Finding Peace in the Dark Night of the Soul

Dark night of the soul is a painful purging of one’s sense of self, and the ordered way that one perceives the Universe … and God.  In a real sense it feels like the death of God, (at least as one believed “him” to be,) or abandonment by God.  

“Dark Night of the Soul” was written in Spain in the 16th century by John of the Cross, and the term has become rooted in our vocabulary as a painful psychological and spiritual experience. Although many people speak of a “dark night of the soul,” the experience described by John of the Cross is not well understood. A better understanding of “dark night of the soul” will provide hope for people who are living through it, and wisdom for those who accompany them.

Dark night of the soul is not depression.  All of the things that cause depression could also trigger a dark night of the soul. And sometimes they occur simultaneously, hence the confusion.

Depression is multi-faceted and has many causes including, but not limited to, poor physical health, chronic pain, hormones, loss, grief, addiction, life transitions, and trauma. All of these things could also trigger a Dark Night experience. In fact, it is inevitable that a major disruption to our daily lives would impact us as a whole person: physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually.

However, the experience and trajectory of Depression and Dark Night is different. Depression is recognized by a persistent sadness, listlessness, lack of energy, inability to focus, disrupted sleep pattern, a monotony and blah-ness and sometimes suicidal thoughts. Although it is natural to experience numbness at the time of trauma and/or death, we are not meant to continue to exist for an extended time in numbed grief. We are meant to live. A doctor or therapist can provide help and hope for lifting us from numb-ness to life. 

Depression deadens and numbs – sapping life energy. Dark night of the soul is life-giving. In truth it is more like one is passing through a birth canal, leaving behind the security of our old way of thinking and free-falling into Something bigger and more inclusive and more loving than we can imagine.

I can better understand my own experience because some mystics have written about it. I experienced a dark night when, despite my prayers, God did not intervene to prevent an untimely death. My sense of God was so removed from my experience that for a time I believed there was no God. Gradually I became aware that my inner anger and raging was directed towards Someone. Not only did I believe in the existence of God but I was angry with Him/Her/It. I felt my trust had been betrayed. I couldn’t understand a universe in which an all-powerful and loving God could allow this to happen.

When I began to open up to others about my anger with God, and my sense of betrayal I discovered that others had experienced similar dark nights. Others shared with me painful losses such as I could have only imagined. One woman had lost her adult daughter, the loving mother of a 2-year-old in a freak electrical surge from a lawn mower. Yet she had found comfort and healing and embraced me in my suffering. Gradually I found peace by recognizing the Divine as Love that flows among those who are suffering, and indeed Love for everyone and all of creation. In my free-fall into darkness, I began to understand that the darkness held unanswerable mysteries but I could trust in Goodness and Love, the Glue of the Universe, present also in the darkness.

“Been there, done that,” is not what we can say about a dark night experience. Having one experience of what I consider a dark night does not preclude having others. However, after the first one I learned to recognize it for what it is. It is a painful dying in me, in order to make room for new life in me, an openness to participating more fully in the woundedness and healing of our world.  James Finley describes it as “a perpetual dying to all that is not Love.”

In their dark nights, John of the Cross and some other mystics experienced ecstatic experiences of feeling union with God, or a sense of One-ness and communion with everyone and all of creation.  This is not everyone’s experience. Others may continue to experience only darkness, but somehow, they begin to trust that this darkness is pervaded by goodness and love. Gradually one can experience a peace that is not dependent on present circumstances. Julian of Norwich expressed this peace as “All shall be well; all shall be well; All manner of things shall be well.”

John of the Cross believed that very few people would mature to a dark night of the soul this side of death.  My friend “Sophia” felt differently. As she was nearing the end of her life, she said that everyone goes through a dark night in preparation for death. I remember being with “Anna”, a woman who was dying from ALS when another woman was trying to give a faith pep talk: “We are praying for your healing. We believe you will get well again.” In the whisper of what was left of her speech Anna replied, “I am whole.” Of course, she desired to have her life back, to live to see her children marry and her grandchildren grow up, but she was able to find peace in accepting what she could not change, her impending death.  

In dark night of the soul, we learn to see beyond our present circumstances with the heart’s knowledge of being the beloved. When we let go of our need to control the uncontrollable, we begin to experience peace; when we surrender even the good and pure desperate longings of our heart, we begin to trust in resurrection, both now in new life born out of brokenness, and at the end of our lives when we surrender our bodies in death.

John of the Cross distinguishes two types of Dark Night of the Soul: dark night of the senses and Dark night of the spirit. Both dark nights are about transformation and healing. This post is about Dark Night of the spirit.  In the natural world as well as in human growth there is always death in order for new life to emerge. There is evidence that this type of transformation experience is universal but I am limited in my ability to express it by the words and concepts of the Christian tradition.