The Dark Night of the Soul
St. John of the Cross
In a dark night, With anxious love inflamed, O, happy lot! Forth unobserved I went, My house being now at rest.
In darkness and in safety, By the secret ladder, disguised, O, happy lot! In darkness and concealment, My house being now at rest.
In that happy night, In secret, seen of none, Seeing nought myself, Without other light or guide Save that which in my heart was burning.
That light guided me More surely than the noonday sun To the place where He was waiting for me, Whom I knew well, And where none appeared.
O, guiding night; O, night more lovely than the dawn; O, night that hast united The lover with His beloved, And changed her into her love.
On my flowery bosom, Kept whole for Him alone, There He reposed and slept; And I cherished Him, and the waving Of the cedars fanned Him.
As His hair floated in the breeze That from the turret blew, He struck me on the neck With His gentle hand, And all sensation left me.
I continued in oblivion lost, My head was resting on my love; Lost to all things and myself, And, amid the lilies forgotten, Threw all my cares away.
Those in the early stages of seeking God find satisfaction in their endeavors and are able to see progress from their efforts. But like a mother preparing to wean her child by gradually withdrawing her breast, God deliberately causes the fruits of the spiritual practices of meditation and prayer to dry up and no longer offer spiritual sustenance.
“He leaves them in such dryness that they not only fail to receive satisfaction and pleasure from their spiritual exercises and works, as they formerly did, but also find these exercises distasteful and bitter. As I said, when God sees that they have grown a little, He weans them from the sweet breast so that they might be strengthened, lays aside their swaddling bands, and puts them down from His arms that they may grow accustomed to walking by themselves. This change is a surprise to them because everything seems to be functioning in reverse.”
God doesn’t withdraw her spiritual sustenance until after a time, for the beginner must experience a degree of success and satisfaction in connecting with God in order for it to sustain her when God does lead her to enter that dark night.
God’s purpose in withdrawing her grace and knowledge of her presence is to bring the believer to a higher communion with Godself, one that is richer and more beneficial, “more abundant and freer from imperfections”.
The dark night of the soul is commonly understood to be a crisis of faith, or for those of us who suffer mental illness, it can represent a protracted period of deep darkness, where the ability to live fully is simply gone.
Thankfully, I have never been so primitive in my thinking as to assume it was God that caused or willed my periods of extreme depression. I have always understood it as a chemical imbalance, intertwined with a million other factors, that have rendered me impotent for long stretches of my life. I’m thankful I don’t worship an arbitrary, capricious, cruel God, the one of the reformed Baptist theology with which I was raised. I patently reject the notion God intended for me to suffer this cruel disease or that I’ve manifested this illness due to my sinful rebellious nature.
God does not toy with us. She does not arbitrarily or deliberately lead us into a dark night of the soul. That would be cruel. Of course, we have the example of Job, but it’s incredibly suspect how much of that was God making a deal with the devil to mess with Job’s faith.
I have never once sensed God turning or pulling away from me. I have never once sensed that my inability to connect to God was something that God intended. Just as in a love affair, feelings of true connectedness wax and wane. The desire for intimacy is sometimes strong, and sometimes non-existent. My seeking after God is no different. But whenever I am able to turn to her, she is always just right there. Even when I don’t sense her, I know she is always just right there. My faith is borne from practical experience.
Mental illness is not something God intended for me; she did not intentionally inflict this disease on me. She didn’t create me with this in order that my suffering would make me stronger or better. That would be a foolish gamble, because for many, mental illness isn’t something they can survive. Job overcame God’s withdrawing her grace and protection, but for many, death seems the only logical solution to such desperate circumstances. That is why I know it’s not God who plunges us into a dark night of the soul. A dark night of the soul is part of the suffering inherent in being human. It’s the existential crises we all must face and endure, and most of us walk through it and prevail. Some don’t.