Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 13, 2003
Dark nights of the soul temper our faith
By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
But dark nights of the soul strike where you least expect, where you're vulnerable and don't know it.
Therese knew the truth of God's love because she knew the truth of her father's love. God could be trusted because her father could be trusted. Her father's illness turned that upside down. Not only did she lose her father, but she was left with questions that rocked the foundations of her beliefs: If a love that is so beautiful and trustworthy can become something so totally other, what can be trusted? If she had been so wrong about her father, might she be just as wrong about God, about faith, about things in general?
It took Therese a long time to come to peace, but eventually she did and, afterwards, her faith was more mature. Undergoing this crisis freed her from much false romanticism and illusion.
What she underwent in this crisis is what, classically, Christian mysticism calls a "dark night of the soul." A dark night of the soul is a crisis that shakes our deepest conviction about how God, faith, the world and our own personalities work. But these dark nights also shake us in our complacency, expose our illusions and false romanticism, show us where we most need God, and invite us to a deeper level of maturity.
Scripture has it own language for "dark nights of the soul." In the Hebrew Scriptures we see that virtually every defeat, every drought, every humiliation, and every disappointment that Israel experiences is interpreted as somehow coming from God's hand and coming to her as an invitation to repentance, to a deeper relationship with God, to more mature faith. The Gospels speak of Jesus having a crisis of soul in Gethsemane ("he sweated blood") and then again on the cross when he felt as if God had abandoned him. In some wonderful imagery in Second Corinthians, Paul speaks of his outer nature as crumpling away, even as his inner nature is becoming more firm. That aptly captures what a dark night of the soul does, both in terms of pain and effect - it cracks our outer shell, even as it firms up what's deepest inside us.
The mystics speak of these "dark nights" as "coming from God," though they don't mean that God actively causes the set of circumstances that trigger them. God doesn't cause illness, rejection, failure or any of the other things that can rip our lives apart. But God speaks through these events, just as God spoke to Therese through her Father's illness, and just as Jesus saw his Father as sending him "the cup" that he had to drink on Good Friday.
Every one of us will undergo "dark nights of the soul." It's important to understand this because our natural tendency is to see only the negative and not see that, in this crumbling, there is a needed purification and there is an invitation from God to a new maturity.
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