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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 … 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?"
Upon reflection, Lewis decided that the pain he was experiencing must have some redemptive purpose. We see the first glimmer not far into the book: "It doesn't really matter whether you grip the arms of the dentist's chair or let your hands lie in your lap. The drill drills on." But of course the dentist isn't malevolent; the painful work is undertaken for the good of the patient. Lewis concluded that experiences of divine absence, like those of grief at the death of a loved one, can help to heal and sanctify us.
One thing that Lewis believed needs sanctifying is the sort of notional beliefs that pass for genuine faith. God has to "knock us silly" he wrote, to shake us out of "merely verbal thinking." Thinking of this kind is as a useless as a "house of cards," according to Lewis. "The sooner it was knocked down the better. And only suffering could do it."
But why must a faithful Christian undergo such pain? Lewis's answer was simple: because we seem incapable of hearing God properly in any other way.
He admitted this of himself: "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?"
Worse, some of our conceptions of God may hurt more than they help. We may start thinking of them as divine in themselves. So God must come and shatter our ideas about himself. "He is the great iconoclast," Lewis wrote. Ultimately Lewis learned to want "not my idea of God, but God."
If his own faith turned out to be a house of cards, he was willing to have God "knock it down as often as proves necessary." As St. John of the Cross taught—and as Lewis discovered—we may need to undergo the dark night of the soul if we are to break through our preconceptions and into God's true light.
Mother Teresa: Solidarity with Jesus
The Christian world drew a collective breath of shock when, in 2007, we discovered through a posthumously published book that Mother Teresa of Calcutta had undergone a severe, intense dark night that persisted through almost her entire ministry. It didn't seem to make sense. Why on earth would such a saintly person suffer such painful darkness?
Born in Albania in 1910, Teresa joined the Sisters of Loreto at 18 as a missionary. In 1942, she made an exceptional vow to God: "Not to refuse Him anything." Later this commitment led her to leave her teaching position at a convent school in Calcutta and found a new female missionary order—the "Missionaries of Charity," dedicated to serving the poorest of the poor.
Mother Teresa's posthumously published letters reveal that her spiritual trial started soon after that remarkable vow. Though not telling even her close friends of her vow nor of her subsequent experience of darkness, she wrote to Archbishop Périer, describing her painful experience in devastating detail: "He has destroyed everything in me. The only thing that keeps me on the surface—is obedience."
Périer counseled her that the dark night was sent by God "as purification and protection against pride in the face of the remarkable fruitfulness of her work." But he seems to have misunderstood her experience. Aside from her willingness to live in absolute obedience and self-denial, she also impressed those who met her with her complete humility. No, this prolonged experience of spiritual dryness seemed to have had some other purpose.
A more helpful response came to Mother Teresa from a later confessor, Father Neuner. To him she wrote of "this untold darkness—this loneliness—this continual longing for God—which gives me that pain deep down in my heart." The place in her soul where, as a young nun, she had experienced God's intimate presence was now just a blank. "I just long and long for God—and then it is that I feel—He does not want me—He is not there."
Neuner's response was wise and to the point: this dryness had not come from any sin or failure on Teresa's part. "It was simply the dark night of which all masters of spiritual life know." It could not be fixed or dispelled by any human action. She must just remember that God is present with her, if hidden, and that she is united with the same Jesus "who in His passion had to bear the burden and darkness of the sinful world for our salvation."
How could she know God was still with her? "The sure sign of God's hidden presence in this darkness is the thirst for God, the craving for at least a ray of His light. No one can long for God unless God is present in his/her heart."
With Neuner's help, Teresa finally concluded that her dark night was not only a real sharing in Christ's redemptive suffering, but also a way she could come to identify more deeply with "the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone."
From the moment of this new understanding, Teresa began to view the darkness as "an integral part of her call."
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.
Teresa's vocation, however, brought solace to tens of thousands and inspired millions. Her dark path was lighted, at last, with consolations. Beneath the pain of divine absence ran a deeper river of joy—a sense that she was in the center of her Lord's will in her service to the poorest of the poor. If she didn't feel Christ's presence as an intimate embrace, Teresa had no doubt that when she and her sisters were with those who felt unloved, they were in fact with Jesus.
She often said, "We are not social workers. We are contemplatives in the heart of the world. We are 24 hours a day with Jesus."
Luther: "The Backside of God"
Most of us know how, as a young monk, Martin Luther struggled mightily with a sense of his own sinfulness and inability to please God. This struggle ended when he realized that righteousness is not within our ability to achieve; God himself freely gives it. Problem solved, right? Not exactly.
Again and again throughout his life Luther descended into severe spiritual anxiety, starting with a particularly long and intense depression a few years after the Reformation's onset, in 1527.
During that period, says Luther scholar David Steinmetz, the Reformer was terrified that "God had turned his back on him once and for all," abandoning him "to suffer the pains of hell." Feeling "alone in the universe," Luther "doubted his own faith, his own mission, and the goodness of God—doubts which, because they verged on blasphemy, drove him deeper and deeper" into despair.
His prayers met a "wall of indifferent silence." He experienced heart palpitations, crying spells, and profuse sweating. He was convinced that he would die soon and go straight to hell. "For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy of God.'"
This Anfechtungen (his term for the experience) returned repeatedly, forcing the Reformer to develop a theology of spiritual darkness. He concluded that without the trials of Anfechtungen, "no person is able to know Holy Scripture, nor faith, the fear and love of God … indeed such a trial is the very best sign of God's grace and love for man."
For Luther as for Lewis, such darkness is a way that God strips us of the narrow self-interests that cloud our view of him. Yes, God is revealed in Christ and in Scripture. But we often fail to see or sense him, confusing his transcendence with absence.
In his early lectures on Romans, Luther used the example of a patient and a physician. The hospitalized patient feels his fever, nausea, headaches, and stiff joints, and is convinced by that he is getting worse and, in fact, will soon die. A doctor, says Luther, tells this man that, against all the evidence of his senses, he is in fact getting better. What is required here is a simple act of faith.
Steinmetz paraphrases Luther, "The fact of your beginning recovery is hidden under the contrary appearance of your virulent fever. You can grasp it now by closing your eyes to your symptoms and opening your ears to the word of your physician, who contradicts by his prognosis your immediate experience of pain."
Luther loved to say that in our times of darkness, we are seeing "the view of God from behind," wording based in Exodus 33:23, where Moses asks to see God's face, and God tells him that he couldn't handle such an encounter, but he would show him his back. Luther saw this same dynamic in the story of the Syrophoenician woman pleading with Jesus to be allowed to eat "the bread that falls from the table" of God's children. All Christ's answers to this woman, said Luther, "sounded like no, but he did not mean no. He had not said that she was not of the house of Israel. He had not said that she was a dog. He had not said no. Yet all his answers were more like no than yes."
Luther saw a parallel in our experiences of darkness: "This shows how our heart feels in despondency. It seems nothing but a plain no. Therefore it must turn to the deep hidden yes under the no and hold with a firm faith to God's Word."
"That there may be room for faith," Luther insisted, "everything which is believed must be concealed. Thus when God brings to life, he does it by killing; when he justifies, he does it by making guilty; when he exalts to heaven, he does it by leading to hell." This paradoxical vision comes most powerfully in the story of the Savior who is born into poverty, rides into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, and ends up being judicially murdered.
Thus, experiences of Anfechtungen not only "make 'room' for faith," they also "help teach total dependence upon the promises of God."
How redemptive did Luther really find these experiences of darkness? It was during his prolonged crisis of 1527, so intense and agonizing that his friend Melanchthon felt Luther actually came near to death, that the Reformer composed that great hymn of faith, "A Mighty Fortress is our God." How many since his day have discovered in that single song a bulwark against darkness and doubt?
Chris R. Armstrong is professor of church history at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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