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Shining a light on the Dark Night of the Soul

Awhile back, a friend asked me if there was a kind of "Dark Night of the Soul for Dummies" resource out there and, if not, could I compile a list of books or resources I used in during that period of my life. So this is an attempt to do that.

First of all, just what is the Dark Night of the Soul? From my understanding and experience, it is a pile of holy paradoxes. For me, it came at a point of my life just after I’d resigned from full-time work, gave birth to my son (and second child), and sunk into blissful full-time motherhood (though it definitely has more than its share of hair-pulling, mind-screaming moments). While these are big life changes, they were very welcome. It was a good and beautiful and wonderful time. My walk with God was exceptionally close—I felt his presence in my life like at no other time before.

Though it felt rather sudden, I realized later I rather slipped into darkness rather than slammed into it. It was separated from other times of dryness or aridness in my walk with God (which will always occur in that undulation of spirit life) and characterized by a profound sense of separation from God—which I found out later are common characteristics of Dark Night experiences. As I began consuming writings and sought out some direction from a local pastor in order to understand what I was experiencing, however, I discovered that while God may feel absent this darkness is a time when he is perhaps more intensely tinkering with our souls. It is not a result of harboring a particular sin in one’s life, though your awareness of your own sin and capacity for it is magnified and laid bare. And while there is no sense of God’s presence, he consumes your thoughts, emotions and heart.

I found the Dark Night acutely disorientating, especially at first. All spiritual disciplines and activities that previously brought senses of God’s presence and peace no longer “worked.” I felt as if I had suddenly found myself deaf and blind on a path in the middle of a wilderness of which I knew nothing. There were moments, here and there, where sight returned and I could see the handiwork of God but I still had no feeling of his presence—rather like standing in the middle of a windy fall day and watching the leaves swirl but not being able to feel the wind on my skin, hear it’s sounds, or smell the scent of fall.

Eventually, the darkness lifted, and I was profoundly changed. My faith had deepened. My trust in God has simplified and settled, like roots sunk into earth. And I do not walk with God as I did before: I walk slower, see differently and hear much more acutely. And, while darkness comes and goes still, I’m not so afraid of it anymore.

So, what were the resources I kept in my backpack on that path in the middle of nowhere? I must admit, when I first started looking into the Dark Night, I remember finding almost zero resources in evangelical circles (where I primarily walk). And, frankly, there was little understanding when I approached most clergy or lay people in those circles. But there are resources out there that provided comfort, hope and even sparks of light in the midst of my Night. The list below is what I found helpful in understanding and walking through it:

Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. This is perhaps the most valuable companion (next to God) that I had during the most intense part of my Dark Night. I remember being overwhelmed by the sense that someone who wrote over 500 years ago could be so relevant and accurate. It gave me a great sense of the timelessness and consistency of God.

That said, Dark Night is not the easiest of books to get through. It is written in a different genre than we are used to today, and it took me multiple readings to begin to grasp the movement through the book. Essentially, John divides the Dark Night experience into two events: the Dark Night of the Senses and the Dark Night of the Spirit. The Senses, from what I glean, can occur more than once and is, to oversimplify, when God will drain our senses from pleasure in usual activities as well as from disciplines we normally gain comfort from so as to draw us from those things back to himself. The Spirit, again to oversimplify, incorporates but intensifies the Senses and goes much deeper. It appears to only happen once.

For me, my articulation of my several years in Dark Night resonated with both nights, but looking back, I wonder if it was not just an intense version of the Senses. Either way, John’s writings caused many moments of tears of relief and inner settling as I saw articulated on the pages in front of me what was going on in my heart.

Contemplative Prayer by Thomas Merton. Almost every page of this little book has my underlines, asterisks and thoughts scribbled in the margins. Merton lists two verses in the front of his book, one of which is from Isaiah: “He who walks in darkness, to whom no light appears, let him trust in the Name of Yahweh, let him rely upon his God.” And indeed, his little book encourages just that. Besides finding more articulation of the experiences of darkness, I also learned a new discipline (contemplative prayer) which was a good companion in the darkness.

Biblical texts—especially Psalm 88 and the writings of Jeremiah. It was of great comfort to find that people who lived over two thousand years before me also recorded experiences of darkness. In particular, Psalm 88 became an almost daily meditation. It is written by a psalmist in the darkest of places who utters not one refrain of praise (unlike the vast majority of other psalmists). I wrote about this recently:

. . . psalmist has been to hell: “I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand” (88:4-5 NRSV). He unflinchingly tells God that he feels like he’s been “cast off” (14) and assaulted (16) by him. Such darkness, desperation and struggle are stark realities and people in Scripture don’t shy away from them. That they recorded these experiences comes as a great comfort to me.

Even in this darkest of psalms, however, we can’t seem to get away from the larger Story: a God who is always at work and always loving and always working towards bringing the world into his Light, Life and Love. Even as he’s in deep lament, this context infiltrates the psalmist’s words and actions. In the midst of his deep feelings of betrayal and abandonment, he prays all the time (88:1, 9, 13) to a God who he describes with words like “my salvation” (1), “steadfast love” and “faithfulness” (11), of “wonders” and “saving help” (12). It is to this God that the psalmist—with “eyes that grow dim through sorrow”—cries for release and rescue. In my own walk through darkness, this psalm gave me a brief glimpse of the larger context of my own struggles with darkness, a fleeting but sharp glimpse of the landscape in which I walked. It gave me hope.

Way of the Heart and Inner Voice of Love by Henry Nouwen. Once, while talking with a local pastor about my experience, I lamented that I could not walk in trust and sureness like, say, Henry Nouwen. She looked at me and smiled and wisely encouraged me to a take another look at Nouwen’s writings. He was no stranger to darkness and doubt, she explained. She was right.

Embracing the Mysterious God: Loving the God We Don’t Understand by James Emery White. This was one of the only books I could find in evangelical circles that touches on darkness. I deeply appreciated White’s exploration of the hard questions and aspects of God we struggle with—in particular his silence and distance.

The Spiritual Journey: Critical Thresholds and Stages of Adult Spiritual Genesis by Franceis Kelly Nemeck (OMI) and Marie Theresa Coombs (Hermit). I stole this book out of my folks’ library (sorry, Mom and Dad). This book is an exploration on how we grow and develop as we walk with God. The authors wholeheartedly underscore that their “thresholds” are malleable and by no means held to a timetable or age. But they do helpfully describe stages common to walking with God—of which darkness is a part of that journey. In reading this book, I felt encouraged to embrace and accept my walk in the Dark as a natural part of walking with God. I was not a freak, in other words—I was normal.

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis. This little book is by one of my most favorite writers and records his experiences after the death of his wife. His frank honesty and confrontation with both himself and God encouraged me to do the same. Good stuff.

Spiritual disciplines. My Dark Night experience was, among other things, an introduction to a few spiritual disciplines I had not undertaken in the past. In addition to contemplative prayer, I also found helpful the disciplines of solitude, silence and journaling. I also found paring down my activities imperative—part of benefits of darkness is that it slows you down so you can listen. Spiritual direction played an important role as well; I was fortunate to find a local pastor who had training in that area as well as the wisdom to help guide me through this experience. Another discipline I found helpful was creating litanies of things I’ve learned. I’d repeat them to myself throughout the day whenever I felt particularly aware of the darkness. They focused primarily of quotes from past saints or Scripture verses woven together to remind me of what was true: God’s presence in spite of my inability to sense him, my decision to trust him in the dark, my awareness and confession of sin, ect. These litanies changed as I walked through the darkness, but they always reflected bits of truth and peace I discovered as I went. This is a discipline I continue to practice.

There are many good resources on spiritual disciplines out there, but I’ve found most helpful the following:

Renovation of the Heart (Dallas Willard)
Celebration of Discipline (Richard Foster)
Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us (Adele Ahlberg Calhoun)

One note I should add about what I learned about darkness. I found this darkness as not something to be fixed or escaped but part of the process—and that process is our purpose: walking with and trusting God. This kind of darkness is such an opportunity—though, I must admit, I definitely didn’t feel that way too often in the midst of it.

For more on my own experience with darkness, you can read Hello darkness, my old friend and Ruminating on struggles in the Dark. But, as I’ve said before, I realize how little of what I say may actually reach, help or make sense to someone else in those moments of darkness. How do you trust a God you're afraid or believe does not exist? How do you wait in a darkness that is full of doubt, anguish or fear? I can't answer that for anyone else. I can only tell what happened to me. I can only tell you that, blind and deaf as I felt, God was there even though I didn't see, feel, sense or hear him. I can only tell you that I waited for years, like a traveler in the wilderness by a fire under a starless, black void. I can only tell you that in the middle of that darkness, I found moments--brief as they were--of rest and peace and paradoxical assurance. I can only tell you that I longed for God to reveal himself--and he did, but not in the ways I expected. I can only tell you I let go of the cliff I was clinging to by my very fingernails and he caught me, he caught me hands of greater Love and Wonder and Beauty and Grace than I could ever imagine. It just took awhile to get the place where I could look back and see that.

I can only tell you that, so far, the journey's been one of deepening relationship, which leads me to further trust that it will continue to be so. I need to think more about how to write about these experiences because they are important; they are part of almost everyone's journey, I think. Jesus even went there. And that, perhaps, is one of my greater comforts.

(Image: mine)