In theological terms, this makes John (of the Cross) a teacher in the negative way, which does not mean that he is a pain to be around. It means that he does not try to teach by saying what God is, since positive statements about God serve chiefly to fool people into believing that their half-baked images of God and their flawed ideas about how God acts are the Real Thing. John works in the opposite direction. He teaches by saying what God is not, hoping to convince his readers that their images of and ideas about “God” are in fact obstacles between them and the Real Thing. If this is a disappointment to some of John’s readers, it comes as a great relief to others.
I cannot say for sure when my reliable ideas about God began to slip away, but the big chest I used to keep them in is smaller than a shoebox now. . .
The slippage started with the language of faith, which I had spoken fluently for a long time. After years of teaching other people what words like “sin,” “salvation,” “repentance,” and “grace” really meant, those same words began to mean less and less to me. . . . Although I knew what “sin” meant, there were other words with more nuance in them that struck with more force: “betrayal,” “brokenness,” “forgetfulness,” “deadly distance from the source of all life.” . . .
Once the words began to break off, the landslide was hard to stop. . .
If that has ever happened to you, you know how fast it can make you ready to listen to anyone who can tell you what all that not-ness is about. John’s answer is not simple, but in the simplest possible terms, he says that the dark night is God’s best gift to you, intended for your liberation. It is about freeing you from your ideas about God, your fears about God, your attachment to all the benefits you have been promised for believing in God, your devotion to the spiritual practices that are supposed to make you feel closer to God, your dedication to doing and believing all the right things about God, your positive and negative evaluations of yourself as a believer in God, your tactics for manipulating God, and your sure cures for doubting God.
All of these are substitutes for God, John says. They all get in God’s way. The late Gerald May, who wrote his own book about John, called them addictions. In many cases, he said, we should give thanks for them, because it is our addiction to some God substitute or another that finally brings us to our knees, by helping us to realize how far we have strayed from our heart’s true desire.