Dark Night as a Rite of Passage
The following remarks are from a forum for Christians whose spiritual beliefs and expectations have been challenged: I’ve lost my interest and affection for God. Even though prayer once came easily, now there’s a wall between me and God. I didn’t know what God’s presence felt like, until I lost it. Now I cry a lot. I want him to return to me. I feel as if the ground under me has been ripped away. My joy is gone.
This topic is clearly still alive, long after St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, which was written in 1578. At the time, he was imprisoned by members of his Carmelite religious order who opposed his reformations.
17th century Christian writer John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, spoke of the slough of despond—a swamp of despair, which he likened to London’s gray clay pits, used for making bricks. Literally—“the pits.” This reflects how gray our dispositions can become, when dark nights aren’t carefully attended.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux came to a religious crisis relating to her doubts about the afterlife. She told the other nuns, “If you only knew the darkness I am plunged into.”
Dark nights are of a deeper dimension than our familiar frustrations, irritations and anxieties. They are usually temporary, although they sometimes extend for long periods. The most familiar in recent record is Mother Teresa of Calcutta; letters released in 2007 indicated that her dark night lasted from 1948 almost until her death in 1997, with only brief interludes of relief. Whatever was going on internally didn’t interfere with her determined engaged social action, yet you can imagine the impact of almost fifty years of inner darkness.
Is there something of crucial importance, spiritual or otherwise, that you’d find devastating to lose? Taking dark nights to heart, as practice, allows them to become rites of passage, fostering spiritual maturity.
Curiously, only in the early 21st century did Western psychology’s DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) develop a specific category for spiritual pain. Previously it had been viewed as a subset of mental pathologies, akin to psychosis. The 2009 DSM-IV took up the advice offered by transpersonal clinicians in 1993, and accorded specific recognition to this particular form of suffering.
Ezra and I have both experienced variations on the dark night phenomenon. Around age 21, Ezra lost his faith in God, leaving him bereft after years as a devoted practicing Jew. Later, in his 40s, after involvement with Gurdjieff and Zen groups, he experienced a half-year period of something closer to what we call “the dry spot,” where aspiration seems to dry up.
One of my examples was the shock of finding out at age 18 that my grandfather, a respected preacher, had lost his faith. This became a prod, throwing me into deep questioning of life. I began attending the Episcopal Bruton Parish in Williamsburg, and sat in Patrick Henry’s pew, contemplating the inscription “Give me liberty or give me death,” which became my first koan: what is liberty?
So far we’ve considered spiritual versions of dark nights, yet the phenomenon extends to life at large. Most of us will, at times, confront existential crossroads, midlife crises, loss of faith or aspiration, the dry spot, or loss of hopes and dreams.
When our motivation dries up, or is shaken up, there’s often an upwelling of despair, purposelessness, groundlessness, depression—or even escapism: we’re probably all familiar with the evasion tactic of staying busy, attempting to outrun dark nights. This inevitably backfires, since it’s impossible to outrun what’s inside us.
Dark nights can be internal upwellings, without an identifiable cause. External conditions can also be triggers: unwanted changes in health, employment, relationship, or financial security. Even retirement, with its promise of free time for enjoyable activities, can be a catalyst that unleashes unresolved issues and dark nights.
I recently heard the term Weltschmerz, meaning world-pain or world-weariness, coined by 18th century writer Jean Paul Richter. One of his phrases will resonate with ZCSD practitioners: “the recognition that physical reality can never satisfy the demands of the mind.” This phrase is a potent reminder of the need to utilize dark nights as potential rites of passage, because seeing them as part of the path is itself an antidote to the common belief that they prevent us from experiencing the wonders of existence.
Many contemporary terms describe conditions similar to the dark night: existential angst, or meaninglessness; anomie— sociologist Emile Durkheim’s term for alienation. Medical dictionaries characterize it as apathy and disorientation, often in the wake of losing social norms or valued goals.
Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris includes the character of author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had said tellingly, “In a real dark night of the soul it is always 3 o’clock in the morning.” This reminds us of the strong filter that dark nights can place over our perception of reality. We might laugh at the cartoon on the bulletin board, where a waiter tells a customer in “The Disillusionment Café” “Sir, your order is not ready; nor will it ever be.” However, the grin is wiped off our face when what we didn’t order is on our plate.
Asking ourselves regularly what could knock our props out from under us can be an encouraging reminder, since mere contemplation of the dark night can put the brakes on our complacency or self-satisfaction—at least temporarily. It’s a reminder to understand what builds spiritual muscle, for greeting adversity in ways that help us break free, instead of breaking down.
St. John of the Cross lists qualities that can exacerbate dark nights: pride, avarice, gluttony, envy and sloth. While he referred to these as “the imperfections of the spiritual beginner,” old-timers know them well. Our words may differ from St. John’s, yet we know the litany of our stuck places: spiritual materialism, spiritual bypass, and the needy-greediness of hoping that practice will give us things that it doesn’t intend to offer. We may entertain a secret dream of what practice will, or should, provide—security, belonging, comforting beliefs, certainty. Sometimes participants develop emotional attachments—to groups, to teachers, and even to the practice itself. We may even hope to transcend the self, yet proceed in ways that, ironically, reinforce the ego-self.
Life is certainly vaster than our conception of the self, and dark nights can remind us of the importance of refraining from false hope, which inevitably defaults into false hopelessness.
Thomas Merton may have had dark nights in mind when he said “True prayer [meditation] is learned in the hour in which prayer has become impossible, and the heart has turned to stone.”
The antidote is discovering what practice requires, come what may. With this attitude, we’re more able to proceed compassionately and objectively, rather than mismanaging life’s inevitable dark nights, and making things worse. Practice invites us to address dark nights mindfully and kind-fully. It may be messy, so we just do the best we can. We could call the process a scientific faith experiment, where we take up the experiential approaches that practice offers, and see what transpires. This is what enables dark nights to serve as rites of passage to what’s most important.
Elizabeth Hamilton Meditations at the Edge, 2015.