None of us wants to admit that we have experienced, or are experiencing, a time when we don’t hear the voice of God; that there are times in our lives where we feel as though God is silent, absent, or withholding Himself from us. We are uncomfortable with the idea that God might allow us to sit in our deprivation, and often, drown in it until His hand rescues us from the depths.
But how do we describe this poverty of spirit, this drowning in heavenly silence, where we feel truly abandoned and helpless? This time in our lives can be referred to as the “dark night of the soul,” a time where we feel that our intellect, memory, and faith do nothing to change the physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual turmoil swirling angrily around us. The dark night of the soul is the process by which we learn (the hard way) that we ought not to think of ourselves so spiritual that we can overcome our own inadequacy and human depravity.
The dark night of the soul is the process by which we learn (the hard way) that we ought not to think of ourselves so spiritual that we can overcome our own inadequacy and human depravity.
To give some context, this term the “dark night of the soul” derives from literary work, The Dark Night, a poem by a mystic priest, St. John of the Cross, who wrote and developed theological pieces during the Counter-Reformation in Spain. This poem deals with the experience of the “night,” which is not just a time of day, but a period of life in which our faith is stripped of all external armor, and left exposed to the darkness of the unknown. The verses of the poem reveal that the person that is enduring the dark night experiences a painful deprivation, a darkness of mind, an emptiness of emotion, and a powerlessness of the will.
When hardship strikes, and/or sorrow and pain fill our lives for weeks on end, silence from God can be crippling. When God remains silent in a time that we feel we need him most to speak to us or protect us, we start to wonder if we are the reason why we are not hearing from him. We often ask ourselves if we have slipped too far in our sin and have been abandoned, gone too long without praying and have broken our communication with God, or even questioned the legitimacy and reality of our own salvation.
But restricting ourselves to these assumptions can lead to dangerous waters, theologically speaking, and can impact how we view God, ourselves, and the dynamic we have with the heavenly realm. When left unchallenged, our often-messy dialogue with, and blessings from God become the way by which we measure our relationship with him, and can often lead us to believe that God’s love and presence is limited to the functions of our behavior. If we are not careful, we can be quick to assume that God is not present, compassionate, or steadfast towards his beloved children.
If we are not careful, we can be quick to assume that God is not present, compassionate, or steadfast towards his beloved children.
Just having made it through the dark night of my own soul, I have realized that for the longest time I accepted the understanding that God’s love was absent from me, and had left me indefinitely for a reason outside of my influence and control. In this dark night of the soul, I prayed until I had no words left in my mind or heart to utter, and I sought the Lord’s presence in every moment, but never heard or felt anything. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and month after month my craving for my Lord’s voice and presence, and my deep sorrow left me weary. I felt helpless and confused, as though I was suffocating in my own inadequacy and nobody was coming to save me.
However, there is this beauty in this prolonged solitude, this spiritual exhaustion of the night: that through the feeling of deprivation and inadequacy, and the loss of comfort and understanding of reality, we find that we are united with God not by our own strength and light, but by His love purifying us from our imperfections and short-comings. Just as the sorrow and fear become deep-rooted within us in the duration of the night, we find that when the morning does come after persevering, we experience the purest form of God’s love and presence within us.
As explained by St. John of the Cross in The Dark Night:
“After a more exterior purification of imperfections, the fire of love returns to act more interiorly on the consumable matter of which the soul must be purified. The suffering of the soul becomes more intimate, subtle, and spiritual in proportion to the inwardness, subtlety, spiritual character, and deep-rootedness of the imperfections that are removed.”
While we may sit in inadequacy and fully realize it, we must understand that we are still of God and have always remained in God. It is essential for the glorification of God, and our unification and sanctification unto Him, that during these dark nights, our lives remain reflective of our love and admiration for the Lord. Just as Jesus allowed Peter to feel the panic and fear of drowning in the water, He reached out his hand nonetheless and rescued his beloved disciple. You may feel as though your Father is far from you or has abandoned you to drown in your depravity, but He has never left you nor forsaken you, and has only desired to be more unified with humanity in Spirit.
While we may sit in inadequacy and fully realize it, we must understand that we are still of God and have always remained in God.
While these “growing pains” keep us awake writhing in the night, they push us into a new reality of spiritual adulthood. As hard as it may seem amidst your suffering, embrace the tears, the discomfort, and the longing for intimacy, because you are getting ever so closer to the freedom and newness that is before you.
“The deepest pains may linger through the night, but joy greets the soul with the smile of morning.” – Psalm 30:5