What to do in the Dark Night, part 1
It has been called the “Dark Night of the Soul,” spiritual dryness, the desert, or the hiddenness or absence of God. Those who have experienced it have sometimes come through, or are going through, intense suffering, and some are in a relatively calm state of life. Others have attributed it to depression, grief, burn-out, or acedia, and some can’t connect it to any of these things at all. What it is is the sense that God is no longer there, no longer listening. The same spiritual practices that have “worked” in the past no longer leave us with the same awareness of his presence that we had before. When this experience coincides with a life-crisis of one kind or another, it can feel as if we have been abandoned by God in our greatest time of need. What can and should we do when (and it is more likely “when,” not “if”) we experience this spiritual dryness? Which spiritual practices can be helpful for us to do more than just limp along, or become bitter, or give up entirely?
My own familiarity with spiritual dryness came at one of these times of life-crisis. In May 2015, my mom died from brain cancer. For the seven weeks prior, since the discovery and worsening symptoms of her third brain tumor, my brother, step-dad, and I cared for her as best we could at home while we coped with a new challenge almost daily. During this time, the presence of the Lord was sweet, though I would not say cooperative. I pleaded with him that she be healed, all while feeling in my spirit that she wouldn’t be, not here. While I longed for her to stay, and I’m still unsure of how I will survive this life (becoming a mother, for instance!) without my mom, what I really wanted for her was complete healing and restoration. No one wanted this tumor to be removed only to be replaced with an even nastier one a year or two down the road. We accepted, as best we could, that her death was God’s mercy, though we couldn’t fathom how it could be “for the good.”
After her death, the initial shock and business of death kept us occupied for a few weeks. I packed up her things and then packed up my own, as my husband and I prepared to move across the continent to come to Regent College. It was here, after things settled and classes buzzed along, that I no longer sensed God’s presence with me. Here, where I was spending so much of my time and energy thinking, learning, reading, talking, and writing about him, I could no longer feel him.
It is because of my own experience of spiritual dryness that I wanted to see what others had to teach us about what is actually happening when we feel this way. I had enough faith (though it may have been a residual, sort of “clinging” type) to believe that God was still present even when I didn’t sense that he was. I still believed that he is good, that he is faithful. In fact, my mom had me promise that I would remember his faithfulness to me, even after her death, and I wanted to keep that promise even in the darkest moments. But what I felt and what I believed did not align.
In this misalignment, I found, I am far from alone. Richard Foster, in his book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, writes, “Times of seeming desertion and absence and abandonment appear to be universal among those who have walked this path of faith before us. We might just as well get used to the idea that, sooner or later, we, too, will know what it means to feel forsaken by God.” The Bible is full of scriptures that speak of this feeling of abandonment: the book of Job, for instance, and all through the Psalms. “I call all day, my God, but you never answer” (Ps 22:2), and “Why have you forgotten me?” (Ps 42:9). But knowing that we are not the first to feel this way is often not enough to bring comfort to our hearts.