dark night of the soul

Christianity is based on relationship – with God and with others. Like all relationships, disillusionment will challenge even the strongest of souls. St. John of the Cross coined the phrase the dark night of the soul to describe the struggle and despair when faith is dry, prayer brings no consolation, and even the existence of God is questioned. The great spiritual writers describe the dark night of the soul as a time of purification, though this brings little comfort to someone who is spiritually depressed. Many of our greatest saints have experienced this darkest of nights. including Mother Teresa of Calcutta and St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

As with a love relationship, we cannot expect to remain in a honeymoon stage of faith. After a deeply spiritual time of retreat, we have to return to the messiness of everyday life. After an intense time of formation, we go forth to live our faith in action only to find our early ideals quickly shattered. Or maybe lethargy and boredom slowly creeps into our body and soul and drains us of all passion, drive and energy.

As with a love relationship, we need to pray for patience and perseverance during the dry times. We need to remind ourselves of why we fell in love (believed) in the first place. We have to work hard at nurturing our faith relationship when the warm fuzzies and emotional highs are gone. We have to keep the lines of communication (prayer) open – especially when we don’t feel like talking anymore. And, we should seek help from trained spiritual guides and counsellors.

These words ring of platitudes, and I apologize. A few words cannot do justice to the complexity of this topic, and words seldom bring comfort to the soul that is suffering through the dark night. Sometimes all we can do is wait and hope for the light of day to come soon. And, with it, the true joy of a stronger and more mature faith.

3 thoughts on “dark night of the soul

  1. I once had a job that I thought was just made for me, it was in a religious environment. When I first took this job a very close friend who was a religious brother told me, “Because you are a good person, wishing to do good things, you will come up against evil in a way you have not known”. I thought that if any of this was true, it might be something like the temptation to neglect my own spiritual life because I was doing other spiritual works. Not so! What I encountered was real, physical, and unrelenting.

    I just couldn’t believe that anyone could treat someone the way I was treated, especially in a Christian environment, and these things were being done by good people! It made me think of the Psalmist, when he/she says something like: “If an enemy had done this I could have taken it, but you my brother/sister, who walked with me in the temple…” Part of the stumbling block for me in dealing with this situation was due to the lack of logic of it. Someone like me, the “noble do-gooder” tries hard to apply logic to a twisted situation and it doesn’t work.

    Scott Peck in his book People of the Lie, called this “systemic evil.” It gets into a system like a parish, community, an office, a center, etc. and takes on a life of its own. It was like Jason from one of those horror movies. Just when you think the thing is dead its hand reaches out of the swamp. It was a cancer that just had to be cut out. No one in that place had the courage to do the necessary invasive surgery. The Franciscan nun who was my spiritual director at the time repeatedly would say to me, “coupe Coeur”–cut it swiftly and cleanly.

    So what did I learn about in my “dark night”? I learned in very practical ways that my spiritual tradition includes both Job and Jesus and is certainly not about the social optimism of modern religion where God and success are equated. It is about entering into the suffering and anxiety of what it means to be human. It is standing before Silent Mystery when my ego wants answers, and solutions, and the re-assertions of ways that I once found comfortable. Jesus faced his suffering and death and long ago I decided to follow him, “Lord, to whom show I go…”
    I had to ask myself, “is there a way that this can be a blessed time, a time for reevaluating my values, and how I want to live, and what I want my future to be”?
    In some ways it was one of the most difficult time in my life but I believed somehow it had the potential to be transformative. I had to try to go deeper into the mystery of life and God and work to transform my consciousness. There was no other healthy choice. (Haven’t totally got there yet, still trying.)
    It would be a scandal for some to recognize that God could be in these dark nights, an even worse scandal is that God could have initiated these difficult times, and that these rough times are God’s foot prints. God’s imprint on us can be found in our dark nights, the difficult life experiences.
    Where we stand in the “dark night” is holy ground, you may as well take off your shoes before you get there! God is about transformation and going deeper into our goodness.

  2. There is so much wisdom here, Ray. Wisdom obviously gleaned from personal experience and struggle. It is true that our spiritual tradition does not run away from this `Silent Mystery` that is the dark night of the soul. And thank goodness it doesn`t. Spiritual writers who share honestly from their experience, allow us to acknowledge our own dark night with the hope of transformation. Holy ground, and holy words indeed. Thank you for sharing both with us.

  3. The utopia we dream this world will some day, somehow be, is what we hope for in the next world, a hope as St Paul indicates, we cannot yet ‘see’ for if we possess it already, it no longer remains hope. With the darkness that each one of us must undergo however, we are blessed with the accompanying grace of God, a grace which nevertheless, is at times in and of itself a scourge, a thorn, a chastisement from a loving Father who ‘needs’ (for his love is of such an intensity) to bring us to a better place even in the here and now as we proceed ever so boldly to that place which he has prepared for all those who persevere in love of him and each other–a magnificent prospect which is acquired only through divine purification. God bless.

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