Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.
–Psalm 42:11 (ESV)
Few spiritual concepts are more misunderstood and misapplied than St. John of the Cross’s Noche Oscura (Dark Night). I have seen people talk about going through a “dark night” after the death of a loved one (that’s called grief) or during an episode of mental illness or just because they’re feeling blue. Discernment means learning to distinguish between the spiritual and the physical/psychological. The cure must fit the disease and there is danger in both directions. Telling someone with depression that they are sinning is monstrous, but insisting that diet and exercise can cure spiritual malaise is also damaging. We will all face times of trial and we must develop the gift of discernment in order to properly attack the enemy we are facing and defeat it.
The most minor ailment that Haase covers is dryness. We all go through times when our prayers become rote and the whole exercise seems pointless. We don’t feel sad or disturbed so much as bored and frustrated. This is the easiest problem to cure because you don’t have to change anything. Steadfastness will see you through. Liturgy is your best friend here as it gives you words to say when you have none of your own. God is probably teaching you not to rely on your emotions to be faithful. Continuing to pray, read your Bible, and avail yourself of the Sacraments will pay dividends. Don’t try to avoid the dryness — use it to learn about yourself and God. This ailment is temporary, and the consolations on the other side are worth the struggle. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, the book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt has good advice: “we can’t go over it; we can’t go under it; oh no, we have to go through it”.
Darkness, on the other hand, requires more careful navigation. Darkness involves feeling God’s absence in a deep, gut-level way. Importantly, the dark night occurs without an outward cause. Experiencing high levels of stress or grief or trauma, or living in a state of sin, can lead to God feeling distant, but that makes sense. If you address the source of your suffering, the feeling of God’s presence usually comes back. In the dark night, everything external seems the same, but internally there is a void where God should be. John of the Cross divides the dark night into two categories: the senses and the spirit. Let’s dispense with that second one. It seems that God subjects only his great saints to such darkness (most famously Mother Teresa). If you are dealing with that kind of darkness, you need someone other than me to give you advice. So let’s tackle the dark night of the senses. In this, whatever image we have had of God gets smashed. God is no longer our buddy or our therapist — He reveals Himself to be an incomprehensible, distant mystery. If God allows darkness into our lives, it is because He is drawing us past juvenile faith that is based upon what we receive and into a more mature faith of radical dependence. God is teaching us to rely totally upon Him for everything and is inviting us to sink our roots all the deeper into Him. In this way, the darkness is a gift that can lead to even greater intimacy with God if we prayerfully walk through it. The strength you develop in such times can fortify your armor to fight battles you were not capable of before. The demon Screwtape in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters warns his young apprentice about such believers:
Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys. (p.40)
The third “d” of the chapter, depression, is a different animal entirely. Depression is an illness, no less severe (and no less treatable) than a physical illness. Unlike darkness, depression attacks our emotions, leading to various physical and mental ailments including lethargy, anger, head and body aches, stomach problems, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation. This can lead to intense feelings of guilt and a desire to isolate oneself from others. Darkness often has no outward symptoms while depression usually does. Depression can be triggered by a traumatic event or a stressful period in one’s life, or it can be a clinical condition based upon neurotransmitter deficiencies in the brain. Either way, depression is more than just sadness and should be treated with seriousness. If the symptoms that I’ve listed and that Haase mentions sound familiar, seek professional, psychological help. Just gritting your teeth to get through it will probably make things worse. Do not isolate yourself from others, especially if you have suicidal thoughts. The devil wants to separate us from each other; don’t let him. Of course, there are things we can do to combat depression individually such as getting adequate sleep, eating healthy foods, practicing hygiene, and limiting screen time. Sometimes, though, more extensive treatment is needed, be it regular therapy or medicine. Let me be clear: it is not a spiritual failure to take antidepressants anymore than it is a failure to take Tylenol for a headache. Do what you need to do to feel better. When your body and mind are healthy, you will be freed to pursue spiritual transformation.
In his article on this topic, Jesuit Fr. James Martin lists four more “d’s” that beset the believer in prayer. Doubt (intellectual indecision about God) and disbelief (intellectual rejection of God) can both be fought with the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17). Scripture, regular Church attendance, and pastoral counseling can help overcome intellectual barriers to faith. We all deal with doubt from time to time (Frederick Buechner calls it “the ants in the pants of faith”), so don’t get to upset at yourself for such feelings. Perhaps God is using doubt or disbelief to move you beyond your current understanding of Him to deeper revelations. Dealing with doubt is part of being a grown-up in the faith. Desolation is a feeling of the absence of God coupled with hopelessness. We covered a bit of this in chapter 19, although severe, long-lasting desolation is one of those ailments that beset only the saintly few. Lastly, there is despair, a feeling of abject hopelessness. Despair is a sin because we choose to not have hope, even though sometimes it seems like the obvious reaction to our situation. It can be a side effect of depression and may be susceptible to treatment, but we must make the choice to hope. Ultimately, despair is a symptom of pride, for in it we believe that we know our situation better than God, who declares that we have hope and a future and that all things work toward our good. In this case, I defer to the inimitable words of Martin Luther: “Grit your teeth in the face of your thoughts, and for God’s sake be more obstinate, headstrong, and willful than the most stubborn peasant.”
Pursuing God involves journeying through the valley of the shadow of death. God does not promise us a lack of suffering, but He does promise to be with us “always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Rather than freeing us from our enemies, He sets a table for us in their presence so that we may learn to trust Him and Him alone (Psalm 23:4-5). So, when we reach an impasse in our spiritual journey, let us remember to prayerfully discern the nature of the problem so that we may apply an appropriate remedy. Whether in dryness, darkness, or depression, may we turn to the Lord in our hour of distress and find Him mighty to save (Zephaniah 3:17).
(Suggested Bible reading: Psalm 102)