Vale of TearsThe Dark Night of the Soul
The Dark Night of the Soul
He has walled me in so I cannot escape;
He has weighed me down with chains.
Even when I call out or cry for help,
He shuts out my prayer.
Grief falls into many categories – and none. You may be neither bereaved, nor divorced, nor even burnt out, yet you find yourself assailed by overwhelming sadness. We may not be sure why this should be so, and we are surprised by the intensity of the feelings, even to the point, perhaps, of feeling like we want to give up.
It is comforting to remember that many of the greatest saints have experienced prolonged seasons in which they have felt all but completely bereft of any sense of God’s presence.
Unlike most other griefs that we have considered in this publication, such ‘dark night’ of the soul’ can descend on us without any external loss or trigger. There are no words to describe the agony that the soul accustomed to the steady reassuring presence of the Lord can experience when, for what may prove to be a prolonged season, we find ourselves more aware of His absence than His presence.
Although this is essentially a private grief, unique to each person, many who have experienced this seemingly inexplicable phenomenon have written down what they have been through as an encouragement to us to persevere.25
Do not all the best love stories include episodes of at least temporary separation? When we are in a spiritual “desert,” we miss the comforting sense of God’s presence – not to mention the joy of seeing His Spirit moving in power. When this is not happening, it is easy to feel as though our hopes and dreams lie buried in the sand, And, unlike most other experiences that we go through, there may be little or nothing that we can do to bring this wilderness experience to an end. Time to heed Corrie Ten Boom’s reminder
“When the train is in a tunnel, don’t get out of your seat:
sit tight and trust the driver!”
It is during these times when we ‘lose’ our usual sense of God’s presence, that strong temptations we thought we had long since conquered return to torment us as all our beliefs are put to the test. Are they just platitudes, or are they the true core of our being? The question comes down to this: how hungry and thirsty are we to honour the Lord? Are we prepared to use the darkness as a goad for seeking to honour Him more?26 Or will we give in to our doubts and disappointments and turn to other things to fill the vacuum? Truly, these times when the light of the Lord appears to burn low test our soul.
The Lord once gave me an insight into the scales that God uses to weigh and calibrate these desert times. He uses criteria that are so utterly different from our own that we would not even necessarily recognise them as scales at all. Be reassured: the Lord is still weighing our situation carefully. As Sebastien Valfrey puts it,
When it is all over, you will not regret having suffered;
rather you will regret having suffered so little,
and suffered that little so badly.
Reflect and Pray
Reconcile yourself to wait in the darkness as long as is necessary,
but still go on longing after Him whom you love.
The Cloud of Unknowing
Lord, where emptiness and loss
have scarred my heart and scoured my soul,
may my faith become the more resilient
and my heart more full of trust.
For as surely as You created great swathes of desert
– steppe and glacier, veld and dune –
You know how to sustain Your children
through desert doubts and droughts.
In the Name of Jesus,
Who neither sensed nor saw the Father’s face
in Gethsemane’s darkness, yet still obeyed –
so may we glean the treasures from this darkness
and emerge in power and praise.
25 The writings of St John of the Cross are particularly highly regarded in this regard. Mother Teresa’s prolonged spiritual drought is a well publicised recent example. I have written in more detail about the dark night of the soul in Intimacy and Eternity.
It would be a great mistake to assume that people who regularly receive inspirations and consolations enjoy a superior faith to those who experience prolonged seasons in which they all but lose sight altogether of the Lord they love so much. It might be nearer the truth of the matter that they are only able to stay the course at all because they receive such strengthening.
26 Cf 2 Chronicles 32:31, John 16:7