I’ve been away from this space awhile, and with good reason.
The good reason is hard to describe. It could have been an episode of severe depression, or a dark night of the soul, or both. My money’s on both but tilts more toward the dark night.
You’ve probably heard the phrase dark night of the soul, but maybe you don’t know how it’s been used through the centuries. St. John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic, coined dark night (someone added of the soul later). It describes a period in which the Divine Spirit strips the soul of its dross—sins, imperfections, etc.—and brings it ever closer to God. Other sages have called it the desert or the wilderness. The worst part is that God appears to have left the building.
In my case, so did everything else, which makes the word stripping appropriate. All prayer and meditation ceased. I couldn’t write a word. There was no pleasure in anything (which characterizes both depression and the dark night).
It hurt like hell for months, and I hated the pain. My apathy about writing—which is like oxygen to me—scared me. I wondered if all the things I loved were going away permanently.
My spiritual director and therapist helped immensely. Both pointed out something terribly important: for me, the way I’m made, this is part of normal. It comes with going deeper into spirituality. It comes with being creative. As my therapist said, I should try to stop “awfulizing” it. Just live it.
So I am living it. As a result, things are still dark, but they are stable, and the pain is largely gone. As you can see, I’m just barely starting to write again. Same with prayer.
Why am I telling you this?
Before I answer that, allow me to issue the usual caveats. Mental illness is not to be messed with. If you experience depression, please get help. If you have suicidal thoughts, get help NOW. Medication and therapy can turn your life around.
But our culture teaches us to stop there, because that is the only proper response to darkness. When we are sick, we fight it. When we are sad, we work to get happy. We need to do something, to fix something.
We have lost the idea of staying with the darkness for a season—exploring it, if you will.
Good therapy can help us do this. So can good spiritual direction. So can journaling. Anything that helps us ask fundamental questions about the darkness: What is this all about? Why is it happening now? Does it hold any life lessons for me?
This is the stuff of that contemplative spirit mentioned on the very top of this page. For contemplatives—when we’re at our best—there is a pause between what happens and what we should do about it. In that pause, we observe what’s happening. We listen (to God, to the circumstances, to our own heart) for clues. We listen for the priceless wisdom that often comes out of dark nights. Most of all, we wait with a wide-open heart.
There are so many places in postmodern culture where this pause could help. Think of what would happen if angry Facebook posters paused between the latest outrage and their instinctive responses. Think of how critical this pause could be in the rhetorical buildup between the U.S. and North Korea. Hundreds of millions of lives could hang on the ability of our leaders to pause, observe, and then respond.
I know. That’s a long way from living with depression or the dark night. But what happens in our hearts gets played out on our planet. It’s worth tending the contemplative spirit for that reason. Let alone all the other reasons—like the lasting joy an ever-closer relationship with the Divine can bring.