The “dark night of the soul” is a term made popular by St. John of the Cross, in the 1500″s. It is used to describe a spiritual crisis in the journey toward union with God. I recently read a book on this topic, written by Christian psychiatrist Gerald May. The subtitle really peaked my interest: The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth.
Intensity of crisis will vary in the experience of the dark night (most call it a wilderness season), and it is essential that we stay focused on the big picture of becoming more Christ-like. The ability to connect the dots in seasons of uncertainty, is a survival skill without which spiritual growth will slow to a crawl, if not stop altogether.
Force of Attraction
John of the Cross lived more than a century before Isaac Newton explained gravity. John explained that the soul is attracted to the deepest center of God like the stone is attracted to the deepest center of the earth, and that this attraction is mutual. The force of attraction is love.
To overcome natural gravity, another force is required, such as an airplane suspending me in mid air. With spiritual gravity, attractions towards God can become weak if I am attracted to other forces. This verse is a great baseline. “Do not love the world [of sin that opposes God and His precepts], nor the things that are in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” 1 Jo. 2:15 Perhaps the real angst of the sinful state is the bleak attempt to defy gravity?
We are attached to many things in life, which is not sinful. But attachments become an issue when they devolve into addictions – the inability to stop engaging in certain thoughts or behaviors, which hinder rather than help, my desire to connect deeper with God. We are not splitting religious hairs here, just presenting a reality of life. My bandwidth is limited, and so I want to allocate my resources in a wise way.
Gerald May says that attachment thrives on denial. If the conviction of the Holy Spirit, the voice of truth, is not a recurring reality for me, I will “settle” somewhere, convinced that I’m doing okay. I have found that the dark night is a valuable asset here. I am still prone to naturally recoil from the stark revelation of my “true” state, but in the end, it always seems to usher in the greatest light.
Dark, but Safe
Gerald May comments, Sometimes the only way we can enter the deeper dimensions of the journey is by being unable to see where we’re going. John of the Cross elaborates further, and this is where it can be a challenge to our thinking: In spiritual matters it is precisely when we DO think we know where to go that we are most likely to stumble…God darkens our awareness in order to keep us safe. When we cannot chart our own course, we become vulnerable to God’s protection, and the darkness becomes a guiding light, a night more kindly than the dawn.
Our human faculties are easily dulled by the over-stimulation that camps on our doorstep every day. The dryness of the dark night brings a cleansing and a purging which leads in the end to a recovery of spiritual sensitivity.
Though I may not agree on every point of John’s theology, I agree with his teaching that the relationship between God and a person is dynamic, always capable of greater deepening. There is no getting around mystery here. The goal is always to get to a place in God where I’ve never been before. The roads are seldom paved for easy travel, with ample streetlights to guide my every step. But we do have the assurance that God is Light and His Word is light. 1 Jo. 1:5 Ps. 119:105 The challenge is to stay focused when under the pressures of the journey and the dullness we may feel drives us to other options for comfort.
I’ve been recently impacted by this verse: “The night shines as bright as the day; darkness and light are alike to You.” Ps. 139:12 What’s been your dark night? They come in all shapes and sizes don’t they? As I mentioned earlier, connecting the dots in seasons of obscurity (uncertainty), is an essential trait to possess. Night vision goggles will enable us to see in natural dark, but seeing as God sees is what we need in spiritual dark.
The former is a manufactured item; the latter is an intrinsic trait, acquired under the tutelage of Holy Spirit.
Psalm 139 is laden with treasures. I leave you with this:
Every subsequent birthing in your life resembles your initial birth. In the darkness of today’s womb God sees your unformed substance and His precious thoughts towards you will never cease.