Last week, I posted a poem I had written in 2015. When I came across it in a pile of papers and notes I have written over the years, it struck me that moments of winter come and go, over and over, through the course of our lives. Finding myself once again in a spiritual winter, I decided to publish the poem. What I call a moment in winter St. John of the Cross calls ” the dark night of the soul.”
In Paul Murray’s book about Mother Theresa, he references St. John of the Cross when he speaks of the difference between depression and suffering from a “dark night of the soul.” I feel this distinction is crucial and I would like to share a little of my own personal experience with these often intertwined moments. In my experience, depression leads to paralysis and inaction. The “dark night” leads to action. Though similar in appearance, depression stops you in your tracks and the “dark night” turns you toward.
With depression, there is a great deal of focus on the self, mostly self-loathing, low self-worth and lack of desire. “Dark night” experiences for me have more to do with an emptiness that leads me to an anxious search for God, in spite of my doubts, at that moment that there is a God. Because I cannot see God inside myself or around me, I begin to pray more intentionally. My desire to see and feel God is intensified and I am moved to connect with those whose spiritual foundation is sound, or to those who need love affirmed even more than I do.
Sometimes I embrace the darkness, remembering Jesus, his 40 days in the wilderness and his last moments on the cross. Contemplation and aligning myself with the human and divine Christ is healing and taking the time for self-care is of great import.
By surviving passages of doubt and depression on the vocational journey, I have become clear about at least one thing: self-care is never a selfish act–it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was was put on earth to offer to others. Parker J. PalmerPalmer, 2000, p. 30
In the deep sadness of feeling abandoned by God, I sometimes feel called to action. I have the desire to offer others who are in suffering comfort and love. In the faces of others, I often once again see God. Because without him I am ill-equipped to offer love, and the love of others in return is a deep reflection of God’s presence.
“Nevertheless they know how to find God by devoting themselves to Him in self-sacrificing labours in which they are able to remain in his presence all day long.” Thomas MertonMerton, 2013, p. 31
In 2006 after Hurrican Katrina I wrote, in the margins of What is Contemplation? By Thomas Merton, these words, “I would rather be in this place of darkness with my God than in a world of lights without Him.” Not long after that, I was compelled to start a prayer group which continues to bless my life today. All this to say we are not alone in our suffering, and there are some fantastic stories and writers to guide us in the way to heal ourselves and others.
“For a man of prayer is, in the final analysis, the man who is able to recognize in others the face of the Messiah and make visible what was hidden, make touchable what was unreachable.” Henri J.M. NowenNouwen, 1979, p. 47
Murray, P. (2016). I loved Jesus in the night: Teresa of Calcutta, a secret revealed. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press.
Palmer, P. J. (2000). Let your life speak: Listening for the voice of vocation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Merton, T. (2013). What is contemplation? Mansfield Centre, CT.: Martino Publishing.
Nouwen, H. J. (1979). The wounded healer: Ministry in contemporary society. New York: An Image Book Doubleday.