“Why are you cast down O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me?”-Psalm 42:5
Several months ago I went through a rough time and I didn’t know if it qualified as depression. I’d suffered from a massive depression 35 years prior in law school that left me catatonic and treating with a psychiatrist. There had been hard days when the kids were little, a sad time after my divorce, and “the blues” triggered by menopause hormones but nothing that didn’t ultimately pass through. This time seemed different.
My brother had been diagnosed with cancer and it was a dark and lonely trek walking alongside him. My “rock” bolted in the middle of it, unable to handle my constant sadness and emotional exhaustion. Incidents with a few close friends made me realize that I’d misjudged the depth of our friendship. I felt alone and my usual comfort from my relationship with God wasn’t coming through.
I started to see a compassionate therapist and brought him up to speed on my circumstances. He pronounced my “downer” the result of grief and loss of epic proportions. It was helpful talking to him and we agreed to meet once a month to touch in. I’d find myself driving to his office wondering what in the world I would talk about for an hour and then getting there talking so fast I couldn’t stop even as time ran out. Yet therapy still didn’t satisfy my aching heart and soul which only seemed to get worse.
One of my stalwart girlfriends is a spiritual warrior. “Dark night of the soul,” she pronounced, and I wondered if there was such a thing, and how it differed from depression. I took to reading about the subject and hearing from people who had endured one.
Named after the poem by Roman Catholic mystic St. John of the Cross, a “dark night of the soul” is a period in which you feel overwhelming despair, and during which God is purportedly taking you deeper into new realms of spiritual experience even though it seems like he has disappeared. A big part of the experience is to let go of ego, surrender to the situation, and recognize that through courage and perseverance you are being groomed for greater love and awareness.
I don’t know about you, but my idea of a deepening spiritual experience would be an outstanding dream during which answers automatically fall out of a cloud like mystical raindrops quenching the dryness of a stagnant, sad period of life. Or maybe a walk in nature during which an incredible download of clarity drops on your head and you have a new wealth of inspiration and zest for life. Sitting in an empty abyss of nothingness didn’t exactly seem like fertile ground for getting jazzed with God and his grace. And did I forget to mention that during the dark night there is an increased temptation to engage in destructive behavior?
The Dark Night isn’t a purely spiritual crisis and it’s not a purely psychological one. It’s the best of both meaning it can’t be “therapized” away and can’t be prayed away either. I had the psychological angle covered with the therapist but I couldn’t find spiritual comfort with God. He’d gone silent. King David spoke of this in Psalm 13:1,”How long Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”
Waiting out the dark night is often all that can be done, but during the process it is helpful to pray for revelation of what God is trying to “burn off” from you. Often it’s a need to let go of control, recognize the impermanence of much of life, and surrender to trust and acceptance of things that cause you fear. The ego loves control and fearfulness; the dark night is in battle with the ego. It’s like there is a spiritual wrestling match between ego and surrender and the dark night had to come to provide a venue for the show down.
The more you resist the process, the longer it lasts and the more likely you are to have to go through it more than once. If the process is fully embraced there are things that “die” (usually things of the flesh, control and the comfortable life) leaving behind a path of love, compassion, understanding and spiritual awakening of the essence of the most important things in life.
Unlike depression which can leave you unable to function, those in a dark night are often able to continue with their work and acts of compassion. The spirit stays strong and belief strengthens even though it seems like there is good reason to abandon faith. Thoughts of self loathing or self harm present in depression don’t appear in the dark night.
Even Mother Theresa suffered from a dark night of the soul as evidenced by the writings she left behind. “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 wrote in 1957. Many were astonished that she would have had these thoughts, but those who know about the dark night aren’t surprised.
I know that all suffering transforms us. Having moved through my “dark night” I have more clarity and passion for my purpose, a new appreciation for the strong relationships in my life (including a beautiful new one), and a renewed spiritual strength.