Persevering through the “dark night of the soul”
I know someone who is going through a spiritually dark time. When I think of this person, the word that comes to mind is “trial.” It seems to me that God is trying this person through a series of events that give rise to many questions and doubts. What impresses me is the person’s response. Amidst the person’s questions about God’s silence in times of suffering, uncertainty, and confusion, a profession of faith and abandonment to God’s Will always follows. To my mind, this person is experiencing what St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul.”
Many great saints have written about this state of emptiness, coldness, the seeming absence of God. The most famous work comes from St. John of the Cross who explained that this is a period of “purgative contemplation.” In this time of spiritual darkness, God seems no where to be found. Gone are all spiritual consolations, supernatural signs, enlightenment. Instead there is confusion, unknowing, lack of direction, and a dark, empty void.
This state of purgative contemplation may last for weeks, months, even years. It’s up to God to decide how much refining the soul needs. During this time, the poor soul struggles to cling to God by being faithful to prayer, good works, and Holy Mother Church. Devoid of any rewards and solace from God, eventually the person begins to love God for His own sake, not for what He can do. The person grows in humility as he understands the truth that our love for God must reflect God’s love for us. And so, while still in darkness, there is joy; and while there is a keen awareness of one’s sinfulness, the soul knows that God is merciful and loves us as only a perfect Father can. The person becomes resigned to his flawed humanity and abandons himself to Divine Providence. He unites his sufferings and longing for God to the sufferings of Jesus. But the soul is not sorrowful. In faith and with trust in Divine Providence, life is purposeful and joyful as he puts his confidence in a silent God.
Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta suffered a terrible darkness of the soul. For fifty years, she lived without the consolation of Jesus; but with great faith and longing for Him, she persevered in the work she knew He wanted from her. She wrote: “in my heart there is no faith—no love—no trust—there is so much pain—the pain of longing, the pain of not being wanted. I want God with all the powers of my soul—and yet there between us—there is a terrible separation.”
The pain deepened over the years but she learned to accept it, even to the point of loving it. She recognized her nothingness before God and understood that He was using her in her poverty. She became completely empty of self; in conversation and in her letters, she directed the focus to Jesus in His work among the poor and in her community.
In a letter to Father Joseph Neuner, Mother Teresa explained that in her soul’s darkness, she was sharing in Jesus’ pain, and that she was united with Him in His suffering. In her “unbroken union” with Him, she felt His agony, His cross; and in this union, she loved Him in the people around her, recognizing Him in their suffering.
Helping others discover God’s presence in their suffering was a gift that she tirelessly gave. In a letter to a friend, she wrote: “suffering, pain—failure—is but a kiss of Jesus, a sign that you have come so close to Jesus on the Cross that He can kiss you. I think this is the most beautiful definition of suffering. So let us be happy when Jesus stoops down to kiss us. I hope we are close enough that He can do it.”
Mother Teresa learned to reflect God’s love through the darkness she endured and with great wisdom, she was able to guide others experiencing the same pain. “Don’t give in to your feelings,” she explained to one of her followers. “God is permitting this.”
God is permitting this, too, in the person that I know. In a mysterious, painful, but grace-filled way, God is purifying and drawing this person closer to Himself. In response, this person is steadfast in faith, praying and trusting that God in His wisdom knows what is best.
We have much to learn from known and unknown saints who persevered and continue to be unremitting in times of darkness. They are powerful examples of abandonment, humility, obedience, faith, confidence, and trust. While they feel a deep void in their souls, we see them as great lights who shine with the promise of God’s love.
Source: Kolodiejchuk, B. (Ed.). (2007). Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta”. New York: Doubleday.
Photo by Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho, Finland. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Wikimedia.org.