Dark Night of the Soul

The questions “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” and “Why does God sometimes seem absent in my life?”  have repeatedly come up in conversations with my friends over the years. Many times people beat around the bush, but the underlying point is always transparent. A stellar resource on this subject — and quite honestly one of the toughest books I have ever read — is St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul.

First, it should be noted that if anyone had a right to question why bad things happen to good people, then it was St. John of the Cross. The Spanish mystic and Catholic saint, born in 1542, was once kidnapped (by monks), thrown in a dark jail cell, and beaten for months until he managed to escape.

A man who could have looked at his circumstances and concluded that God does not exist instead found God within the darkness.

Key points to consider when contemplating the dark night of the soul include:

  • Man’s nature is both sensual and spiritual.
  • Man is inclined to judge God by Man’s standards instead of Man by God’s standards.
  • Just as looking into the sun forces a man to close his eyes because it is too bright, individuals often cannot grasp that what they perceive as darkness is actually a reaction to incomprehensible light.
  • Just as a small child becomes anxious when its mother seems to have disappeared, humans are confused when God creates the illusion of distance so that they might spiritually grow.
  • Souls cannot approach God without being purged of imperfections. Trials and tribulations serve a greater purpose.

Given all this, St. John says:

“It follows from this that the greater is the darkness wherein the soul journeys and the more completely is it voided of its natural operations, the greater is its security. […] Hence, at the time of this darkness, if the soul considers the matter, it will see very clearly how little its desire and its faculties are being diverted to things that are useless and harmful; and how secure it is from vainglory and pride and presumption, vain and false rejoicing and many other things. It follows clear, then, that by walking in darkness, not only is the soul not lost, but it has even greatly gained since it is here gaining the virtues.” — St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul.

Astute readers will note that St. John was talking about a spiritual darkness that envelops the soul as it continues on its path towards God, as opposed to physical ailments or obstacles that plague us all. That is true, but the physical and the spiritual overlap. It is often very difficult for an individual to discern which is which, and more so in an age where individuals are conditioned to believe they must be happy at all times or consider themselves broken.

It is incredibly difficult to see the blessings bestowed upon us through mental, physical and spiritual pain, but they are there.

Paradoxically, we must often embrace the darkness to see the light.

Good health, popularity, and financial success may be nice, but much is expected of the individual who has them all. Life’s difficulties are fertile ground for virtue, which is why we must not lament adversity.

If you have questions on the dark night of the soul, feel free to ask below. I’ll do my best to articulate St. John’s message for interested readers.

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About the Author Douglas Ernst

I'm a former Army guy who believes success comes through hard work, honesty, optimism, and perseverance. I believe seeing yourself as a victim creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. I believe in God. I'm a USC Trojan with an MA in Political Science from American University.

4 comments

    1. Thanks for the link, Jack. I appreciate it! My only qualm with the writer is that he should have better articulated that C.S. Lewis’ faith was ultimately strengthened during the grieving process for his wife. I recently suggested to a friend that he read “A Grief Observed.” It is a masterpiece.

      This part of the blog post struck me:

      “Yelling at God in times of darkness has a long history, beginning with Jesus himself: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ A vivid cinematic example occurs in Robert Duvall’s movie ‘The Apostle,’ when evangelist Sonny Dewey, who has had his own share of darkness, paces up an down in his room, abusing God in a loud voice. ‘I love you, Lord,’ he bellows, ‘but I’m mad at you!’ Below, his mother is awoken by a phone call from a neighbor, complaining of her son’s raucousness. She only grins and says, ‘I tell ya ever since he was an itty bitty boy, sometimes he talks to the Lord and sometimes he yells at the Lord, and tonight he just happens to be yellin’ at him.’ Somehow I think Jesus intercedes for those in pain and darkness who yell at the Father.”

      Years ago I was going through I tumultuous time. I felt as if I was being pulled in 1,000 different directions. One day something happened that was essentially the breaking point. I pulled over to the side of the road and screamed at God, “Why are you doing this to me!? I’m just trying to be a good person!”

      A woman randomly appeared, knocked on my window, and asked if I was alright. I somewhat rudely said, “Yes. I’m fine,” (I wasn’t.), and she walked away. Then something amazing happened that I will always interpret as God saying, “It’s okay. Trust me.”

      I guess my point is that sometimes people think it’s wrong to get upset at God — and it is — but anger is a natural human emotion to things we don’t understand. We shouldn’t let our anger and confusion at times needlessly sow seeds of doubt.

      My guess is that God saw me throwing my little human tantrum — like a big baby — and in that instance He had pity on me. Regardless, that one moment has helped me weather countless other storms since then and I have not yelled at God since.

      Here is some more from the link you shared regarding C.S. Lewis:

      “‘I, or any mortal at any time, may be utterly mistaken as to the situation he is really in.’ Then he admits his own incapacity to know the reality of God: ‘Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them—never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?'”

      I love that point. It’s one that I don’t think most people ever seriously ponder.

  1. What’s the difference, though, between this and just being really angry and depressed because something horrible happened? Or sick, even? I wonder how many saints of old (like Luther) suffered with depression because, maybe, they were diabetic, or had lupus, or something of that sort.

    1. “What’s the difference, though, between this and just being really angry and depressed because something horrible happened?”

      As I mention in the post, this is a legitimate question. St. John discusses this at length. It is very hard to be attuned to what’s going on because the physical self essentially has a near-impossible task in terms of explaining the experience. You know in your heart and soul when there are spiritual changes taking place, but you’re kind of at a loss in terms of explaining the details.

      “It is like one who sees something something never seen before, whereof he has not even seen the like; although he might understand its nature and have experience of it, he would be unable to give it a name, or say what it is, however much he tried to do so, and this in spite of its being a thing which he had perceived with the senses. How much less, then, could he describe a thing that has not entered through the senses! For the language of God has this characteristic that, since it is very intimate and spiritual in its relations with the soul, it transcends every sense and at once makes all harmony and capacity of the outward and inward sense to cease and be dumb.

      For this we have both authorities and examples in the Divine Scripture. For the incapacity of man to speak of it and describe it in words was shown by Jeremias, when, after God had spoken with him, he knew not what to say, save ‘Ah, ah, ah!’ … [I]t was also demonstrated in the case of Moses, when he stood before God in the bush; not only did he say to God that after speaking with Him he knew not neither was able to speak, but also that not even (as is said in the Acts of the Apostles) with the interior imagination did he dare to meditate, for it seemed to him that his imagination was very far away and was too dumb, not only to express any part of that which he understood concerning God, but even to have capacity to receive aught therefrom.”

      Now you can see why I said this was one of the toughest books I have ever read. 😉

      This very fine distinction between spiritual and physical challenges is why I stress that it is more important to see every moment as an opportunity for spiritual growth.

      Recently I mentioned my back problems. It’s really hard to explain just how excruciating the pain was on the day it went out last year. The intensity of the pain was unlike anything I have ever felt…and I’ve had back pain, spasms, etc., on and off for years. I debated calling 911 — assuming I could even make it to my cell phone.

      Anyway, that was a true test for me in terms of finding a blessing in a bad situation. It’s obviously not as bad as any number of other physical ailments people suffer, but I think it would be silly for individuals to start comparing trials and tribulations. Besides, if I’m blessed enough to live to an old age I’m sure there will be more obstacles to face along the way.

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