Not long ago I listened to a podcast by author Lauren Winner speaking about her spiritual journey, particularly of her experience of the “dark night of the soul.” It stirred up a lot of thoughts about my own journey. Saint John of the Cross wrote the classic text which explores the experience of the dark night. Like anything produced a sixteenth century mystic, his writings can be difficult for modern readers to understand. Winner gives a more contemporary description of the experience she calls, “hitting the wall.”
My experiences growing up in the church never prepared me for the dark night of the soul. During the dark night God seems to remove himself from us. The sky feels like it is made of iron; prayers bounce off the ceiling unheard. John of the Cross likens it to a baby whose mother suddenly stops nursing him without weening. The warmth, the sweetness, nourishment, and intimacy are gone. It is both bewildering and terrifying for the person who enters the night. As Winner points out, the dark night is not the same as a “dry spell” or “falling in a rut.” Rather it is a long period of feeling alienated from God. It may last two years or twenty. Mother Teresa famously experienced a kind of dark night for the majority of her life. Jesus’ cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is an apt description of what it feels like to be in the dark night.
There were two main things I did when I entered the dark night, which are mentioned by Winner. The first was to search for sin. When God withdraws himself the first thing we tend to do is to try to discover what we are doing wrong. Of course, you are bound to find sin in your life if you look hard enough. The difficulty with the dark night is that when you find those sins and confess them, the dark night fails to go away. You start to act like Job’s friends, engaging in an introspective witch hunt until your soul is rubbed raw. Our dark nights are often wrapped up with some kind sin. However, that doesn’t mean that the dark night is punishment from God for those sins. Confronting and dealing with sin is always good, but it provides no way around or through the wall.
The second common response to the dark night is a desperate attempt to rekindled spiritual passion. This looks as different as there are different ways that people connect with God. Usually it involves returning to something that caused spiritual enjoyment in the past, buying a worship CD, getting a new journal, or planning to start a new spiritual discipline. I tried to force intimacy with God by seeking solitude because that method had always worked in the past. Sometimes these efforts work to a degree, which only encourages you to try harder with less and less success. You begin to question technique, attempting to replicate the precise things you did in the past to feel close to God.
These attempts to provoke intimacy spring from right motives. We should want to be close to Christ. God is delighted when we pursue him. A heart which is truly dead to God will never notice his absence. Yet, if God has withdrawn Himself from our senses, there is nothing we can do to get Him to return to them. None of our own efforts can break through the dark night of the soul. He has to come back in His own time. This is a hard concept for Americans to grasp, who believe they can fix anything if only they try hard enough.
Many times new believers will have a miniature dark night of the soul. For six months or a year after their conversion they are filled with passion and excitement for Christ. Being filled with joy and telling everyone about what God has done for them is easy. Then one day God pulls out the rug. How they respond plays a important role in their future spiritual growth.
People who live in main stream evangelical churches have a special difficulty with the dark night of the soul. First, evangelicals tend to be cut off from the two-thousand years of Christian tradition which has come before them and can be of great help in these situation. Second, evangelical worship is geared toward producing the same kind of emotional intimacy that is impossible during the dark night. Finally, evangelicalism tends to evaluate a person spiritual state by how they feel. We ask questions like, “are you are fire for Jesus?” For this reason, people who have hit the wall can not only feel alienated from God but the church as well. They think their faith has failed because they are unable to reach the state that is expected of a good Christian within their community of believers.
What is a Christian to do when they find themselves in a dark night? As hard as it will be, the main thing to do is to wait. Winner talks about standing and staring at the wall, studying the surface, the cracks, and texture. Just knowing that what is going on is natural and not the the end of your belief can be helpful. This is also a time when it may be wise to let the mind lead. As I have written in another post, I value the will, emotions, and mind. However, in the dark night, you may be able to recognize that your feelings are misleading you while your mind is telling the truth. Sometimes it is all you can do to agree intellectually that Jesus loves you when your feelings disagree. You may reach a point when you don’t even believe that, but you are able to believe that another Christian believes God loves you. Liturgical churches have an advantage here. When neither prayer nor worship can flow spontaneously, pre-made prayers and creeds by past Christians can be helpful. Like a physical therapist who moves a person’s limbs through a set of motions which they do not have the strength to perform, liturgy can move our souls through the motions of worship when weakness makes us unable. Going through the motions is not always a bad thing.
I am uncertain of the connection between the dark night of the soul and depression. The modern concept of depression is fairly recent and still not correctly understood in much of the Christian community. In his writings, John of the Cross mentions melancholy, which is the rough medieval equivalent of depression. He elaborates little on the subject besides saying that the dark night is different from melancholy. My opinion is that there are many parallels between the symptoms of depression and way the dark night operates. It might be fair to say that the dark night is a depression of the spiritual life in particular. One or the other may be present, or they may be present at the same time, which is a double burden.
Eventually the dark night will end. Then, as Winner says, God will look different. There is no going back to the spiritual life you had before the dark night. It is like a married couple of forty trying to go back to the way they felt when they were twenty and dating. Not only is it impossible, it is not wise. For me this is new territory. I often feel like it is a gray night, some intermediate state between night and morning (or is it evening and night.) Winner describes her experience after the dark night as the middle. Perhaps they are the same, perhaps not. As Søren Kierkegaard says, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Perspective only comes with distance, when your face is not pressed against the present. So it many be some time before I understand where I am at right now.