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August 17, 2007

Embracing Dark Nights of the Soul

In his book, Dark Nights of the Soul, Thomas Moore speaks of both the mystery and necessity of the soul's darkness. I don't know about you, but my usual response to the dark is to switch on the biggest spotlight I can find. Yet, Moore reminds us that a life worth living (defined here as one that is changing ever more into the likeness of Christ) is full of barely-lit places. True transformation is nothing less than a deep alchemy, taking place in dim and murky places.

Read only a few of the Psalms, and you see this theme played out: Disorientation and doubt are gestational to faith. We may think that the certainty displayed in "leading the throng to God's house" is the quintessential picture of conviction. But consider the trust displayed by the downcast and disturbed soul. Enveloped in a seemingly infinite expanse of questions, the uncertain pilgrim stretches forward to know and to see beyond herself. Beyond knowing. Beyond sight. Beyond the tangible. Just as darkness is the womb of being, so it is the beginning of faith. "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1).

There is a tendency to view spiritual "eclipses" as depression - a kind of moodiness about God that rises and falls with whatever is happening (or not happening). But Moore speaks about something deeper that occurs when we question God and God's activity (or seeming lack thereof). It's as if we become aliens to ourselves. We don't just feel sad or upset about life; we feel completely dislocated inside the familiar. We go through the motions of job, ministry, family activities, and relationships. Almost "out of body," we observe ourselves doing life as we've always done it. Yet now, there is another self in the mix; another persona so far removed from who we have been, we shudder at the disconnect. We wonder what others would think of us if we said what we were really thinking.

You may be in a period of deep questioning right now. A new year is beginning. Perhaps your children are going to be starting school soon. The summer wasn't near what it could have been, that dream of family closeness never achieved. Perhaps you will be changing jobs or ministry positions. Yet, what should be a time of adventure - of new possibilities - feels oddly leaden and life-less. Maybe you're in the same old place - in your job, your marriage, as a single parent, or as a single human. The routine has become deafening and stifling, just as God is becoming more distant and unreachable.

If this is your place right now, I grieve with you over the loss of joy or clarity; the inability to make sense of life, or simply the inability to find yourself in the old, familiar places. While we grieve together, I encourage you to embrace your now: this obscure and murky place. Because, in this now, you can live in unprecedented, unfettered honesty. Instead of reaching for the nearest spotlight, reach for your journal and begin saying those things you haven't even dared whisper. Or, reach for a paintbrush, a sketchpad, the piano, or your camera. Paint, scribble, compose, or picture this strange, new world you inhabit, this landscape in which you feel an utter misfit. This is your time of psalmody, and unless you take it from yourself, it will not be taken from you. It is your gestation into new life.

As a deer thirsts for streams of water,
So my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go to meet with God?
My tears have been my food
Day and night,
While people say to me all day long,
"Where is your God?"
These things I remember
As I pour out my soul:
How I used to go to the house of God
Under the protection of the Mighty One
With shouts of joy and praise
Among the festive throng.
Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
For I will yet praise him,
My Savior and my God.

Psalm 42: 1-5 (TNIV)



I particularly appreciate your description of the dark night as being "gestation into new life". So often we are unable to see that when we're in the midst of the darkness. It seems the end when actually it is often the beginning.

And thank you for giving value to the period of questioning that is key to that gestation. For seeing it as active participation with God, not failure of faith or weakness. And for encouraging us to be in the now. There is deep submission and surrender to God in learning how to live in the now.

David, in the Psalms, candidly shares the panorama of all his dark feelings of doubt, despair, depression- but in the Church at large, we want to minimize these periods of our life, these feelings, these painful experiences- it's not good for P.R.!!

God can handle our dark times and our "deep questioning". It's ourselves, a reflection of the Church, that can't seem to cope with these periods of awkward reality. May we grow past this- so that we can be people of the light who can handle, with the grace of God, being in the dark.

Thank you for your encouragement to embrace these moments of "murkiness" and "obscurity". If being honest in the church is difficult then living in the "now" is almost impossible because of the lonliness that comes with truly living a life of "unprecedented and unfettered honesty". Can we truly give ourselves permission to stay still and allow God to be God in the dark? Can we truly wait upon Him to shed light on this dark time? Can we rejoice in all He leads us through? We can if others, like Sally, offers an open hand, a quiet voice and an pure heart to come alongside and wait with us. Thank you Sally. There is much to learn, celebrate and share in my darkness and outside another's. Blessings!

As always, Sally, I'm struck by and grateful for your thoughts, your words, your heart. The metaphor that I often hold is that of birth, unique and particular to women, whether having physically given birth or not. Indeed, the dark nights of the soul seem beautifully connected to labor pains: seemingly-endless anguish with little relief and yet, the hope for life unquenchable, unstoppable.

May we, as women, be called into the hard labor of life on behalf of all we are yet to birth. May we, as you so winsomely invite, be willing to stay in the "barely-lit places," wondering, waiting, and hoping for what is yet to be delivered. Thank you.

Without a doubt, you have blown open a door of empathy that brings comforting company. Thank you for reminding me, yet again, that the dark night is not a day, a moment, or even a series of rather unfortunate spiritual events. It is a whole season of my life that holds its own unusual beauty.

May we not treat it simply as a waiting room for joy, but embrace the opportunity to discover what we encounter here.

Thanks, Sally.

I am touched this morning by all of your comments. Your collective affirmation of the life-giving, even bonding role of spiritual darkness helps me immensely. This is such an obsidian time in my life. I treasure our sisterhood as inhabitants of these unlit places.

Sally Morgenthaler

This is exactly where i am right now in my life.

Everything you said resonates with me. I long for the winter to pass and for the season of singing to return.

I am just coming out of exactly what you describe! The despair has passed and been replaced by faith, but its been two years coming. My discouragement and constant questioning to the Lord "what am I doing wrong!?" has quieted. He knew exactly what I was going through, standing by me and loving me every moment. The Lord, like a parent, rejoices when I rejoice, but if I suffer, he knows it, has allowed it, and I MUST believe it is in His purpose. Despair for me was a miserable place to be, and I definitely allowed fear and negativity to control my mind and take me lower than I should have gone, but I never would have learned the thousand things He taught me had that time of confusion and disappointment been cut short!

Yes and Amen!
I almost feel sorry for men in the ministry, why? Whereas, I know they have struggles, also, they don't have what we as women have. I know, that sounds silly, but they are really at a disadvantage.
See, we have to "fight" for everything, nothing is just automatically "handed over". And, do you know why that is good?? Because it gives us more reasons to go to God, ask for help, talk to Him, and that is what He longs for and in the process we become closer and closer to Him. I am so grateful for the need and opportunity for communication with my God!

Yes, yes, yes!

I've started by reaching for my journal, and find myself now reaching for my manuscript paper.

Thank you for saying the things that others won't say.

Thanks, Sally, for this beautiful reminder that our pain is purposeful and that God is doing some of His deepest work in us when He seems to have disappeared.

Thank you so much for helping me understand what I'm going through now. This has given me hope. God bless you!

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