Hope, and the Dark Night of the Soul…
Today I cut the grass, that might seem like a strange way to start a blog post, but it was significant for me, it meant overcoming a sense of inertia and a lethargy that has enveloped me all through what has seemed like a long and dark winter. For me that winter was not just a season in the physical and earthly sense but also a spiritual and emotional winter.
Late last autumn I hit a wall, and with it came the promise of change, I made a huge decision for myself that I would be moving from Blackpool the following summer, and while I know it is right that hope did not stop winter from hitting me with full force.
I have been through many life changes of late, and somehow they all caught up with me at once bringing other memories with them, the result was a deep and dark encounter with myself, and a journey through what I can only describe as the dark night of the soul. While I knew that God was with me there were long bleak stretches of nothingness, this was more than depression, although depression did play its part.
The dark night of the soul has been described by some as a period of spiritual desolation, Mother Theresa recorded her experience of the dark night in her journals and caused quite a scandal in doing so; people asked how a person of faith could write things such as:
“In the darkness . . . Lord, my God, who am I that you should forsake me? The child of your love — and now become as the most hated one. The one — you have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer . . . Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. Love — the word — it brings nothing. I am told God lives in me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”
Others record experiences too, and each experience is different, Henri Nouwen also recorded his experience in a journal, excerpts of it have been published in his book The Inner Voice of Love. At one point he says:
“Everything came crashing down — my self-esteem, my energy to live and work, my sense of being loved, my hope for healing, my trust in God… everything. Here I was, a writer about the spiritual life, known as someone who loves God and gives hope to people, flat on the ground and in total darkness.
What had happened? I had come face to face with my own nothingness. It was as if all that had given my life meaning was pulled away and I could see nothing in front of me but a bottomless abyss.”
I can really relate to that, the sense of coming face to face with my own nothingness led me to pass through a season of darkness and hopelessness, and it was hard to feel that I was being held by a loving God, and yet I knew that I was because somehow I was able to preach my way through this season, often clinging to words of consolation that always came at the last-minute, and can only have been a gift of the Spirit.
It has been hard to minister, because people often ask me how I am, and I have grown fairly adept at brushing that off ( though not with my Spiritual Director who has been a wonderful and understanding support). How hard it is to say to people who look to me for hope and prayer that I don’t know where God is in my life, but I can sense his love and care for you. So I quite simply didn’t unless I knew that I could trust the person to accept that I had no explanations for that.
I have no answers, and to be honest I don’t want any, because in the emptiness and the darkness I began slowly to find light, I found light in the prayers of folk who stood by me, and in the release of griefs that had long laid dormant in my heart. I began to reflect that sometimes I have not been not very good at releasing my hurts losses to God, I have held them within myself and they have become an abyss within me. Sometimes I have simply pushed them down in a pragmatic decision to get on with life, sometimes I have had to.
This winter however has been a gift, and the result of that gift has been a slow-growing re-emergence of love, life and hope, but mostly hope. Hope began to emerge as I dared to peer into the abyss of my life, and to acknowledge that abyss as a real part of me. The encounter with that abyss drew deep and often wordless prayers from me, and yet all of that was held in the darkness of depression, lethargy and inertia. I was not in a prison as St John of the Cross ( a 16th Century Spanish Mystic and Monk) had been when he wrote his love poems to Jesus, and I certainly wasn’t being persecuted as he was, but I did draw solace from his poems. This excerpt from The Spiritual Canticle (B) particularly helps me
Why, since you wounded this heart,
don’t you heal it? And why, since you stole it from me,
do you leave it so, and fail to carry off what you have stolen?
The anguish of the question reveals a longing that holds out hope for the relationship he so desires to be fulfilled once more. St John of the Cross eventually accepted his Dark Night ( his phrase) as a gift though which the soul must pass if it is to emerge into a deeper relationship with God. His poems and other writings perhaps need to become more widely read by a church.
As for me, today I cut the grass, and enjoyed the signs of spring within my garden, have I fully emerged into the light, well no, but I suspect that never happens in this place where we live between the spiritual reality of now and not quite yet, of hope made possible but not completely fulfilled, of love planted fully within each one of us but not fully revealed. Yet we have a pattern to follow, for Jesus words still ring from the cross; “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me”, even as he invites us into fullness of life.
Today I cut the grass, and today, that is enough!