'...naked in the dark'
'...naked in the dark'
The active night of the spirit
The picture at the right is from a fresco by Giotto, showing the vision during which Francis of Assisi received the wounds of Christ in his own hands, feet, and side. But away from the main action, in the lower right-hand corner, is another friar who's focused on a book, completely oblivious to what's happening to Francis (it's probably Brother Leo, and he's probably praying the Liturgy of the Hours). My guess is that he's there for a specific, practical reason. When a friar would go to a hermitage or some other out-of-the-way place for an uninterrupted time of prayer, another friar would act as what they called a "mother." The "mother" would take care of meals and any other needs so that the one who was spending his time in prayer wouldn't have to be distracted. There wasn't any elitism involved; the roles rotated as needed. We know from historical accounts that Brother Leo, who was a close friend of Francis, was filling the "mother" role for Francis when he had this vision.
"Prayer" can be as difficult to define as "mysticism," and for someone growing spiritually it can mean pain and waging of spiritual warfare at least as often as it brings sweetness and light. One way to avoid the pain is to stop praying (or to retreat to an earlier, easier form of prayer) which, of course, is the reaction the Enemy in the spiritual warfare is hoping for. Francis' acceptance of the wounds of Christ involved physical pain that continued until his death. At the same time, he was going through the spiritual pain of relinquishing control over the religious community he had spent his life building, and watching it go in a different direction than the one he would have chosen for it. This fresco is a visual reminder that even Francis couldn't cope with all of this alone, by showing us his "mother" sitting in the corner, ready to care for his outward needs so he could spend all of his energy on what was happening interiorly.
It doesn't seem necessary to point out the similarities between that scenario and Sam and Frodo as they cross Mordor. At first, Frodo is still involved in making decisions about the outward journey, but as his inward struggle with the Ring intensifies, Sam takes charge of every other need.
After the passive night of the senses in Cirith Ungol, Frodo seems to be dropped almost immediately into the active night of the spirit. Not that he hadn't been fighting his battle with the Ring all along, but it now takes on a different form. Both Frodo and the Ring have grown, and their battle becomes constant - and more deadly. There will be no end to it until one of them is destroyed, and the Ring spares none of its master's power in the attempt to take Frodo apart until he's no longer Frodo.
The complete stripping of identity that Frodo experiences would, in Tolkien's philosophy as I understand it, be worse than death, because even beyond death we remain who we are. And Frodo's loss doesn't take place in one "heroic" moment but through a halting, gradual process he has no way of stopping except by giving in to the Ring's evil and abandoning his task. As his very selfhood is consumed by the Ring - that is, by the power and will of Sauron that the Ring holds - Frodo can only watch as he continues to allow it to happen. But, the all-important fact is that he does continue to allow it to happen rather than give in to the Ring. Sam gets an occasional glimpse of the fierce struggle as the will of the Ring draws Frodo to put It on and Frodo's will forces his hand away from It. There's no passivity in this dark night, although the activity takes place interiorly, as you would expect it to in a night of the spirit.
In The Ascent of Mount Carmel, which John wrote before The Dark Night of the Soul, he admonishes his readers in a way that could sound Buddhist if we don't remember that John's "nothing"/"not" (nada) means giving absolutely everything over to God:
To reach satisfaction in all
desire its possession in nothing.
To come to possess all
desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all
desire to be nothing…
To come to the pleasure you have not
you must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
To come to be what you are not
you must go by a way in which you are not…
In the journey across Mordor, Frodo is going by a way that - as far as he can see - will end with his becoming nada. He's agonizingly aware of this gradual loss of identity, at least during the last stage and probably before. What's usually called his "Wheel of Fire Speech" is, I believe, his attempt to describe the indescribable to Sam; he's "naked in the dark" with nothing between him and the fire that grows as he diminishes. (Even the seemingly contradictory linking of darkness and fire seems to imply that the nature of what he's experiencing is beyond what he can put into words.) That "nothing" is what used to be himself: his identity and, crucial in Tolkien's scheme of things, his will.
The process isn't complete yet when Frodo makes that "speech," but he knows only too well what's happening to him and what the end of that process will be, and yet he continues to doggedly use every bit of will he does have to force his way toward exactly that end, still trusting that he's being led by whoever or whatever it was that called him to the task, and still carrying the hope that goodness and beauty will endure even if he can never know them again.