“The Dark Night of the Soul” is a term made famous by St. John of the Cross, a sixteenth century Spanish mystic. St. John wrote a long poem called “Dark Night” in which he reflects on the steps or stages of mystical experience through which one lets go of this world and enters fully into the Heavenly Reality.
It’s been many years since I read The Dark Night, but the image of the dark night as a passageway from one level or way of knowing God to a deeper, more Heavenly way has stuck with me as a poignant way to describe a relatively common experience among Christians who are earnestly seeking to grow in God.
When I was in elementary school, we were introduced to volleyball by playing the game with a low net and an interesting new rule: the ball was allowed one bounce after each touch. I believe I was in fourth grade when I learned to play volleyball this way. We learned all of the different ways we were supposed to hit the ball: dig, set, spike and block. We learned the rules about not touching the net and only hitting the ball three times per side and how the boundaries functioned. It was a lot of fun, once we got used to it. In fact, I got pretty good at it and liked to play “volleyball” at recess. I felt quite good about myself and my athletic ability.
Then came fifth grade, and the ball was not allowed to bounce, and the net was higher. I hated volleyball. The game that I had so quickly become good at, was now like a completely new game—and I was terrible at it. I was afraid of the ball hitting my arms and stinging. When I did hit the ball, it didn’t go where I wanted it to go. I was terrible at it. It was a dark night for my athletic soul.
I think many of us go through a similar experience in our spiritual life, and often several times in our lifetime. The various phenomena (feelings, impressions, thoughts, experiences) that we have come to associate with God’s love and nearness are somehow changed, taken away or otherwise revealed to be unreliable. We enter a dark night. God seems to have abandoned us. It seems as though God does not care. We find ourselves confused, angry at God, and frightened. Sometimes we are even tempted to sin, like peevish children who imagine that by hurting themselves they will be punishing their parents. It feels like a kind of death—it is, I think, a kind of death.
This is how I have experienced the dark night of the soul, or at least what I call the dark night of the soul. I am sure many have experienced nights of the soul far darker than what I am describing. How many, in times of war for example, experience the full reality of losing family and all material support along with the loss of the spiritual touchstones they had relied on? Yes, there are darker nights than what I have experienced. I am only a baby in the spiritual realm.
Why does God let this happen? Why must we go through dark nights? The thesis of St. John of the Cross was that we have to learn to let go of all that is earthly. This should not strike us as strange. At death, every human being must let go of all that is earthly. And while learning to trust God and let go does seem to be one important aspect of the dark night, in my experience, another aspect has seemed to be more important. For me, letting go has always led to a new or deeper holding on.
What I mean is that when I had to let go, for example, of certain emotional feelings that I had associated with God, I came to be aware of a “knowing” that was deeper than emotion. Or when a certain theological system that I had put so much faith in proved to be inadequate, I came to know a more mystical theology—not nearly as neat and easily delineated as the old one, but much more—I don’t know what to say—more Real.
I have had dark nights last for months and for years. Some are darker than others. Some have ended with a kind of discovery—like my discovery of the the Orthodox Church, which promised so much light. And I have encountered light as an Orthodox Christian. There have been times when I have felt overwhelmed by the insight, beauty and Presence I have encountered in the Orthodox Church. And I have had some very dark nights as an Orthodox Christian. People fail, systems don’t work as they should (or as I think they should), and lots of hard work and spiritual striving is seen by no one but God: in more than one way Orthodoxy teaches us that our reward is not in this life.
However, sometimes, in fact most of the time, dark nights have ended for me gradually. Like the slow sunrise of a summer day. I just keep on keeping on, and slowly I know more deeply than before. Slowly, slowly my wound heals. Slowly, slowly I feel again my Saviour’s embrace—but not like before. There is now something a bit more severe about it, a lot less fleeting, and much more calm. My confidence is gone, or at least what I used to call confidence or what I placed my confidence in (calling it “God” but now knowing it wasn’t). My confidence is gone, but my peace is increased, and increased is my trust in God, the God whose ways are past finding out.
The dark night is a passage way, a birth canal, perhaps. The dark night requires that we leave behind what was once so useful, so meaningful and so dear to come to know what is more real, more solid, more beautiful, and more true.
Everyone dies. Everyone passes through the final Dark Night. However, for some of us, for some of us who long for the life of Heaven even while on this earth, for these God gives a foretaste. A foretaste of death and a foretaste of the Life of the Age to Come. After all, isn’t that what we signed up for through our baptism?
“Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).