Dark Night of the Soul

As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear — the tongue moves but does not speak … I want you to pray for me — that I let Him have free hand.

    - Mother Teresa, Letter to Rev. Michael van der Peet (1979)

I was just reading a wonderful post from Jennifer over at The Conversion Diary, and it got me thinking about my own journey back to a Christian spiritual life. Her post was in reference to the abundance of press surrounding the book Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, and the Time magazine article that followed it. The book and article talk in depth about the 50 year “spiritual crisis” that coursed through the life of the famous nun.

Teresa’s “dark night of the soul”, a term for the time of spiritual loneliness and desolation as coined by St. John of the Cross, is a very common thing for people of faith. Pope Benedict XVI calls this time the “monotonous desert path” that each of us is called to walk at some time or another (more on that here).

For Jennifer, she faced one of these deserts almost as soon as she came to the church. My conversion (return to the church might be a better term) went much the same way. There came a point when I believed with my mind, but couldn’t feel it in my heart. I threw myself into everything I could to try and force that feeling but it didn’t come. In fact, I’ll admit to being quite thankful that I went through that process while I was away in the Navy. It saved me a lot of embarrassment with old friends who would have surely rolled their eyes to see me trying to be so “holy”. Luckily, the phase came to an end as I was forced to face what I was really doing.

I was approaching faith in the wrong way. In fact, I was approaching it in several wrong ways all at once.

First, I was trying to force God into my life through “right living”. If I lived the right way, I thought that would bring him into the light and get me a good look at him. The argument for and against justification has a long history in the church, but I was still too green to even be aware of it. All I knew in my infancy was that I wanted to feel faith in my bones, and the fastest path I could think of was to emulate the people I saw as being the most holy. I still think there’s elements of a good idea in there somewhere, but I was still a long way from “getting it”.

Second, I was trying to win at faith. I think this is a really common problem with converts to any faith. Its frightening being new in a faith, even one you’ve been raised in. There’s a tendency for people in that position to overreach, to try to be the best and take it all on at once. Maybe they’re trying to prove that they belong, or maybe they’re trying to play catch up to all those others who have lived with their faith for so long. I think that many, like me, were jumping into religion by clinging to the oldest of the deadly sins, pride. I was prideful in my old life, so I didn’t even think about it in this new one. I wanted to be the best Christian, the best Catholic. It seems pretty silly now.

Third, and finally, I wanted my faith to fit my life, not the other way around. I thought that I could own it, and control it, by choosing these things that I did and the people I spent time with. I could make my life strong in faith by my own will. It was another failing to pride, but a more subtle one that the other. This particular hang-up of mine hasn’t gone away completely. I still keep a constant vigil in my prayer life to make sure I’m not falling prey to the temptations of being my own voice of God.

Obviously, my first crack at being religious was totally unsuccessful. God didn’t appear in my prayers or speak to me in those long nights of Eucharistic adoration. I didn’t win the award for “best Catholic” or manage to wrangle church life into my already packed schedule. In fact, I failed in just about every respect possible.

I think that is part of the blessing of faith, though. God knows better than to come to us on our terms. It would teach us the wrong lessons about faith and about what it means to believe. I needed to learn that I wasn’t the center of the universe, and that I couldn’t make God come to me any more than I can make the stars move. When I stopped talking and started listening, things became a lot easier, but that’s another story.

In a way, I think coming to my own faith through that long dry desert (of my own making) taught me a fundamental lesson. There are blessings in all the ways we try to find God. Even banging my head against a wall, as it were, was an important step in my formation. I had to make those mistakes.

I was putting way too much effort in all the wrong places. My focus was on going and doing when it needed to be on being and believing. That was Jesus’ instruction and the simplicity with which he left us. Though there will be times when our spirit may be dry and lonely, though we might face our own dark crises where God seems miles away, though some days our prayers may seem empty, these are just temporary exhaustions. We have the instruction to make our way back. All it takes is a strength of faith to continue believing.

Even St. John of the Cross, the man who coined the familiar term, knew that just because we might find ourselves in darkness on occasion, that was no reason to give up or listen to our doubts. They are, perhaps, a good time to reflect and make sure we haven’t let our lives run ahead of our faith. God knows that even Mother Theresa needed those times.

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