Category Archives: dark night

In the Desert of Doubt

Day 6 of 29 Days of Spiritual Messages.

Today’s passage comes from a particular book that did not make it into the canon of the Christian bible because it was deemed heretical by Church leaders during the third and fourth centuries; it didn’t fit the doctrine that the Church was promoting.
But, nevertheless, we can glean wisdom from its words. This passage comes from The Apocryphon of John, from the Nag Hammadi texts, the extracanonical manuscripts (Gnostic Gospels) found hidden in a cave in the Egyptian desert in 1945. 
Let’s explore.
“Where is your master whom you followed?” a Pharisee said to me.
“He has filled your ears with lies, he has closed your heart,
and turned you from the tradition of your fathers.”

When I, John, heard these words, I fled the temple;
I withdrew to the desert, grieving greatly, and I cried aloud,
“How then was the savior appointed, and why was he sent to us
by his Father? And what did he mean when he said to us,
‘The realm to which you shall go is imperishable’?”

While I sat contemplating these things, lo, the heavens opened
and the world shook and trembled beneath my feet!
In the light I beheld a youth who stood beside me.
Even as I looked he became like an old man, then like a servant.
Yet there were not three before me, but one, with multiple forms
appearing through each other as though transparent.
He said to me, “John, John, why do you doubt?
And why are you afraid? I am the one who is with you always.
I am the Father. I am the Mother. I am the Son.”
John, his faith shaken by the words of a Pharisee (high pious priest), forsakes the Temple and retreats to the desert. 
The Temple has been his fortress of faith. This is where he prayed, associated with his friends, identified as a Jew, and learned from his Teacher. The Temple was his life. Leaving it meant leaving the world he has always known and loved, even with its institutions and its rules on how to behave, think, and believe. 
Entering the desert meant confronting a whole new wilderness, alone, robbed of all his comfort and familiarity.

And so it is when we face dark hours and doubt all that we have believed, even ourselves. What an awful, empty, gut-wrenching feeling it is.

We retreat, withdrawing ourselves from all that we have known, and find ourselves in a vast, spiritual desert.

We begin asking ourselves all the ancient and eternal questions that have plagued mankind since the beginning. “Who am I?” “What am I?” “Why is this happening to me?” “Where do I go from here?” “What does all of this mean?” And so on. The internal world with which we were familiar and comfortable is all thrown into question and off balance. What happened to our foundation?

Too many times we approach spirituality the way John did. We try to deduce the meaning of life or the meaning of our existence using intellectual knowledge alone. And the moment our “beliefs” are challenged, the way the Pharisee challenges John, we are thrown into chaos and we bolt.

Maybe that’s because we aren’t completely sure of what it is we “believe,” which is why John probably doesn’t engage the Pharisee. John isn’t prepared to answer the Pharisee’s question of “Where is your master whom you followed?” His foundation is rocked, and he loses his footing.

The Pharisee doesn’t stop there. He adds insult to injury when he tells John that his master “has filled your ears with lies, he has closed your heart, and turned you from the tradition of your fathers.”  In other words, his master turned him into something unrecognizable. All John hears is, “You are worthless. You have turned against us. You have abandoned your traditions. Loser!” Fight or flight. John chooses to flee and to go lick his wounds in private.

How many times have we done this?

How many times have we taken criticism as a personal attack?

But fleeing sometimes has its advantages, especially as we begin our journey.

Alone in this newfound darkness of the desert, we find ourselves “grieving greatly” and “[crying] aloud.” To whom? We scream and yell in anger, directing our questions and emotions toward “something” or “someone” in the hopes that we will be heard. In John’s case, he questions his savior’s whole purpose. But the deeper issue for John is the sense of abandonment he feels by his savior. He is a broken man.

How many times have we felt abandoned by those whom we loved and trusted?

Our intellectual knowledge can only tell us what something is, not what it means. It will only carry us so far.

Then somehow in the midst of our breakdown we breakthrough.

In the empty space we have created through our solitude, “the heavens [open],” and truth appears, bringing us the enlightenment we need to carry on. Our “teacher” appears in a new form, one we have never expected.

Whatever the form, we come to understand the “message” meant for us. It becomes transparent and visible all in one, one that is outside of ourselves and yet within us; it is all things when it says, “I am the Father. I am the Mother. I am the Son.” We see through the veils of reality, beyond what is, to what is yet to come. This is a new knowledge, an inner knowing, one that bypasses all intellectual understanding.

This is the language of the heart.

Through this dark night, we realize that the desert in which we find ourselves is holy ground.

In the words of Terry Tempest Williams, “If the desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred. Perhaps that is why every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self. There is no place to hide, and so we are found.” We discover that the Truth has been there all along and will always be there, even when we have our doubts.