Saturday, December 10, 2016

Bryan Cross: “The ordinary Catholic life just is the long dark night of the soul”

That headline is a direct quote from Bryan, taken from a February 17 2016 Bryan Cross comment on this Jason Stellman blog post. (The topic of Stellman came up earlier this week, and so I took a look, and came up with this conversation.) In that blog post, Stellman is complaining that “my experience with God is largely characterized by divine absence, the ‘real absence of Christ’”. I don’t want to get into Stellman’s self-absorbed hand wringing, but here’s the larger Bryan Cross quote:

I don’t have the Calvary Chapel background that you do. But I do have a Pentecostal background. Of course we both went through a substantive Reformed period. But it took me some time to realize that some remainders of that original spirituality lingered on, a tradition in which spiritual experience in its subjective phenomenological sense, is extremely important, and is the measure of one’s closeness to God, perhaps even the very measure and ground of one’s faith.

Hold this thought, because this is not at all what the Reformation faith – the earliest Christian faith – was about. I’ll address this below.

That made people in my tradition very susceptible to the sort of church-shopping that offers such an experience on any given Sunday morning. And there is even a hint of that in the Reformed tradition with its doctrine of subjective assurance, and the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit, etc. But in the Catholic tradition, you may receive “consolation” early on, but that’s just a bonus that God ordinarily withdraws soon after, so that you walk by faith.

The ordinary Catholic life just is the long dark night of the soul, the experience of the “real absence of Christ,” as you put it. That’s not the problem; the problem is the expectation (we) bring to it, that it should be otherwise, that we should regularly feel or experience God’s presence or immanence, or that such consolation is the basis or ground or sustainer of our faith. See the last chapter of Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm. I don’t know if that’s at all relevant to your situation, but it was for me. I had to learn a very different way grounding and evaluating faith and growth. I had to give up seeking or expecting felt experiences. This is one more dying to the self, one more way of taking up the cross.

Both of these men, Cross and Stellman, are experiencing different forms of “buyer’s remorse” -- the depressing notion that they have been sold a “bill of goods”. They may or may not realize it consciously. But the “absence of Christ” that they are experiencing is clearly a symptom of Roman Catholicism’s explicit rejection of the Biblical promises of Christ.

Knox, by the way, was an Anglican-turned-Roman Catholic Priest whose work referenced here examined “the various types of enthusiasts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: the monatists; donatists; anabaptists; Quakers; Jansenism; quietism; methodism; and other movements.”

In the peace of Christ,

If Bryan is suffering from “the dark night of the soul” – which was written about by “St John of the Cross”, a 16th-century Roman Catholic mystic, then certainly this oft-quoted signature of his is more of a case of wishful thinking than an indicative. Here is the Wikipedia description of “the Spiritual term (of “dark night of the soul” in Roman Catholic tradition”:

The term "dark night (of the soul)" is used in Roman Catholicism for a spiritual crisis in a journey towards union with God, like that described by Saint John of the Cross.

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a 19th-century French Carmelite, wrote of her own experience. Centering on doubts about the afterlife, she reportedly told her fellow nuns, "If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into."

While this crisis is usually temporary in nature, it may last for extended periods. The "dark night" of Saint Paul of the Cross in the 18th century lasted 45 years, from which he ultimately recovered. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, according to letters released in 2007, "may be the most extensive such case on record", lasting from 1948 almost up until her death in 1997, with only brief interludes of relief in between. Franciscan Friar Father Benedict Groeschel, a friend of Mother Teresa for a large part of her life, claims that "the darkness left" towards the end of her life.

I would suggest that this “dark night”, this “absence of Christ” is more derived from the fact that Roman Catholicism itself is a systematic denial of Christ’s promises, than anything like a spiritual journey. Roman Catholicism actually cuts a person off (believer or not) from such Christian promises as are found in Psalm 71, for example:

1 In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame.

2 In your righteousness, rescue me and deliver me;
turn your ear to me and save me.

3 Be my rock of refuge,
to which I can always go;
give the command to save me,
for you are my rock and my fortress.

4 Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked,
from the grasp of those who are evil and cruel.

5 For you have been my hope, Sovereign Lord,
my confidence since my youth.

6 From birth I have relied on you;
you brought me forth from my mother’s womb.
I will ever praise you.

7 I have become a sign to many;
you are my strong refuge.

8 My mouth is filled with your praise,
declaring your splendor all day long.

9 Do not cast me away when I am old;
do not forsake me when my strength is gone.

10 For my enemies speak against me;
those who wait to kill me conspire together.

11 They say, “God has forsaken him;
pursue him and seize him,
for no one will rescue him.”

12 Do not be far from me, my God;
come quickly, God, to help me.

13 May my accusers perish in shame;
may those who want to harm me
be covered with scorn and disgrace.

14 As for me, I will always have hope;
I will praise you more and more.

15 My mouth will tell of your righteous deeds,
of your saving acts all day long—
though I know not how to relate them all.

16 I will come and proclaim your mighty acts, Sovereign Lord;
I will proclaim your righteous deeds, yours alone.

17 Since my youth, God, you have taught me,
and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.

18 Even when I am old and gray,
do not forsake me, my God,
till I declare your power to the next generation,
your mighty acts to all who are to come.

19 Your righteousness, God, reaches to the heavens,
you who have done great things.
Who is like you, God?

20 Though you have made me see troubles,
many and bitter,
you will restore my life again;
from the depths of the earth
you will again bring me up.

21 You will increase my honor
and comfort me once more.

22 I will praise you with the harp
for your faithfulness, my God;
I will sing praise to you with the lyre,
Holy One of Israel.

23 My lips will shout for joy
when I sing praise to you—
I whom you have delivered.

24 My tongue will tell of your righteous acts
all day long,
for those who wanted to harm me
have been put to shame and confusion.

Even though the “Enthusiasts” may have set unrealistic expectations about the nearness or presence of God, they are not necessarily Scriptural. The Reformers themselves wrestled with such things, and they came to conclusions that were much more thoroughly biblical. I’m quoting here from an article that Pastor Tony Phelps wrote a few years ago:

Luther recalled his own struggles with whether or not he was elect, during his time in the Augustinian order. Thankfully, he had a wise and gracious Father-confessor, Staupitz. Luther wrote, “Listen to the incarnate Son, and predestination will present itself of its own accord. Staupitz used to comfort me with these words: ‘Why do you torture yourself with these speculations? Look at the wounds of Christ and at the blood that was shed for you. From these predestination will shine. Consequently, one must listen to the Son of God, who was sent into the flesh and appeared to destroy the work of the devil (1 John 3:8) and to make you sure about predestination. And for this reason He says to you: “You are My sheep because you hear My voice” (cf. John 10:27). “No one shall snatch you out of My hands”’ (cf. v. 28).”

Citing “Martin Luther, vol. 5, Luther’s Works, Vol. 5 : Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 26-30”, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther’s Works, 5:47 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1968).

Pastor Phelps continues, “Luther heeded Staupitz’s counsel. He no longer tried to peer into God’s eternal decree. Nor did he try to look within for assurance. He looked to the incarnate, crucified Christ for assurance of his salvation – and thereby, his predestination. He heard his Savior’s voice in the Gospel, and followed Him in faith. And so he was assured he was one of Christ’s sheep, and would never be snatched from His hand.”

Regarding Calvin’s views on this similar thing:

“…let us not seek (like so many) to penetrate as far as heaven and to enquire what God, from His eternity, has decided to do with us – and all this with a view to confirming the certainty of our salvation. Such a quest can serve only to stir up miserable anguish and upset in us. Rather, let us be content with the testimony by which He has sufficiently and amply assured us of this certainty. It is in Christ that all those who have been preordained to life have been elected… Similarly, it is in Christ that the pledge of our election is presented to us, if we receive and embrace Him by faith. For what are we looking for in election, if it is not that we might be partakers of eternal life? And we have this life in Christ, He who was Life from the beginning, and who is set before us as Life, so that all who believe in Him should not perish but enjoy eternal life (John 3:16). In possessing Christ by faith, we also possess eternal life in Him. This being so, we have no reason to enquire any further concerning the eternal counsel of God. For Christ is not only a mirror by which the will of God is presented to us, but He is a pledge by which it is sealed to us and endorsed.”

Citing John Calvin, Truth for All Time (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2008), 45-48.

[Calvin] drew the same conclusion from Scripture as Luther. Assurance is not found by trying to peer into God’s decree. Nor is it found by an internal examination. Rather, it is found by looking to Christ in faith. Christ is the mirror of God’s will for the salvation of sinners. Faith sees Christ crucified “for ME.” Faith embraces Christ for eternal life.

Luther & Calvin agree … Assurance of salvation, assurance of election, must be centered on Christ alone. Christ incarnate and crucified for sinners is the mirror and pledge of our election. This is the way of assurance for … all Christians. As you listen to the Gospel preached, you hear the voice of your Good Shepherd who laid down His life for His sheep – and you follow Him. As you look to Christ by faith, you see yourself chosen in Him from before the foundation of the world.


  1. Can you correct the opening links to the posts in question?

  2. Hi Patrick -- I've fixed the links -- they both go to the same place (top of the blog post) -- initially I had thought to link directly to the comment, but his comments don't have links, which is why I included the date of the comment. I'm not sure what happened with the initial links. They worked the other day. Thanks for pointing it out.