[These thoughts come from a journal entry of about 10 years ago when I was experiencing a deep and dark night of faith]
I have found insight and wisdom for my journey with Christ in the writings of John of the Cross, that sixteenth-century spiritual director, especially when he talks about “the dark night of the soul”. In my work as a spiritual director, it is a practical theme I address often. How do we respond in prayer when our experience of God feels more like absence than presence? How do we respond when our familiar experiences of God disappear into the mist? How do we go forward when all we seem to see ahead is fog?
What is a Dark Night of Faith?
Gerald May, in Care of Mind/Care of Spirit, says that these dark night places are doing a work that is deeper than our experiences of emotion, thought or action. In some ways, it might be more helpful to call the “dark night” a non-experience. It is this process of unknowing that I find so challenging. I have put such stock in being able to understand and explain things. This dark place seems impossible to verbalize. I fear that I will never come back from this place, that I am doomed to darkness and unknowing forever. It feels so vast and unending. But, such a place may very well be God’s way of detaching me from my human confidences and my ugly, self-serving pride. God may be showing me just how desperately I need Him—how I can truly do nothing apart from Him.
The loss of familiar experiences—the landmarks of my spiritual journey by which I’ve measured my progress—are gone. In the unlearning, what am I learning?
I learn not to cling to even spiritual pleasures
Experiences of spiritual insight, pleasure or direction that once seemed common seem to taken from me. Oswald Chambers describes a period in his life when the Bible was the most dull and uninteresting book in existence—a time when he felt no conscious communion with God. Earlier in my journey, there were times when I felt almost drunk with spiritual pleasures and insights in God’s presence. The sense of reward and consolation when coming into God’s presence was overwhelming. I realize now that there were a lot of ways that my self-love and self-importance attached itself to these pleasures. I sometimes (perhaps often) became proud and thought I was “really something for God”. No wonder God needs to wean me from such ugly attachments.
I learn not to cling to past ambitions and impulses
I used to feel so much more confident and sure of myself. I thought I knew exactly what I was doing. I had satisfying and hopeful dreams for my future—both immediate and long-term. In a dark night, these plans feel put on hold. I often find it difficult to find motivation and feel misunderstood by others. Why should they understand what is happening in my life if I’m not even sure?
A sense of “losing my faith”
I think of how pat my answers were earlier in my journey. I knew them all and was happy to share them with anyone who was smart enough to listen. That kind of pride seems so gross to me now. I had God and His kingdom neatly categorized and homogenized. I realize now that it wasn’t so much God and His kingdom that I was dealing with as much my own ideas about Him.
A change in my perception of God
One image of God that I deeply believed in was the God Who always makes me look wise and always give me success that is visible to others. I don’t recall where I thought I found such a description of God in the scriptures. I believed that God was the God Who granted me favor against or over others. I compared myself to others and used God as the One Who tipped the scale my way. Self-interest baptized into Christian service.
A change in my sense of identity
I once saw myself as the spiritual leader who others admired and looked up to…a real hero of the faith. I was able to endure great personal crises with little or no visible distress. I secretly loved the attention given me by those who thought so much of me. The dark night is the place where such self-deception dies.
Father, again this becomes a moment of clarity in which I can see just a little of what You are doing and have been doing in me. You accomplish deep within me what I could never accomplish for myself. In the truest sense, the dark night is Your intervention for my salvation. In the secret places, I have been resistant to You. I have run from You. I have failed to seek You, but have sought almost anything else. Forgive me, Father. Protect me from swinging from self-absorption to self-rejection. Self-promotion and self-degradation both prevent me from simply seeing Jesus. Be my light in the dark night of faith.