Today is the day of the great astronomical marker, the total solar eclipse. The frenzy across the US, where there is a massive shortage of eclipse-watching glasses, has reached peak intensity. Why? Eclipse watcher and journalist David Makepeace writes:
The eerie motion of the Moon, the coming of the shadow and the darkness at midday are all akin to confronting your own mystery – your own shadow. Psychologically this connection cannot be ignored. The ancients certainly made it. You are as mysterious as any eclipse. The metaphor of confronting the mystery within is potent stuff
Which is to say, the public excitement isn’t really about science as such. It is about psychology and the fear of the day when our own inner light fails to illumine our path. As the moon passes over the sun and the light gradually returns, we feel a sense of relief that the source of light and life are restored for us.
Does anything like this happen in our own lives?
After Mother Teresa of Calcutta died, many of her letters came out and their contents shocked many. It turns out that during the whole of her ministry, from the earliest days until her death, she experienced a feeling of alienation from God. She felt like her prayers were unheard. She didn’t feel the warmth of her Creator. The force in the universe that drove her incredible mission was nowhere to be found in her active mental and psychological state. In the end, this pain was relieved when her sense of being alone – in the dark and the cold – suddenly went away, right before she died.
The Long Dark Night of the Soul is the spiritual eclipse we fear the most. In the intervening 50 years, how did she go on? She followed a small light of inspiration that she experienced so long ago, and trusted that it embodied truth. She never actually lost her faith; she only lost the evidence that the object of her faith was interested in her. She felt abandoned but still trusted in what she had once experienced as truth. She carried it with her through everything, every day, no matter what. It was her guide.
The news of these letters stunned many people and affirmed the cynical among us: see how even this saint didn’t really believe? But this is wrong. What is remarkable is that she continued to believe despite the absence of affirmation.
The revelation really should not have been a shock. The length of time in which she experienced this absence of God is unusual, and yet not surprising if you follow what the great Christian spiritual writers said. Those given the gift of mighty faith feel the sense of isolation and abandonment from God more profoundly than others.
What she experienced has a name: the Long Dark Night of the Soul. It is the spiritual eclipse that we fear and dread most.
The phrase comes from the great Renaissance genius St. John of the Cross. I’ve long appreciated the penetrating power of his writings, not only because he had profound insight, but also because he was writing at the dawn of what we call modernity in the 16th century, a time when music was becoming especially beautiful, painting and architecture were rich and glorious, and the end of feudalism had become an established fact. He was, in many ways, a modern, and an outstanding psychologist.
You don’t have to be a Catholic, a Christian, or even a believer at all to understand and learn from his insight into what today is called depression. This feeling can be fleeting. It can last for weeks and months. Or it can last for many years and even define the whole of your adult life. If you want to learn from what St. John said, you don’t have to accept his theology or even believe there is a God at all. You can regard everything he wrote as a very helpful metaphor.
A Child Is Certain
Clarity is yours. The sun shines upon you. Happiness extends from it. In St. John’s rendering – atheists, please stay with me here, because this truly is insightful – people experience a spiritual birth at some point in life. It could be in early maturity. It could be a conversion later on. It could be a sudden enlightenment or a realization of some truth. Think of that moment of inner exuberance and happiness that you finally found what it is you are supposed to believe and do.
There is a warmth and happiness that comes over you, a sense of confidence and communication between you and your life mission. Clarity is yours. The sun shines upon you. Happiness extends from it. You wake with a sense of anticipation, wonder, and excitement. Music, nature, people, sounds, smells: everything seems to be there to further reinforce your sense of who you are and what you are here to do. Things are just coming together for you.
St. John asks us to picture an underlying reality here, which is God as a mother and you as a child in warm embrace, feeding at her breast, kept safe, in perfect protected custody, all needs provided. Your confidence as a human being is never higher than it is at this moment. It is precisely at this point when you dream your biggest and most ambitious dreams and make the most elaborate and detailed plans for your life.
This situation is obviously an aberration from normal life and only temporary. But the baby does not know this. A baby is not cognitively aware of the highly unusual place he or she is in with regard to the mother’s care. Neither is the person in any state of spiritual/intellectual discovery and enlightenment. It is beautiful and wonderful and because you are experiencing this “new life” for the first time, you assume, naturally, that it will last and last. It is the new permanent.
God Pushes Us Away
The warmth, confidence, and sense of presence, however, does not last. And this is not because you somehow lost enthusiasm for your new sense of who you are. According to St. John, it is simply because you are growing and maturing the same as a child does. You are therefore being pushed further and further from your source of life, which in the metaphor is the mother or in St. John’s view is actually God himself. That’s right: God literally pushes you away so that you can mature the same as children mature.
You look up and out and find nothing that values you and therefore little to value.This is not your doing. It is God’s own doing, says St. John, something that must happen for you to grow and literally come to own and control your own life. It is not comfortable. It is much easier to have your food and protection provided for you. Every stage away from this initial sense of protection is exciting but also existentially terrifying because you have ever more to find resources from within. You have to learn new habits, which means trying and failing and trying again, all while feeling inadequate.
The most prescient of your developing spiritual sensations in this stage is one of growing isolation from the source of your well being. With this detachment comes anxiety and more struggle. Your prayers and pleas are unheard. You look up and out and find nothing that values you and therefore little to value. You lose some of the confidence of the past, that sense that history is moving with you and that you are surrounded by fans and people who value and protect you. You are increasingly alone.
The Dark Night
This sense of things can last a long or short time. In fact, this whole metaphor isn’t really about the passage of time at all. It is about stages of spiritual growth and maturation. As regards the calendar, it can take any course and even repeat itself several times through life.
The striking moment we call the Dark Night of the Soul happens at the moment when God has completely sent us on our own, leaving us to our own resources for almost the whole. Here we find the completion of the process of maturity, fully gone from the protection of the mother, almost as if she has completely died except in a vague memory.
In the Dark Night, we cannot trust and we feel unworthy of trust. The lights feel like they are out, the eclipse. Without the light we are lost. Without the warmth, we are cold. We lose all confidence in who we are, what we are doing, whether we are loved, whether anyone really cares, whether we are making any difference. We begin to doubt that any of what we felt and loved in the past was real at all.
Maybe it was a phase. Maybe there is no meaning. Everything we do is wrong. We feel guilty, powerless, and unvalued, without a champion, and we cannot muster the strength to be our own champion. We cannot trust and we feel unworthy of trust. Maybe there is not much reason to even care or get up in the morning, except perhaps to fulfill some strange duty that we, at some point in the past, undertook for reasons that are now unclear.
It’s Called Depression
If you know this sense, or have ever been close to anyone with this, it is more commonly known as depression. It touches everyone at some point in life. It might be brief. It might last years. It might be the defining mark of your life. These days, it is addressed by drugs or perhaps therapy, if it is addressed at all. Mostly it lives in secret. The afflicted are too embarrassed to admit to others that he or she is experiencing it.
No one can entirely escape this stage of the growth of the soul. I have the sense that today, social media has exacerbated this problem. Everyone on Instagram and Facebook is expected to be happy, to be killing it with the newest trip or meal, smiling for the selfie because all is right with the world. You scroll through your feed and feel as if everyone else has it together even while you suffer deeply in silence. This increases your sense of being alone with a distinctly terrible life.
The critical thing to realize here is what St. John points to: this is all for a reason. Some experience more than others. But no one can entirely escape this stage of the growth of the soul in preparation for more fully and wholly embracing our purpose. It must happen, as inexorable as the motion of the moon. Why? Because we must be tested and learn to develop internal methods of coping outside the protective covering of our creator and closest caretaker. In his rendering, we are literally pushed away in order that we can become better, stronger, more visionary, more prepared for the battles of the future and for a glorious destiny.
Just coming to realize that your state of mind is not some accident, some self-inflicted or other-inflicted wound, is itself a source of comfort. It is “tough love,” so to speak, the force in the universe that loves us most having the confidence in us that we can learn to overcome complete silence and absence of the spirit that gave us life.
What To Do
According to St. John, the Long Dark Night is never entirely dark. All the lights are not out. There is a light, a small flame, burning somewhere inside of our heart and soul, a tiny reminder of the security we once felt and hope to feel again. Our job is to find it just as Mother Teresa did, and follow despite all the darkness around us. Doing this requires discerning the evidence of the unseen, finding that small imagining inside in our memories that inspires us the most, that one thing that gave us life and made us believe we have a purpose and mission. If we can find that and pursue that, even without reward and without reinforcements and praise, we can make it through the Dark Night.
“If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on,” writes St. John, “he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.” “The endurance of darkness is the preparation for great light.”
It is a test, a requirement of growing up and becoming better and ultimately triumphing over the darkness that has overcome us.
Millions upon millions of people are doing this today. And among them are many eclipse watchers, looking for evidence that the motion of heavenly bodies can signify our own movement from light to dark and back to light again.
In watching this above us, people can wear glasses. Mere spectators. But when the eclipse reaches our mind, heart, and soul, it is not so easy. Drugs and therapy might help but they cannot substitute for that thing we really need to exercise which is courage in faith. It is a test, a requirement of growing up and becoming better and ultimately triumphing over the darkness that has overcome us.
Every life worth living will go through this at some point. Not everyone can come out of it with vision and hope again. But we must try. Others around us are experiencing it right now, and we can help in the most simple ways, with smiles and love and genuine care. “In the evening of life,” writes St. John, “we will be judged on love alone.”
As for those experiencing that darkness, you can endure. Find that light. Follow it. Follow it until you come out on the other end.