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 … if you … turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence."
What disturbed Lewis most was not the thought that God does not exist. Rather, it was the thought that he does exist, but that he may inflict pain for reasons we do not recognize as positive or even ethical: "What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, 'good'? Doesn't all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite?"