Shedding Light on the “Dark Night”

Prior to the 2020 lockdowns, depression and anxiety were already epidemic in the US. Suicide was the 2nd leading cause of death amongst millennials and Gen Z. Now, after a prolonged period of fear and isolation, the epidemic spans all age groups. Christians face an interior battle in which they desire relief from God but their mental and emotional health makes it difficult to dispose themselves to receiving that very same relief.

Thus, we experience all sorts of darkness in our active and spiritual lives. Yet it is a common error to refer to this as a dark night of the soul. It seems to be an apt time to look into this difference more closely.

The spiritual life is our growth in relationship with God. Like any relationship, it progresses in stages as we cooperate with grace to shed our preferences and grow in virtue, which itself involves healing of wounds that produce fears which manifest in behaviors and attitudes. The Dark Night of the Soul is part of the ‘exercise’ in this process, and I encourage reading prior explanations of this to gain a sense of its place in the spiritual life.

Our spiritual soul is made up of higher spiritual faculties, the intellect and will, and lower faculties such as our passions (emotions like fear and anger), carnal appetites (sex, food, drink), and sense reasoning. It is by our (higher) spiritual faculties that we are made in the image of God. Our lower faculties, when properly ordered, drive us to live as His image by which we grow in His likeness.

When we speak of the mind or psyche, we are speaking of the faculties of the soul. As ensouled bodies, physical health impacts our mental health and vice versa, both physiologically and psychologically. It is common in secular and pagan healthcare to now speak of mind-body-spirit, but this is incorrect. We are soul and body, the soul being itself a spiritual soul (the soul of animals and plants is not spiritual) and encompasses the mind. So when considering the dark night, we need to think in terms of this true context.

A spiritual dark night vs. darkness in life is differentiated by its origin.

Spiritual desolation of natural origin

In my first paragraph, I described the conditions being suffered in our country. These physical circumstances (lockdowns, isolation, social distancing, wearing masks) created natural desolation in the emotions and psyche. This natural desolation can cause spiritual desolation when it hampers our ability or even desire to pray. Desolation is ALWAYS from the enemy. In desolation, the person may feel dryness or distraction in prayer due to their psyche, particularly emotions, being overloaded. They may even give up on prayer, not believing it does any good or that God cares. God permits the desolation because by fighting it, desolation serves to bring the person closer to Him, to seeking Him on their own behalf or of others. But the origin of this dryness or perceived separation from God is external and not from Him. Additionally, the person’s desire for God can be numbed and even lost.

Spiritual confusion from the dark night

The spiritual dark night is caused by God alone. He is withdrawing the soul’s ability to sense Him in its higher spiritual faculties. It is an exercise by which He strengthens the soul’s love of Him, which then overflows onto others too. Because its cause is God and its purpose is growth in love, the dark night does not begin until the person has shed all mortal sin and most venial sin, and is actively desiring for God to illuminate hidden sins so that he/she can further reject any barriers between themselves and God. It is a severe purging, a ‘getting over yourself’, that increases desire for God. The soul wants relief not for relief’s sake but for love of God.

God NEVER causes desolation. In the dark night, the soul desperately seeks God for Himself. Thus, it remains focused on higher things, Him and that which is sacred. The person will still beg for intercession into all the challenges and issues that the world has brought upon them. And there will be many…finances, relationships, health will all be challenged. God often permits ‘the perfect storm’ to erupt during the dark night so that the person has the ultimate choice to make: trust in God even though blind to His presence, or trust in self.

The person’s desire for God is heightened as the soul feels it cannot breathe without Him. Without Him, it will surely die. Its love for God has grown such that it continues to do whatever He sets before it because, as the beloved, it cannot not do its Lover’s desires. This is what Mother Theresa experienced in her dark night of almost a half-century. Contrast this to the desolation of ordinary causes: depression, anxiety, chaos in life. These are a suffocating smog oppressing the person, making it difficult to even get out of bed in the morning.

The Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles give a short list of characteristics of the spiritual dark night (searching SpiritualDirection.Com for “dark night” will bring many more resources too). Important to note on their list is that the gifts of the Holy Spirit, particularly gifts of knowledge and understanding, actually grow in this dark night (again because its origin is God). Saints and Holy authors for 2000 years have written of the soul’s eyes opening to God. The more it sees of God, the more it understands that which is not of God. It desperately wants to be rid of not just possessions but attitudes, opinions, and preferences that are not holy. It wants to make the better-good choice, which is usually more difficult, than taking the easy way out. And it is intolerant of anything not purely inspired by God, even when the speakers/writers, ideas, and materials are Catholic. It isn’t the intellectual reasoning they may have engaged in earlier in life. It comes from the heart; anything not truly and fully of God threatens their very existence because it risks turning them from Him even if for a moment. So, the soul can find little comfort in or outside of prayer, yet still would not want to be the sinful person of their past. It desires to love Love Himself.

And this is the purpose of the dark night. The soul must shed all to be surrendered, and being surrendered is where it will find peace. All of this is necessary to begin experiencing union with God, in which God resides more habitually in the soul.

And to think that this wonderful journey of increasingly partaking of Divine life begins anew each day with the small choices we make!

“His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and power. Through these, he has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature, after escaping from the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire.  For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, virtue with knowledge,  knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with devotion,  devotion with mutual affection, mutual affection with love” (2 Peter 1:3-7)

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam!


Image courtesy of Unsplash.

This post was originally published on The Face of Grace Project and is reprinted here with permission.

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