When Therese of Lisieux entered the Carmelites at age fifteen, she tried to anticipate the difficulties she would face there. She knew that many would see this as the misguided notion of an immature child, entering a convent to be with her older sisters who were already there. She knew too that because of her age she would draw unhealthy reactions from every side and would either be doted-on as the darling little child or scorned as the spoiled brat. She knew too that the monastic routine would be hard, spartan living conditions, early rising for prayer, poor food, inadequate heat. Nor was she naive about the petty human tensions she would find there. She had prepared herself for all of this and felt she was ready for whatever awaited her.
But dark nights of the soul strike where you least expect, where you’re vulnerable and don’t know it. She had anticipated all the things that might shake her foundations, except the one that actually did. Not long after she entered Carmel, her father became mentally ill and his personality changed completely. This was particularly devastating for Therese since, not only was there no understanding of his condition as a disease then, but her father had been, to that moment, such an exceptional, faith-filled, gentle, kind-hearted man, who had doted on her, his youngest daughter, that he had been, for her, the incarnation of God’s gentle, steady love.
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 with this, 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, by doing this, 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 his Second letter to the 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.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in a letter to his provincial at a particularly painful time in his life when he was being silenced by the church and shunned by some of his former colleagues, wrote that, because of this, some of his old certitudes were crumpling, but, also because of this, at a deeper level, he was becoming more “riveted” to Christ and to his commitment to community and service. That’s a pretty apt description of what was happening to Jesus on the cross.
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 we will undergo “dark nights of the soul”. It’s important to understand this because our natural tendency in any crises (illness, rejection, failure, disappointment, exclusion, broken relationships) is to see only the negative and not see that, in this crumpling, there is a needed purification and there is an invitation from God to a new maturity.
It’s bad when the storm shows up in our lives, but, it’s worse if the storm never shows.