When Dark Nights Challenge the Soul

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The Dark Night of the Soul” was a line by line exposition, written by St. John of the Cross in the 16th Century, to explicate the eight brief stanzas of his poem of the same name.

In that explication, the author attempts to reveal that one’s soul must be emptied of self before it can be filled by God.

Benedictine sister and author, Joan Chittister, puts it this way:

Growth is not an accident.  Growth is a process.  We have the will to move away the stones that entomb us in ourselves. We have to work at uprooting the weeds that are smothering good growth in ourselves.”

Dark Nights of the Soul can descend on us soon after our spiritual journey begins, when self-satisfaction satiates our soul – preventing us from moving forward in our journey toward the “sublime union with God” that St. John of the Cross talks about.  He describes those at this point in their journey as, “… untried proficients, who have not yet acquired mature habits of spirituality and who therefore still conduct themselves as children.

He goes on to characterize the process this way:

“… God draws them forth from the state of beginners—which is the state of those that meditate on the spiritual road—and begins to set them in the state of progressiveswhich is that of those who are already contemplatives [those who’s lives are devoted primarily to prayer]—to the end that, after passing through it, they may arrive at the state of perfect, which is that of the Divine union of the soul with God.”  

Dark Nights of the Soul may also descend upon us farther along in our spiritual journey – a night of spiritual aridity, where we seem to gain no satisfaction or consolation from prayer.

In “Coping with Dryness or Spiritual Aridity“, Father Matta El-Maskeen describes it this way:

The soul…feels that, in spite of itself, it is still united to the God who has forsaken it.  The soul continues to worship God without realizing or even wanting to!  Deep within, far away from the mind’s eye or discernment, the heart continues to pray, albeit it is a prayer that gives him no comfort or assurance.”

It might surprise you to know, that even Saint (Mother) Teresa of Calcutta experienced her own dark night of the soul, when in 1957 she wrote: “I am told God lives in me, and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” 

She was, in fact, experiencing a spiritual emptiness and abandonment that is a natural part of the process of growing closer to God.

Every Christian on their spiritual journey will eventually pass through their own dark night, which is unique to each of us – dependent on the circumstances that led us to experience it.

There are those, who in the midst of affliction, call out to God, only to have their prayers unanswered – feeling abandoned and left to carry their cross alone.

Then there are those, who, in a culture rife with sexual sin, materialism, and unbelief, feel assailed by its temptations.

And finally, there are those, like Saint Teresa, who pass through a dark night of spiritual aridity and inner desolation.

I am reminded here of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when he said, “There is meaning in every journey that is unknown to the traveler.”

No matter where we are on our journey, or how long our dark night lasts as we pass through it,  we should know that a definitive work is being accomplished in our soul – a work that is moving us closer to that sublime union with God.