Why does God seem absent at times? ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ explains
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.
Scupoli’s ‘Spiritual Combat’: Advice from 1589 for modern men seeking virtue
It has always been my belief that the vast majority of men, if not all men, have seriously wondered at some point how they would fare on the field of battle. War, for all of its wretchedness, offers men a clear picture of their inner virtue — or lack thereof. These “What if?” games are unnecessary, however, as Dom L. Scupoli Apulia’s The Spiritual Combat and a Treatise on Peace of Soul demonstrates.
The Italian author pointed out in 1589 what many men in 2016 fail to realize — bombs are already dropping all around us. Spiritual warfare rages in all directions. A man not only can be a war hero, but he must — his very soul depends upon it.
What men often fail to realize is that they are stuck in a no-man’s land reminiscent of World War I. This is a bad place to be. Man’s rational faculty is called from both sides in the only war that matters: “God moving it by His grace, and the flesh by its appetites.”
Being “neutral” in this war is not an option, and since tomorrow is never guaranteed it is best to pick a side now.
Fully mastering patience, humility, obedience and numerous other virtues is a difficult task. Scupoli details a few of the stumbling blocks we experience:
There are some who are so overwhelmed by their sins that they never even consider the possibility of breaking their chains. Others want to free themselves from this slavery, but they do nothing to accomplish this. Some think they are secure, and for that very reason are very far from being so. Others, after attaining a high degree of virtue, fall all the more heavily. …
When the devil has enmeshed the soul in sin, he uses every means at his disposal to distract its attention from anything that would enable it to recognize the terrible condition into which it has fallen.
The devil is not content to stifle every inspiration from Heaven, and to suggest evil thoughts in their place. He endeavors to plunge it into new faults, either of the same or a more vicious nature by supplying dangerous opportunities to sin.
Thus the soul, deprived of Heavenly guidance, heaps sin upon sin, and hardens itself in its evil ways. Floundering in the mire, it rushes from darkness to darkness, from one pit to another, always moving father from the path of salvation and multiplying sin upon sin, unless strengthened by an extraordinary grace from Heaven.” (Scuplio, Dom. The Spiritual Combat and a Treatise on Peace of Soul. Tan Classics, 2010. 89-93)
In many ways the soul is the beacon which directs a man towards virtue. If a man is not careful, a sinful calcification can take place around the soul. It soon becomes difficult, if not impossible, to hear or see the beacon and before long the captain of the ship “rushes from darkness to darkness.”
If you seek to become a virtuous man or woman, then The Spiritual Combat and a Treatise on Peace of Soul is a must-read. If you are a Christian who has ever wondered, “Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God foist trials and tribulations upon me?” then Scupoli’s work is for you. I would rank it with Francis De Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life and Saint Augustine’s Confessions as an essential addition to your library.
Editor’s Note: I will send a copy of “The Spiritual Combat and a Treatise on Peace of Soul” to the first regular reader who asks.
Francis De Sales’ ‘Introduction to the Devout Life’: 1609’s must-read still amazing in 2015
It is a rare occurrence to read a book and come to the conclusion that the writer’s initial inspiration was perfectly realized upon its completion. Saint Francis De Sales’ “Introduction to the Devout Life” may have been published in 1609, but its stunning insight into the human condition makes it a must-read in 2015. In another 400 years, it will still be leaving readers in awe.
While De Sales wrote for a Christian audience, the blueprint for a healthy civil society he presents is one that men and women of all faiths (or no faith) would be hard-pressed to criticize. The virtues he seeks to cultivate in his readers may be motivated by a desire to instill a love of God in as many hearts as possible, but at the end of the day he is still talking about honesty, humility, patience, charity, fortitude, prudence, etc.
Even more impressive is how De Sales addresses the reader (“Philothea”) directly, yet with a delivery that feels like a kind and gentle father imparting time-tested wisdom to a child. De Sales (who must have consulted countless men and women from all walks of life) has such an exquisite grasp of humanity’s trials and tribulations that it is hard not to feel as though he already knows everything about you — yet still offers unconditional love.
De Sale somehow manages to write for the YouTube-Instagram-Facebook culture of 2015 while living in 1609:
“We apply the term vainglory to whatever we assign to ourselves, whether something that is not actually in us or something in us but not of us, or something in us and of us but not such that we can glory in it. Noble ancestry, patronage of great men, and popular honor are things that are not in us but either in our ancestors or in the esteem of other men. Some men become proud and overbearing because they ride a fine horse, wear a feather in their hat, or are dressed in a splendid suit of clothes. Is anyone blind to the folly of all this? If there is any glory in such things it belongs to the horse, the bird, and the tailor. It is a mean heart that borrows honor from a horse, a bird, a feather, or some passing fashion.
Others value and pride themselves because of a fine mustache, well-trimmed beard, carefully curled hair, soft hands, ability to dance, play cards well, or sing. Such light-minded men seek to increase their reputation by frivolous things. Others would like to be honored and respected by men because of a little learning, as if everyone should go to school to them and take them as their teachers. They are called pedants for this reason.
Other men have handsome bodies and therefore strut about and think that everybody dotes on them. All this is extremely vain, objectionable, and foolish and the glory based on such weak foundations is called vain, foolish, and frivolous.
We recognize genuine goodness as we do genuine balm. If balm sinks down and stays at the bottom when dropped into water, it is rated the best and most valuable. So also in order to know whether a man is truly wise, learned, generous, and noble, we must observe whether his abilities tend to humility, modesty, and obedience for in that case they will be truly good. If they float on the surface and seek to show themselves, they are so much less genuine in so far as they are more showy. Pearls conceived and nourished by wind or thunder claps are mere crusts, devoid of substance. So also men’s virtues and fine qualities conceived and nurtured by pride, show, and vanity have the mere appearance of good, without juice, marrow, solidity.” Francis De Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life (New York: Image, 2014), 121–122
The depth and breadth of De Sales’ understanding of humanity is a marvel to behold. If for no other reason, “Introduction to the Devout Life” shines a giant spotlight on just how far we’ve fallen as a culture. The book was written for the likes of carpenters, soldiers, sailors, and tailors — not academics — and yet the man on the street in 2015 would likely have a hard time digesting much of De Sales’ intellectual discourse.
If you have ever sat alone in your bed at night and tried to plumb the depths of your soul to root out what is rotten and realize what is wholly good, then I cannot recommend Francis De Sales’ “Introduction to the Devout Life” enough. If it is read with an open mind and seriously meditated upon, then I have no doubt that it will truly change your life for the better.
‘Angels in My Hair’: Lorna Byrne’s gentle touch creates solid stepping stone to spirituality
Lorna Byrne’s 2008 book ‘Angels in My Hair’ is a bestseller. Her memoir covers the trials and tribulations she experienced while growing up with the ability to see angels — but not talk about it with anyone. Her own family thought she had mental problems. She was warned that there was a possibility they would send her to a mental institution. She was given foreknowledge of painful events that would happen later in life (e.g., the early death of her husband), but was sworn to secrecy. Finally, at a much later stage in her life, she was told to write her book so that people would know one simple message: We are never alone.
Ms. Byrne’s book has plenty of detractors — atheists, agnostics, Christians of various denominations, and individuals from other religious faiths. That is understandable, given the nature of her claims. As a Catholic, I certainly have qualms with topics that were left out of the book, but many of her editorial decisions make sense when one considers Ireland’s violent history between Protestants and Catholics.
‘Angels in My Hair’ is a great book for anyone who has ever wondered if angels exists. It’s also a worthwhile read for those who identify as a devout [insert religious denomination here], provided he or she accepts from the beginning that Ms. Byrne is writing exclusively on angels — not the Bible.
Before I go on, perhaps the best way to sum up how I feel about Ms. Byrne’s book is to first share a quick story from my own life.
When I was a young child I had a snowball fight with a bunch of kids. Half of us were on one side of the street, and half of us were on the other. We were running around having a good time, and at a certain point I picked up a snowball and charged towards the road with tunnel vision on my target. Suddenly I felt a force, as if someone had grabbed me by the shoulders and planted my feet into the ground. I was brought to an abrupt stop. A car slammed on its breaks and skidded to a halt right where I had been running. Even as a young child — with no formal religious education — I knew that I should have been hit by that car. I knew that I should have been injured or possibly dead. I knew that something intervened on my behalf. I had no knowledge of guardian angels at that time, but I remember being completely in awe of whatever force made itself known to me in that moment.
I tell this story because I have no reason to lie to my readers. I am not insane. I am not schizophrenic. I am not on some secret Vatican payroll to deceive people. I do not do drugs. I rarely drink. I am a law-abiding citizen who tries to do what is morally right. I also acknowledge that I am an incredibly flawed individual. Likewise, countless others like me — perhaps including individuals in your life who have never given you a reason to trust their integrity or mental health — have experienced something supernatural. Why should those individuals be treated as hostile witnesses? Answer: They shouldn’t.
Ms. Byrne says:
“We have become a very materialistic society, and so frequently we look at death and ask, ‘Is this it? I rot away and there is nothing more?’ I assure you there is more — much more. I hope that through the books I write I can communicate this and help people to understand. Believe what I say. Believe that, yes, there is more, much more, even though I may not be able to prove it or show it to you now; it is proven to everyone when they die. Some people feel that then it’s too late — if they have to wait to die to see the proof. People are given proofs while they are alive, but sometimes they have to look or listen very hard to recognize them.” Lorna Byrne, Angels in My Hair (New York: Random House, 2008), 174.
It is healthy to be skeptical. We should always read with a discerning eye. However, it is also healthy to have an open heart. The search for truth requires ample doses of each, even if it seems paradoxical. I believe that if you read ‘Angels in My Hair’ with that balancing act in mind, then you will see that there is much truth to what Ms. Byrne says.
You do not have to be a superman or superwoman. You do not have to bear all of life’s burdens as if you were Atlas holding up the globe. You do not have to create a tough-talk exterior shell to protect you from the opinions of others and you do not need to have all the answers. That is because you are not alone. In your darkest hours there is always someone by your side. Ask your angels to give you strength, and you will be surprised at what they bring you from the depths of your soul.
‘A nice place to visit’: Will technology make classic Twilight Zone episode a reality?
What if you could live for hundreds of years? What if you could have anything your heart desired? Would it be like experiencing a taste of heaven — or hell? Google Ventures’ efforts to find the fountain of youth and emerging technology like self-driving cars makes one wonder: Is it possible that future advances in technology will create our own little version of The Twilight Zone’s “A Nice Place to Visit”?
I recently finished Tony Robbins’ “Money: Master the Game.” In it, he briefly mentions a classic 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone where small-time crook “Rocky” Valentine dies and finds himself in a place where all his wishes are granted. If he wanted his favorite entertainment, it was there. If he wanted to go home with three girls, then they were willing. Anything he wanted was given to him. It wasn’t long before the situation began to drive him mad, and when he confronted his “guardian” about how he wasn’t a good fit with heaven, “Pip” informed him that he was actually in hell.
“A scared, angry little man who never got a break. Now he has everything he’s ever wanted and he’s going to have to live with it for eternity — in the Twilight Zone,” the narrator says as the episode ends.
Mr. Robbins’ point was that money is just a means to an end — it isn’t an end in itself. Material things do not bring true happiness, and until we learn that we are setting ourselves up for failure. Likewise, future technology will continue to raise the standard of living for billions of people — but what good will physical comforts be if it fosters a mental and spiritual wasteland?
“The principal trap that the Devil sets for young people is idleness. This is a fatal source of all evil. Do not let there be any doubt in your mind that we are born to work, and when we don’t, we’re out of our element and in great danger of offending God. … First tell the Devil to rest, and then I’ll rest, too.”
New technology can be a great force for good, but it’s not hard to see how a society focused on receiving rather than giving could easily churn out generation after generation of depressed and misanthropic drones.
Enjoy your future self-driving car. Take advantage of replacement kidneys and hearts and lungs that allow you to live until 115. Have fun playing video games in 2030 that will be unlike anything we’re capable of imagining today. Do all of that, but keep in mind that the man who only lives for the next gizmo or gadget will never have enough. He will never be filled and as a result he can never be truly happy. In some sense, he will be living in a Twilight Zone episode of his own making.
The Atheist 10 Commandments are here — even though ‘There is no one right way to live’
A humanist chaplain at Stanford University and his co-writer on “Atheist Heart, Humanist Mind” have crowd-sourced the 10 Commandments — for atheists. The result is a philosophically-convoluted mess.
CNN reported Dec. 20 that John Figdor and Lex Bayer gleaned the Atheist 10 Commandments from 2,800 submissions from 18 countries and 27 U.S. states.
The “commandments” are:
1. Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.
2. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.
3. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.
4. Every person has the right to control of their body.
5. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.
6. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them.
7. Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.
8. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.
9. There is no one right way to live.
10. Leave the world a better place than you found it.
If “there is no one right way to live,” then why should anyone “be willing to alter” their beliefs? If there is “no one right way to live,” then why do we have “a responsibility to consider others”? If there is “no right way to live,” then why should a man consider the perspective of others? If there is “no right way to live,” then it can not be wrong if one man decides that his “right way to live” includes controlling the bodies of those around him.
This is the conundrum atheists face: if we are all just cosmic accidents and God does not exist, then no man has the moral authority to tell another man how to live. If we are all just sentient space dust with no soul, then there really are no objective truths — right and wrong are relative — and there is no valid argument against those whose sole existence is based on taking advantage of their fellow man.
Even the authors seem to realize this. They told CNN about the inspiration for writing their book:
“A lot of atheists’ books are about whether to believe in God or not,” he said. “We wanted to consider: OK, so you don’t believe in God, what’s next? And that’s actually a much harder question.”
“What’s next?” is a very hard question, indeed. Perhaps the reason why so many atheist books concentrate on “whether to believe in God or not” instead of “What’s next?” is because it leads to “There is no one right way to live.”
On another level, it is incredibly telling that with limited real estate, atheists would use one of their “ten commandments” to emphasize the importance of not believing in a non-existent god. Try as he might, the atheist can not escape God. Perhaps for their next book, Messrs. Figdor and Bayer could write “Atheist Heart, Humanist Mind: We Can’t Escape God No Matter How Hard We Try.”
Related: Atheists mock science-loving Catholics from afar because ego massages feel better than ego checks
Elderly couple die hours apart, remind us of the kind of love we all deserve
Just over a year ago, my grandmother died at the age of 98. Less than 24 hours later — without having heard the news — my grandmother’s best friend passed away. While it might seem bizarre to find joy in death, I did. It was comforting to know that as my grandmother moved on to the next life her good friend was experiencing it all with her. In a similar sense, I believe many family members of Harold and Ruth Knapke are feeling the same sense of peace:
DAYTON, Ohio — Relatives of an Ohio couple who died at a nursing home 11 hours apart on the same day said their love story’s ending reflects their devotion over 65 years of marriage.
Harold and Ruth Knapke died in their shared room on Aug. 11, days before their 66th anniversary, The Dayton Daily News reported.
Their daughters said they believe their father willed himself to stay by his wife’s side despite failing health until they could take the next step in their journey together. He went first — his children saw it as his “final act of love” — and she followed.
“We believe he wanted to accompany her out of this life and into the next one, and he did,” daughter Margaret Knapke said.
The couple had known each other as children and began their courtship as pen pals while Harold, known as “Doc,” served in the Army during World War II. Ruth would later joke: “I let him chase me until I caught him!” …
“It is really just a love story,” said Carol Romie, another daughter. “They were so committed and loyal and dedicated, they weren’t going to go anywhere without the other one.”
The body often fails us, but the mind and the spirit are extremely powerful. A person with a reason to live can will the body to hold on to a quality of life others would find unacceptable.
There are many lessons we can take away from the Knapke story, but I find two in particular to be of utmost importance:
- To make the most of life, finding your reason for being is paramount.
- You not only have the power to forge deeply spiritual relationships with friends and family — the kind that you would want to carry over into the next life — but you deserve them.
For many people, mastering these two elements of life can seem like a 7-10 split in bowling, but it can be done. I suggest starting with introspection and regular acts of kindness, but there are many ways to accomplish the task.
One of the reasons many relationships end is because people fail to grow in concert with their partner. If you married your “perfect” mate tomorrow, they would soon not be perfect to you because you will change over time. People are like plants, and they can be like two strands of Ivy wrapping and winding around each other as they thrive and expand, or they could allow their desires to take them in different directions. The key takeaway is that every step along the way we have complete control over how it all unfolds.
If you have someone in your life that you care for so much that you’d will your dying body into a kind of loving life support, say a prayer of thanks for them every day. If you do not have someone in your life like that at the moment and have been wondering why, ask yourself if at the core of your being you believe you deserve such a relationship. If the answer is “no,” then I implore you to find a way to realize that you are worthy of love, abundance, healthy and happiness. When you make that mental shift, your life will begin to change.
Mr. and Mrs. Knapke had a connection many consider rare, but the truth is much more nuanced: all of our relationships have the potential to produce deeply spiritual love. We stand on fertile ground with pockets filled with seeds, but it’s up to each individual to sow them.
Break free of the Matrix: The 1-year challenge to see the world in a different light
We are in our very own kind of Matrix. We’ve been conditioned to want more, more, more of any number of material goods, and then when we don’t have as much as the next guy we’re told we should be angry. We should be jealous. We should be envious. You need the newest technology and the newest clothes. You need to eat out multiple times a week, and if you’re married with children then the both of you need to work because there are so many things that you need to purchase now, now, now.
Once you believe that you need to buy what they’re selling, you are being controlled. Once you believe that the redistribution of wealth by government bureaucrats is necessary, you are being controlled. The only thing that matters is your soul. All the material goods in the world mean nothing, because one day you will die and you won’t be able to take them with you. Given that, it stands to reason that during the course of your life the primary focus should be to figure out what will make you happy at the deepest of levels, and then finding a way to do it. If there is one legitimate gripe about “the system” it is that these days it is geared towards keeping you from attaining higher levels of consciousness. There is great power inside you — incredible power — but over the course of generations we have been surreptitiously led to believe it wasn’t there until the mechanisms that detect it atrophied. You have the muscle — you just need to use it.
The world’s elite would rather have you playing XBox and looking at pictures of animals on the Internet than looking into “God” or “Source” or “Enlightenment,” because when you do that everything melts away (perhaps literally, but that’s a discussion for another time). The sickest thing may be that the elite even enlisted many of your friends and family to do their dirty work for them. Is it possible to convince a prisoner to lust over his own chains? Yes.
Someone who looks within and then turns that eye back on the material world can see the charade, and so you’ve been trained to play with the anger and hate and resentment that resides on some level in all of us like a kitten with string.
There are many ways to break free from the mind-forged manacles we’ve willingly fastened in place. Without much effort, you can find many inspirational figures online who are willing to discuss this journey. I happen to believe that real change only comes from looking inward, so here now is my challenge to you:
For one year — every day — actively look for ways to give of yourself. If there’s a man on the street corner asking for change, give it to him. If you think he’s scamming people, give him some money or food anyway. If you have an opportunity to give someone a genuine compliment, do it. Call up (or text if you must) an old friend and remind them of something nice they once did for you years ago; tell them you still think about it and are thankful for what they did. Make someone feel good. Be the light in your office environment or at school or in your immediate family. There are any number of ways you can give of yourself or perform a kind gesture. The key is to make a conscious decision every day to take advantage of — or create — such opportunities.
As you do this on a daily basis, changes will begin to occur within you. Your new thought processes and actions will start to affect other areas of your life. You might even notice a change in your basic biology (e.g., more energy). Material things you once cared about will matter less. Relationships that had withered from neglect or animosity will spring forth with new life. Your mood and your entire disposition will shift. All of this will occur because kindness is a stimulant, and unlike anger and vindictiveness there are no unwanted side effects.
During the course of the challenge, all I ask of you if you aren’t a religious person that you at least entertain the possibility that Jesus was who He claimed to be. Then, since all humans are capable of empathy, I want you to find a quiet room and put yourself into the body of someone who is infinitely loved. Try and feel it. Try and wrap your mind around what it would mean. My guess is that it will overwhelm you because the human mind can not contain something so powerful. Tears will well up in your eyes because you will realize just how flawed you are, and that no matter how much you give it could never match the love and mercy Christ has for you.
But those tears will not particularly be tears of sadness because that person is you and He does love you. Infinitely. God (or “Source”) wants you to be happy. He wants you to realize your true nature. He wants your life to be filled with joy and abundance, and the kindness and love you’ve shown over the course of “the challenge” will have put you on the path to attaining all of those things.
Once such a realization happens it will start a positive feedback loop, in which your desire to exude light feeds an appreciation for the life you’ve been given, and that new found appreciation for life in turn cultivates a better you. Your spirit will quite literally be vibrating at a higher frequency, and you will never want to return to what you once were.
The thing is, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting a nice car and a nice home and the amenities of modern life for you, your wife and kids. The problem comes in when people feel as though they need it. Why do certain celebrities fill airport hangers with cars? Why do famous athletes buy houses like they’re trading cards? Why do politicians have countless versions of the best suits and ties and shoes? They buy more and more “things” as some sort of status symbol — as something to give their lives meaning — and they can never have enough because what is really important is to fill up your insides with spiritual riches.
This challenge is not meant to convert you to Christianity. I wrote this because whether or not you believe in Christ by the end of it, I firmly believe you will see the world in a different light. You will have awakened something inside you that was always there, but calcified by hate, anger, envy and jealousy by pundits who constantly want you pitted against your fellow man. We are all individuals who were sent here for a reason, but we are all one. Once you realize that, you will no longer fall for political stagecraft or feel the “need” to buy your favorite product.
I wish you well on your journey, because I know you’ll come through it in flying colors.