Note: This blog is adapted from my book What Would I Believe If I Didn’t Believe Anything?: A Handbook for Spiritual Orphans (Jossey-Bass, 2004).
The dark night of the soul has a long history. It is especially linked with the fifteenth century Spanish mystic John of the Cross, whose childhood poverty contained a seed of his suffering and genius. Young John worked in a hospital and went to school by day. He would study late into the night. Thus as a youth John had already made “night” his friend. Scriptures and science shed light on the dark night.
“Moses entered the thick darkness where God was,” says the Torah in Exodus 20. Right after receiving “light” in the Ten Commandments, Moses enters the dark via negativa, hiding out in the shadow of the divine wing, close but unable to see directly.[i]
Nicodemus came to see Jesus by night, when Jesus told him, “You must be born anew.”[ii] The Apostle Paul, after encountering Christ, retreated at once to Arabia, then to Syria. Only after a three-year “blackout” period did Paul contact the establishment church in Jerusalem.[iii] Plotinus, Denys and Gregory of Nyssa in the early church spoke of the abyss of God’s love as a “dark ray”—which we now know scientifically as black light.
At times the “night” can arrive without an outward crisis. This night corresponds to the “abyss” in mysticism, and is akin to “chaos” theory in science, and to disintegration in psychological literature. In Sacred Sorrows: Embracing and Transforming Depression, Andrea Nelson writes about “Chaos Theory and Depression”:
“The new tools of Chaos mathematics reveal patterns of order deeply embedded in the tempest seething around us. It rekindles an ancient idea of creative tension between order and chaos that dates to early Greek philosophers and to diverse creation myths that invoke a primordial state of chaos from which all things spring forth… The Greek roots of the word chaos convey a sense of an empty space or abyss—a formlessness that contains the seeds of creativity.”[v]
“All things ceased; I went out from myself,” wrote John of the Cross. Sometimes the abyss seems like a night that never ends, sometimes like a winter that will not go away. Camus wrote, “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there lay within me an invincible summer.”[vi]
Depression and Dark Night. A student asked her therapist, “What would be the difference between depression and the dark night?” The counselor paused, then answered: “The outcome.” For some, depression ends in burnout and bitterness. For others it is a brief stage: lose a job, get a new one. For still others it issues in transformation: you begin to ask, what do I have a job for? The same experience is a night to open the depth of Life. The key is in how one responds.
“Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair,” writes Andrew Solomon in The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.[vii] F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Crack-Up that “in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” Those night demons have visited me.
They come ing the night,
these demons of self-doubt—
they come to disqualify me,
kidnapping my confidence:
How can you be spiritual
yet be this anxious?
How dare you offer
your needy self to be
a spiritual guide for others?
Then the Spirit comes—
to comfort, to console,
fortifying me with
the ancient assurance
that I am one beggar
showing other beggars
where to find bread,
that my very neediness
validates my credentials,
as one who surely seeks
and just as surely finds,
—as one already found.[viii]
Medical Treatment and Spiritual Transformation. Driving back from lunch I confided in a trusted colleague, “Art, I’m sorry I wasn’t a very good conversationalist today—one of my down times.” He jibed, “I like you better this way!” When I am not so full of myself there is more space to listen.
“The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality, and my life, as I write this is vital, even when sad,” concludes Andrew Solomon in The Noonday Demon. “Every day, I choose, sometimes gamely and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to be alive. Is that not a rare joy?”[ix]
Emotional illness, whether mild or major, may become an occasion for deepening spiritual life and love. If insulin for diabetes or if psychotherapy for depression can free a person to follow Love’s call, that too is the Spirit’s work. Like diabetes, if mental illness requires medical treatment use it. Or like a broken leg, use the crutches till it heals.
But unlike diabetes or a broken bone, because of the shame our culture projects on us who suffer emotional pain, I believe a spiritual lens on this goofy gory gift is not a luxury, but essential to staying vital—even when you feel sad or others think you are wacko.
If you’re on crutches or insulin or Prozac you can still meet with a spiritual companion to talk about patterns of meaning in your life journey and where it is leading you. That can color prosaic days with nighttime’s mysterious intimacy.
I pray for the masses of youth and their elders to celebrate inklings of spiritual vitality even within their sadness. The mystery of death and rebirth goes on everywhere. The world is filled with bits and pieces of Eucharist.
[i] Exodus 20: 21.
[ii] John 3:3 and 3:7. “The Greek word “anew” (anothen) can also be translated “again” or “from above—from top to bottom.” I Peter 1:3 also speaks of this “new birth.”
[iii] See Galatians 1:17-18. Paul says he retreated to Arabia then returned to Damascus; only after three years did he go up to Jerusalem and engage In active ministry.
[iv] Karen Armstrong, A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993) 187-88.
[v] John E. Nelson, M.D., and Andrea Nelson, Psy.D., ed. Sacred Sorrows (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1996) 129.
[vi] Albert Camus In Return To Tipasa, quoted in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations: Sixteenth Edition, Justin Kaplan, ed. (Boston, Mass.: Little Brown and Co., 1992) 732.
[vii] Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (New York: Scribner, 2001) 16-17.
[viii] Published in Presence, The Journal of Spiritual Directors International, 4:3, 1998. Also published in Journeymen: A Spiritual Guide for Men (and for Women Who Want to Understand Them) (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1999) 88-89.
[ix] Solomon, The Noonday Demon, 443.