The only way out of spiritual darkness is to go through it. What is the dark, and how do we get through it?
“It is nevertheless true that before bringing peace to a given place, He makes war with it,"
-St. Francis deSales
In Part-1 of this series on Spiritual Darkness, I wrote about different forms of spiritual dryness. St. John of the Cross described it as “The Dark Night,” while St. Ignatius, in his spiritual exercises on discernment of spirits calls this dryness “Spiritual Desolation”.
In this second part, I wanted to cover something that I consider to be between those two, which I think most precisely describes and characterizes the intense spiritual dryness many people go through today, despite their efforts. I see it as a manifestation of spiritual desolation, with a taste of The Dark Night mixed in. I call it “The Dark,” and it is a state of interior being, characterized by Darkness, the essential material of The Dark.
What Is "The Dark"?
The Dark, like ordinary spiritual desolation, makes prayer seem fruitless and pointless. It causes us to feel detached from God. Like The Dark Night, it can cause us to feel isolated from God, as if he weren’t even nearby, let alone close. In place of God, we feel overwhelmed by anxieties, stressors, and spiritual or psychological pains. Also similar to The Dark Night, and more intensely than spiritual desolation, the dark might make us angry at God and others. It makes us doubt ourselves and causes us to undervalue the good in our lives.
Dark Vs. Darkness
Two sides of the same coin in this form of spiritual dryness are the dark, and darkness.
The dark is a state of interior being where the light of God’s essence and abiding presence seems absent. The Darkness is the substance, made up of many parts, that causes that state of being. In other words, the things that make up the Darknessare the things that, together, produce the dark. “The dark” is a state of being. But “the darkness” is what’s responsible for making the dark what it is—lonely, painful, separated from God, and peace.
The Darkness is constituted by our pains, difficulties, experiences (good and bad!), unhealed wounds, sorrows that need closure, things we can't let go of; appetites, and desires (sinful, disordered, or merely inordinate) that want expression. God allows the evil spirit to exploit these things inside of us, and they become the material of a spiritual blackout curtain that blocks the light of God. It is then that we find ourselves in the dark—dominated by all that make up the Darkness.
So when we find ourselves in the dark, many times we are seeing ourselves as we truly are because sometimes spiritual Darkness is where your spirit has always been. You just weren’t able to see it until God turned off the light. When in the Darkness, you’re forced to see—to face—what you were previously blind to. And they’re things that God wants you to face so that you might conquer and overcome them in His name. And then they can no longer hinder your growth in holiness.
“Why have you done this to me?”
We usually ask God why he has surrendered us to The Dark. We wonder what we’ve done wrong to offend him and why he has abandoned or betrayed us by leaving us in this pit of spiritual Darkness.
In Luke 2:48, after searching for Jesus for three days, having found him in the Temple, Our Lady says to Jesus, “My Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you for three days!”
Similarly, when we feel we’ve lost God (or feel he has abandoned us), we ask, “My God, why have you done this to me? I have been anxiously searching for you!” At such times we have to imagine Jesus saying to us what he said to His mother, “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know what I must be in my Father’s house?”
When we feel like we’ve lost God—when we’re in The Dark—we must remember that he’s not actually lost. We’re not even truly separated from him. It’s only that he’s present in a way that we can’t yet understand. The Blessed Mother “pondered in her heart” what her son was trying to tell her. We must ponder in our hearts—even in the dark—what the Lord is trying to say to us, allowing us to live this part of our journey to him in the dark.
St. Francis deSales said, “Before bringing peace to a given place, [God] makes war with it” Before we can be liberated from the dark, we must be made to stand against the Darkness that constitutes it.
A Way Out
Because God allows us to be brought into The Dark, only God can bring us through it. But we must cooperate with Him and trust the process, patiently waiting for the light to return. Only by going through The Dark—through the process—can we emerge from it. To add to some tips I provided in Part-1 of this series, here is some additional advice I can offer.
• Stay calm, and be at peace. Panic doesn’t help but makes matters worse. I can’t stress enough that nothing will help you if it isn’t in accord with peace. Be at peace, or lose. If you forget this first step, the other steps don’t matter.
• St. Ignatius recommends not making any changes to your spiritual practices when in this period of dryness. But I would add, however, that sometimes our spiritual practices can be overzealous, or unrealistic for our state in life, or our spiritual maturity. Sometimes one of the fruits of a period in the Dark is that it causes us to renew our spirituality by restructuring or revisiting our practices. If you find your prayer life in the Dark has become hard to maintain, consider making some adjustments.
• Read scripture, especially the Psalms. When you find phrases that leap out at you, try to memorize them or at least copy them so that you can refer to them later. Incorporate them into your prayer life or meditation. Recite them throughout the day when the mood catches you. For example, when you feel like turning away from the spiritual life in despair, pray the words of St. Peter, “Lord, to whom shall I go? You have the words of eternal life.” The word of God gives life, and it’s a way of bringing the light of God into the Darkness. The Psalms are especially helpful since they themselves are prayers.
• Don’t give the Darkness too much attention. Acknowledge that it’s there but don’t make it your best friend. The Lord Himself will bring you through the process of facing the Darkness as he sees fit, at a pace and scale that only he knows you can manage. When something from the Darkness enters your thoughts or emotions, submit it to Jesus, then ignore it. “Lord, this is the Darkness. Delivery me from it.”, “Lord, this is the Darkness, too. Bring healing to it and deliver me from it.” Once submitted to Jesus in this way, ignore it and carry on with your day. You’ve given it to Jesus. Don’t take it back. If the same Darkness pops up again (and again…and again), don’t panic. That’s very normal. Just surrender it to Jesus again, and go on ignoring it again.
• God is using this period in the dark to teach you something about himself and something about yourself. As I said in Part-1, make sure you’re paying attention. Be prepared to change how you understand things and be ready to think a little differently. Don’t hold on to what you think you know. Whatever you know that is true will remain when you emerge from the dark. Whatever you know that is false must be purged, and the truth must replace it. God will guide you through this. He’s the teacher. Trust and remain teachable.
• We have to be very careful how we conduct ourselves when in the dark because we can very easily absorb and appropriate the poisons we find there, and they continue to complicate our journey even after we emerge from the dark. Don't think negative thoughts, whether or not they're truths. Don't become sloppy or careless with your prayer and maintain due reverence. Don't pick up any obviously bad habits. Never say "What's the point?" because thinking those words eventually habituates your will to believe them, and exercising your will to do good spiritual things even after emerging from the dark because much harder (you have convinced your will that it's pointless!).
Never give up. St. John of the Cross tells us of the dark night, "Faith is a dark night for man, but in this very way it gives him light." And that's exactly the point. Stay strong in the Lord and in the power of His might!