up until you lost the urge or died?"

She drank some of the hot tea, letting the scalding sensation fool her into thinking that the pain was a penance. "I wasn't cheating," she finally said. "I was satisfying the physical needs that you wouldn't. There was no love involved, not even affection. It was like a tough tennis match, a lot of physical effort followed by endorphin release. All perfectly natural."

She wanted him to believe that, but she hadn't looked at him when she said it. He didn't think she even believed it herself.

But still...as he sat waiting for her to come home last night, he had tried to remember the last time they made love. About a month, maybe a bit more, then at least a month or so before that. He had to admit they weren't the stuff of romance novels. He'd kiss her with some tongue, then kiss and suckl her breasts. While he was doing that he began to massage her labia, then gently ran his finger up and down her slit as the labia opened. If she was wet enough he penetrated her with one finger, then two; if she wasn't wet enough, he licked his fingers and stroked some more.

When she seemed ready, he rolled over on top of her, lifted her legs onto his shoulders, and slowly entered her all the way. He would pump in and out for quite a while, but it was almost passionless, then he would ejaculate. When they were younger, he would manage to get hard enough for a second—and sometimes even a third—act. But that was years ago.

Now he would release her legs, lie on her for a moment while supporting most of his weight on his elbows, give her a chaste kiss, then roll off, pull off his T-shirt and place it between her legs, and spoon himself behind her. That was the best time for him, when he felt closest to her, when he felt their love enfolding them.

But the last time she had moved out of his arms and said she wanted to sleep on her stomach, something she hardly ever did.

As they slowly moved forward in line to receive Communion, he realized that he couldn't remember the last time she experienced an orgasm. In fact, he wasn't sure she had ever experienced an orgasm. What did it look like, sound like, when a woman had had an orgasm? Before they met, neither one had much sexual experience with others, in fact no sexual experience really, just some passionate kisses and a bit of furtive fondling through clothing. Do women really get aroused, have lusty desires like a man does—like he used to?

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping,
and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

Bow your heads and pray for God's blessing

The Lord bless you and keep you

The LORD let his face shine upon you and be gracious to you!

The LORD look upon you kindly and give you peace!

He had gotten angry. Not just at her betrayal, but at her attempt to justify turning to someone else instead of telling him how badly she missed sex. Then, so fast he couldn't tamp it down, his anger surged into a blinding rage. For the first time in adulthood, he lost control and slammed his hands on the table, frightening them both.

"Shut up! Just shut up, you cheating bitch!" She was terrified. He never shouted at her, never called her ugly names. She shrank back in her chair and crossed her arms over her breasts.

His rage overwhelmed his his plan not to reveal his cancer until Monday. "Not wouldn't meet your needs. Couldn't." He told her about the tumor, the lack of testosterone, the biopsy, tomorrow's surgery. By the time he finished, he had regained some control.

"Oh my God! Why didn't you tell me? Why did you keep it a secret? " She was crying, started to stand and come around the table. He shook his head and motioned her to stay in her chair.

"Why the hell didn't you tell me how much you missed sex?" "Why didn't you tell me that you missed sex so much that you might have sex with someone else?" He was losing control again; the anger was taking over. "Why was betraying our wedding vows your first reaction?" He jumped up so violently he knocked his chair over. The crashing sound terrified her, her sobbing grew louder. Finally she calmed enough to speak.

"I just couldn't. I knew it would hurt you terribly, that you wouldn't understand that it didn't mean I loved you any less, you wouldn't understand it would have...didn't have anything to do with love, just physical release." Again, she fixed him with a pleading stare. Again, he was unmoved.

"I didn't tell you about the tumor at first because there was a chance it wasn't malignant, and I didn't want you needlessly worrying. When they told me it was cancer and they wanted to operate as soon as possible, I had waited so long I wasn't sure how to tell you." She started to interrupt but he ignored her.

"So Sunday evening I was going to tell you that I was having a procedure at the hospital in the morning and they wanted me to bring someone to drive me home. I wasn't going to tell you what the procedure was until we were on our way to the hospital.

"That wasn't right! I'm your wife! You should have told me at the very beginning." She was right, he should have, but no way was he going to admit that now. Besides, who the hell was she to talk about right and wrong?

"I couldn't. I knew it would hurt you terribly." He echoed her words with a sneer, but she didn't notice. She had closed her eyes and covered her face with her hands. He waited to hear how she would respond, not knowing how much he would come to wish he hadn't told her.

Finally, she looked up from the palms of her hands. She didn't look unhappy or angry, she looked...afraid?

"What if you die? What if I never see you again?" Her voice was small, without anger.

He couldn't pass up the chance to hurt her again. "Then you can have even more of those wonderful endorphin releases without worrying that I'll find out, and I won't know that you're doing it. It's a win-win."

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byA_Bierce© 39 comments/ 12060 views/ 14 favorites

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