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Christian faith is built on presence. Whether in the pillar of fire, the still small voice, or the incarnate Son, God has been Emmanuel, "with us." He has promised never to leave or forsake us. In thousands of hymns, we have sung of an experienced intimacy with God in Christ. We have prayed, wept, and rested in his presence.

For a committed Christian, then, nothing is more devastating than divine absence, spiritual loneliness, the experience of our prayers hitting a ceiling of brass.

Yet when the sixteenth-century mystic John of the Cross identified a similar phenomenon—this spiritual desolation called the "dark night of the soul"—he insisted that it is an important spiritual discipline. The dark night, said John, is a tortuous but fruitful path to union with God. For the great Carmelite, the dark night was just one part of an elaborate theology that penetrated beyond the realm of our senses and reason to come before God as The Awesome Unknown.

Today few subscribe to John's view. Instead, we have taken his phrase "dark night of the soul" to describe a subjective experience of the loss of a sense of God's loving presence. Without understanding its place in St. John's larger theology, we are not always sure what to do with it. It seems a decidedly unpleasant episode, often associated with doubt. We're mainly interested in one question: when will it pass?

One good reason for giving the dark night a second look is because of who undergoes it. Among the sufferers are some of the church's most faithful leaders: people such as C. S. Lewis, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther. Perhaps the best way to begin to understand this experience of darkness is to listen in as they struggle to find meaning in the midst of their nights.

Lewis's night came after the death of his wife, Joy. Mother Teresa's came at the very founding of her Missionaries of Charity and lasted to the end of her life. Luther's plagued him as a young monk, but also later as a Reformer. Each story illustrates a different kind of dark night, and bestowed its sufferer with unique blessings.

Lewis: A Path to True Faith

In his late 50s, C. S. Lewis finally found and married his true love: American writer Joy Davidman Gresham. But four years later, after an agonizing battle with cancer, Joy died. During the period of intense grieving, Lewis filled four notebooks—first, with words of anguish and rage, then with an introspective record of the changes that this loss worked in his character. The notebooks were published one year after Joy's death as A Grief Observed, at first under a pseudonym.

Some have guessed that Lewis resorted to an assumed name because his grief took him to the precipice of doubt. He asked the same sorts of questions that the grieving often ask: Was God, after all, a cosmic sadist? Did he even exist? Lewis experienced, in other words, the absence not only of his late wife, but of God himself.

His pain leaps from the page: "Meanwhile, where is God? When you are happy … ...

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Related Topics:Church HistoryHistoryPainSilenceSoul
From Issue:Dark Nights of the Soul, Fall 2011 | Posted: November 7, 2011

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May 21, 2012  6:42pm

Mother Teresa set up a personal spirituality where if she did not follow all the rules she invented, she would be damned. So she lived her life in constant fear that she would not live up to all her rules. (This is my take from reading her book.) But we do not set up the conditions of our own salvation. I think it is unfortunate that Mother Teresa lived her life in such emotional darkness in thrall to a set of rules that were immediately obliterated when she died and went into the direct presence of God

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April 25, 2012  10:26am

Domenicus, it should have read Is this the CT leadership Journal or the Catholic/Syncretistic Quarterly?? No disrespect to historic Roman Catholicism. The fact that Mother Theresa did not offer the gospel to her dying patients, and helped them to be better Muslims and Sikhs tells me that she left the historic church doctrines behind and believes all paths lead to God. When she was actually leaving them in abject darkness. And the fact that she spent 50 years of her life without any sense of the presence of God in her life does not mark her as a great saint, but underscores her departure from the faith. Is this what the Leadership Journal is promoting?

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Laura S.

April 25, 2012  9:35am

Thank you for publishing this. It's helpful to be reminded that even very devoted Christians struggled with dark times and eventually found God in them.

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April 24, 2012  10:26pm

Rick, not sure I understand your last sentence.

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April 24, 2012  2:20pm

This is ridiculous. "Some of her critics have said Mother Teresa taught and lived a twisted theology of suffering. It certainly can seem that way from the outside. In reading her letters I wondered if she sometimes veered beyond devotion into the realm of masochism." Amen. Navin Chawla, former chief election commissioner and biographer of Mother Teresa, says in his article: “She was criticised for encouraging conversion to her faith. Yet, in all the 23 years I knew her, she never once whispered such a suggestion. However, I did ask her if she did convert people to her religion. Without a moment’s hesitation, she said, ‘I do convert. I convert you to be a better Hindu, a better Muslim, a better Protestant, a better Sikh." Is the CT leadership Journal or the Catholic/Syncrestic Quarterly??

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