I asked a guest waiting in line for coffee, “How are you this morning, other than cold?”
He hesitated a few seconds, then answered, “I’m cold.”
As he walked away cradling his cup of coffee I thought, yes, colder than cold. Too cold to be anything other than cold.
Sunday’s rain had given way to a grey Monday morning. The clouds were low, temperatures were in the 30’s, and the dampness of the air made it feel even colder.
In years past, we would have all gathered in the house, warm and cozy against the chill. In this year of the pandemic, we gather outside, still in the backyard. There we can practice social distancing and not be in an enclosed space. Less chance to contract the coronavirus. But also less hospitable. No soft couches. No warm house. And wearing masks adds to the diminishment of hospitality. Voices are muffled, making it harder to have conversations. And if there are smiles, they cannot be seen.
All this made the Saint of the Day on Monday, St. John of the Cross, seem appropriate. He is most famous for his exploration of what he called, “the dark night of the soul.” I am no mystic, but there is something about that phrase that speaks to me, especially in this time of pandemic and Advent. In the night of pandemic, disease, suffering, and death stalk us. In the night of Advent, we await the Light of God in a Savior who will bring healing, peace, justice. Psalm 42 comes to mind as a prayer for these days, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’” (Psalm 42:1-3).
In the dark night of the soul, the absence of God is palpable. Instead of God’s warm love, it is colder than cold. There is not simply loss, but loss upon loss. More than three hundred and four thousand dead in the United States. Hospitals are nearly full. Unemployment is up. People are facing evictions. Life is disrupted on so many levels and in so many ways.
I came to work at Memphis Theological Seminary from this morning at Manna House. The buildings are mostly empty. A few faculty teach their online classes. A few staff take care of seminary business. But there are no students present. There is no buzz of conversation as a class ends and students fill the hallways. Like the hospitality at Manna House, the work of education is diminished. But even so, these changes are nothing compared to families adjusting to the loss of a loved one, or people adjusting to reduced work or the loss of jobs.
How to respond? How to live in this time? What to do in the dark night of the soul, this dark night of pandemic, this time of Advent? Where is your God when it is darker than dark, colder than cold?
St. John of the Cross invites me to consider doing nothing; nothing but wait in the darkness. There I face the hard reality. I cannot force the Light to come. I cannot force God to bend to my will. I have to wait, empty handed, empty hearted, thirsting for the living God. I need to wait, to get emptied of myself so there might be room for God. In this way, waiting for St. John of the Cross is not passivity; it is waiting in openness to God.
So, I am going to wait and do a few things that I think are consistent with the presence of God.
I am going to wait as I hand a cup of coffee to a cold guest standing in line at Manna House.
I am going to wait as I listen to a guest tell me “These are hard days; days of distress.”
I am going to wait as I hear from a friend who is a chaplain at the VA of yet another death from COVID19.
I am going to wait as I wear a mask, and wash my hands, and practice social distancing.
I am going to wait with openness to the truth that someday the Light is going to come. I am going to wait, in anticipation of and preparation for that day when God will come. On that day, God will bring some warmth for the colder than cold, some light for all of us in darkness, and some water for all of us who pray along with that thirsty Psalmist. Until then, I wait.