Most of us blithely go about our daily lives, rarely delving into questions of who we are or what our purpose in life might be. And then, some unforeseen event is thrust upon us: an automobile accident, a dire medical diagnosis, the death of a loved one, abrupt job loss, the end of a marriage.
When such events crash into our lives, it seems as if our world is crumbling, as if the sure ground beneath our feet has buckled, cracked open, and we fall into a shadowy underworld of confusion, indecision, doubt, grief.
We tend to think of our lives as linear, that life is a narrative line through the beginning, middle, and end. When things are going well, we think of ourselves as being on track, pulled along as a train moves forward on its railroad track, pulling into various stations of life—easing into stops with names like: graduation, career, marriage, promotion, parenthood, retirement, old age, end of life.
But life does not always move forward in a rational manner, the bright pursuit of happiness its engine. Our plans get derailed. We get sidetracked. Unemployment, divorce, grief, illness, infidelity, failure, inability to have children—these were not on the map.
The way forward then becomes obscured. The markers of our sure identity disappear as if into darkness. We are no longer sure-footed, but stumble, groping. Who am I now? Who am I without that job? Who am I, if I am no longer that person’s spouse? Who am I now in this body that is sick or broken or malfunctioning? The anchor of our self-understanding is gone, and unmoored we drift on shifting waters. We feel lost.
Sometimes we are moved into times of uncertainty by a pressure from within. Something triggers in us a longing for more, a vague yearning to become the person we sense we can be, or need to become. Something within reminds us of who or what we really are. A growing recognition of the power dynamics in a relationship, for example, an emerging realization of one’s gay or lesbian identity, or an inchoate dissatisfaction at work can lead us into the experience of being dislocated from our present daily life.
It’s as if the inner self or the soul is separated from the self the world sees. Looking around at one’s life one begins thinking, “What am I doing here? Is this my life?”
The predictable lives we have been given suddenly seem inadequate or inauthentic. The script given us to act out no longer makes any sense, and our lives ring hollow, with our inarticulate deepest sense of ourselves grating against the skin of our living. “This isn’t me,” an inner voice can be heard to say. “This life is not my own. And then if this isn’t me, what is ‘me’? Who am I?”
Whether from inward or outward pressure, ties with the usual world of day-to-day life are broken: one quits one’s job, or leaves home, or separates from a spouse or partner.
After one comes out, changes careers, survives the death of a loved one, or gets divorced, one moves into new territory in which there are new milestones and signposts that only become visible as time goes on. For a while, it feels a bit like floating adrift, not yet anchored in a new way of life, a new routine, or new values.
We are encouraged to move into that new terrain as quickly as possible. Culturally, we are imbued with the desire to put on a happy face. Americans are famous for our optimism. The pursuit of happiness is cherished as a God-given right. Depression, loss, and grief are often thought of as private experiences, hidden, and to be “resolved” with the help of professionals.
So we frame such moods, states, and times of uncertainty in clinical terminology. The rational light of medicine comes at depression and grief with the bright beam of pathological terms. These are problems to be solved, not mysteries to be experienced. Or they are developmental psychology’s stages to be moved through, rather than seasons of the soul.
Mystics refer to periods of spiritual dryness, of inward emptiness and a sense of futility, as a “dark night of the soul.” This term comes to us from the sixteenth century mystic Juan de la Cruz, or John of the Cross. He was a Carmelite, and spent much of his life trying to reform that Catholic order. For his efforts he was put in prison, where he wrote a number of poems, including “Dark Night of the Soul.”
The poem describes the excursion of a lover rising from bed and leaving home in the dead of night to join their beloved. Years later, Juan de la Cruz wrote a commentary on this and his other poems. This night journey is meant to be an allegory of the soul’s longing for union with God and seeking it in utter darkness.
The various steps toward this ecstatic union are narrated, stanza by stanza. Painful experiences are stages along the way, says the poet, and as one conducts oneself along the path to the Divine, one is led only by love. Stages of suffering, or the awareness of suffering, are worked through as a kind of purification.
When all outer encrustations fall away, the nothingness that is left is the dark heart of a new beginning. This purging is a kind of destruction; a breaking apart of the false self, the ego, the mask one wears in day-to-day life. It can be painful.
It is, nevertheless, a prelude to liberation, the precondition to new life with a different self-understanding. The old life is shed and shattered, so that a new life can be built. The old self dissolves in the waters of destruction, out of which an authentic life emerges.
For the mystic, there is a creative expectation in this apparent destruction, an expectation of revelation and union with a deeper power or source of meaning. There is an expectation of union or encounter with God, the dissolution of the self in a larger self. An authentic self is hinted at, suggested, and one moves toward this more full and genuine identity.
In common parlance, a “dark night of the soul” is simply a hard time, a time of struggle, or a period of depression. Our culture is marked by a willed opposition between dark and light, whereby all things on one side are “bad” and on the other “good.” A dark night of the soul, like the dark time of the year, is a time of dormancy, fallowness, waiting, potentiality—qualities which a simplistic good/bad mentality misreads.
Melancholy and desolation are aspects of a soul’s dark night, as all familiar signs and pointers disappear and the way forward is no longer discernible—but this fallow period of the psyche is a transformative passage, a soulful time of changes, and not simply a diagnosis. One struggles with the meaning of one’s own story, and with powers of being and nonbeing. A happy ending is not guaranteed.
In other words, at the other side of a dark night journey may very well be disruptive changes in the service of new life—divorce, relocation, the end of certain friendships, financial impoverishment.
Life generally is not exactly linear; it is more like a spiral. There is no beginning and no ending, just the inward and outward flow of time cycling back again through seasons, in and out of patterns of cold and warmth, heaviness and lightness, interior and exterior.
A mature spiritual attitude allows us to appreciate and savor them all. Darkness has its riches and gifts, its vivid flickering dreams in its deep sleep, the fecund incubation of new life, the seed that dies in dark earth to rise as living green.
I’m not saying that every dark cloud has a silver lining, or that hard times teach us something, though I am sure this could be true. Rather, I am saying a true “dark night of the soul” is a cauldron of change, painful to experience, but transformative.
A true dark night journey is an experience of doubt and even despair that shatters aspects of the self, calls into question basic narratives and understandings of the self, and allows for the self’s reformulation.
One might not want to welcome such experience, but when one finds oneself in the midst of such a time, it helps to remember the potential it bears for growing one’s soul.