I get asked this question a lot in my work and to be truthful, I always get a bit shaky trying to answer it. First, masters and writers in contemplative spirituality are very knowledgeable on this topic. Think: John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, metaphysical poets like George Herbert, John Donne, Henry Vaughan, think of modern Carmelite writers like Constance Fitzgerald, Damian Cassidy, Joseph Chalmers, etc. Other religions offer thoughtful leaders in examination of the soul leading to peace and resolution of the problem. Then there are countless psychologists and philosophers who are delving into this topic with a widening appetite to explain the psyche as it operates during the Dark Night. This is clearly a popular field of study, and I am only a neophyte, carrying the water for the rest of them.
Here is what little I have to offer. An individual is sometimes unmoored by what had firmly held him or her in the joy and success of life. The person can and should get psychological help, but spirituality and prayer life may remain ignored. This is where a director comes in. According to some writers, the first stage of dealing with the Dark Night is to recognize the ‘lightning’ that has struck, the source of trauma rattling an otherwise stable soul. A gentle director will help the person move from identification of the problem to a recognition of the ‘dissolution’ the problem has caused. Why can’t I pray? Does God exist? Why am I lost, and no one understands me? This situation will lead to ‘purging,’ the breakdown where one can examine the shards of a spirituality no longer whole or meaningful. Everything is lying on the floor, the nadir of one’s existence. The director will help you pick up those pieces and take you to the next and final stage: ‘reintegration.’ At this point you find your way back; you are whole again. You can pray without anxiety; you can love God fiercely because you have found him.
I have a favorite poem by George Herbert, the seventeenth century poet-clergyman who illustrates the above process beautifully. The poem is titled, “The Pulley.” Herbert recounts that after a person goes through all the pain of the Dark Night, or, as the poet describes, the meaningless acquisition of riches and power and security one thing alone will bring him to God. The final verse is particularly poignant, so I’ve copied it here:
“Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with ripening restlessness,
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness,
May toss him to my breast.”
The prayer of the Dark Night will be weary if you are trying so hard to do a lot to change this. I suggest you just be still and let the weariness carry you to God. And don’t be afraid if your prayer and meditation are dry or seemingly without meaning. Saint Teresa of Avila went eighteen years without feeling good about her prayer and spiritual life and Mother Teresa went in and out of the Dark Night for sixty years! You are in good company if you are weary in prayer. But you will rise; you will sing again.
For this week, I suggest you do some reading on The Dark Night of the Soul. Check out your parish library or troll the reading lists on the internet. Give yourself some time, quality time to reflect on these questions: When were the times I found myself in the Dark Night? What helped me during that time? Can I thank God for that experience?
Finally, some reading that will be helpful for growing in your prayer life.
How to Sit with God: A Practical Guide to Silent Prayer by Jean-Marie Guelliette, trans. by Kieran O’Mahony
Word Into Silence: A Manual for Christian Meditation by John Main
Creating a Life with God: The Call to Ancient Prayer Practices by David Wolpert
I’m grateful to my friend, Bill Hobbs, Director of the Jesuit Retreat Center in Parma, Ohio for suggesting these books.