By Derick Cranston
Before we can experience God’s grace, sometimes we have to go through periods of darkness. It is a darkness that can engulf us through depression, extreme loneliness or illness.
St. John of the Cross wrote a poem about this in the 16th century and titled it “Dark Night of the Soul.” In France during the late 1800s St. Thérèse of Lisieux experienced great doubts about the afterlife and reportedly told fellow nuns, “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into.” More recently it was revealed that Mother Teresa of Calcutta experienced this same desolation for almost 50 years, from 1948 almost up until her death in 1997, with only brief interludes of relief.
This is also a timeless theme found in Scripture stories. The presence of God is at first immediate, and then comes the feeling that one has been suddenly abandoned by God. We witness this from Adam and Eve’s banishment, through the constant cycle of the ancient Israelites being in God’s grace and then falling from God’s favor, and up to Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is a grim irony that the closer we draw to God, the deeper the pit of despair which awaits us. What can all this mean? What is God trying to tell us?
Theologian Karl Rahner sheds some light on this when he talks about the two different meanings of the word “experience.” There is the type of experience that is a brief, isolated moment of heighted awareness or emotion. An example of this would be an unexpected moment of joy or insight. Then there is the type of experience that comes over time through many hardships and trials. This is the kind of experience we refer to when we say that one is an experienced teacher or carpenter. What is meant by this is that they have gone through a great deal and learned from it.
Spiritual darkness is a trying time that strips us spiritually and emotionally, but it is also a time of purification through suffering. It may feel like we are less religious and faithful during this “dark night of the soul,” but in all actuality we are being more faithful during this time. We are more faithful because we are carrying on less for the spiritual rewards, and more out of true love for God. It is an experience of God that will shape us into better people. You cannot be brave if you have never faced adversity. You cannot be strong if you only have had good things happen to you.
Ultimately it is a purification of the soul. No matter how old we are or how much we have been through, God is never done with us. God is always forming us in his image and likeness, and sometimes this can be painful. If you have ever experienced darkness and despair in your prayer or spiritual life, take heart. You are in the company of saints and you may be closer to God than your realize.
(Derick Cranston is youth minister for St. Mary Parish in Riverside, Holy Trinity Parish in Richmond and St. Joseph Parish in Wellman. He is going through diaconate formation and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)