Dark Night of the Soul: a Meditation on God’s Presence in Difficult Times
At some time of their lives, most people go through a period of sadness, trial, loss, frustration, or failure that is so disturbing and enduring that it can be called “a dark night of the soul”. We might be tempted to label such experiences as “depression”, but not all dark nights are depressive and, in essence, it’s a spiritual experience that makes you question the very meaning of life…
The phrase, “Dark Night of the Soul” is derived from a mystical poem written by St. John of the Cross. He was a member of a religious order called the “Carmelites”. He was, at one stage of his life, imprisoned for eight months (by members of his own order, who was against religious reforms he was trying to institute). During this time, he penned many poems, of which “Dark Night of the Soul” is one example.
Below is a modern translation of this poem:
1. On a dark night, kindled in love with yearnings—oh, happy chance!—I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest.
2. In darkness and secure, By the secret ladder, disguised—oh, happy chance!— In darkness and in concealment, My house being now at rest.
3. In the happy night, In secret, when none saw me, nor I beheld aught, without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.
4. This light guided me More surely than the light of noonday to the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me— A place where none appeared.
5. Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn, Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the Beloved!
6. Upon my flowery breast, Kept wholly for himself alone, there he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him, and the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
7. The breeze blew from the turret as I parted his locks; with his gentle hand he wounded my neck and caused all my senses to be suspended.
8. I remained, lost in oblivion; my face I reclined on the Beloved. All ceased and I abandoned myself, Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.
In my opinion, we live in a society where we place a lot of emphasis on happiness and success. We can see this in the popularity of books such as “The Secret” and in what seems to be our obsession with reality shows like “Amazing Race” and “Survivor.” We all like cheer on the “winners”, but none of us would like to be a “loser”.
However, reality is another ball game: every human life consists of the light and the dark, the happy and the sad, the vital and the deadening. The author of “Dark Nights of the Soul- a Guide to Finding Your Way through Life’s Ordeals”, Thomas Moore, challenges us when he asks us: “How you think about this rhythm of moods makes all the difference. Are you going to hide out in self-delusion and distracting entertainments? Are you going to become cynical and depressed? Or are you going to open your heart to a mystery that is as natural as the sun and the moon, day and night, and summer and winter?”
Most people have gone through several dark nights of the soul within their lives. Maybe you are in the middle of one now? A troubled marriage; grieving the loss of a child, friend, parent or spouse; betrayal by a lover or business partner; or even being in the middle of a terrible and persistent mood.
Some people see these situations as something that needs to be solved, like a problem or a difficult equation, while others sink into despair. We have been brought up to believe that the point of our lives is to solve our problems and be happy- always be happy! Thomas Moore, however, challenges this when he says, “Your purpose in life may be to become more who you are and more engaged with the people and the life around you, to really live your life”.
It might sound very obvious when he says that, but if we are really honest, we have to admit that happiness is fleeting and that we never solve our problems and that we do anything and everything to avoiding life.
I have only scratched at the very surface of what a dark night of the soul entails, but if you are willing to be patient with me, we can unpack this experience (and here I welcome any and all reader comments and feedback, so that we can unpack this together) more fully in future meditations. Suffice it to say that there is one profound paradox at the heart of the dark night experience: a dark night, it would it seem, is a way of returning to live and living- it pares life down to its bare essentials and helps you to get a new start.
In examining the concept of the dark night of the soul I promise that I won’t romanticize, nor will I the inherent danger- a danger that can even lead to physical death, but I also promise to demonstrate my conviction a dark night of the soul is an opportunity for inner transformation in ways we could never conceive or imagine.
As Moore has stated in his book, “You don’t choose a dark night for yourself. It is given to you. Your job is to get close to it and sift it for its gold”.
Eugene-Joshua Mouton is 29 years old and lives in Melville, Johannesburg. He is an ordained minister and a marriage officer (Civil Unions Act) who studied theology at the (then) Rand Afrikaans University (RAU). He is currently working in Human Resources Information Systems (HRIS) at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). He has a burning passion for spirituality and has started his own website dealing with spirituality: www.holism.co.za. Visit his blog here.