What happens to us when we experience a dark night of the soul? What’s happening and what’s to be our response?
There are libraries of literature on this, each book or article making its own point, but here I want to share a rather unique and highly insightful take on this by Constance FitzGerald, a Carmelite nun and someone well versed in the various classical spiritual writers who speak about the dark night of the soul.
She uses the word “impasse” to render what is commonly called a dark night of the soul. For her, in effect, what happens in a dark night of the soul is that you come to an “impasse” in your life in terms of your emotions, your intellect, and your imagination. All the former ways you understood, imagined, and felt about things, especially as this relates to God, faith, and prayer, no longer work for you. You are, so to speak, paralyzed, unable to go back to the way things were and unable to move forwards. And part of the paralysis is that you cannot think, imagine, or feel your way out of this. You are at an impasse – no way back and no way forward. So, what do you do? How do you move beyond the impasse?
There’s no simple or quick path out of this. You cannot imagine, think, or feel your way out of this because the vision, symbols, answers, and feelings you need, in effect, don’t exist yet, at least they don’t exist for you. That’s the exact reason why you are at an impasse and so emotionally and intellectually paralyzed. The new vision and feelings that can reset your vision, thoughts, and feelings first have to be gestated and given birth to through your own pain and confusion.
At this stage, there is no answer, at least not for you. You may have read accounts of others who have undergone the same impasse and who now offer counsel as to how to undergo the dark night. That can be useful, but it’s still your heart, your imagination, and your intellect that are in the crucible of fire. Knowing that others have gone through the same fire can help give you vision and consolation in your paralysis, but the fire must still be gone through in your own life to reset your own imagination, thoughts, and feelings.
For FitzGerald, being in this state is the ultimate liminal space within which we can find ourselves. This is a crucible within which we are being purified. And, for her, the way out is the way through. The way out of a dark night of this kind is through “contemplation”, namely, staying with the impasse, waiting patiently inside it, and waiting for God to break the impasse by transforming our imagination, intellect, and heart.
So ultimately, this impasse is a challenge for us to become mystics, not that we begin to search for extraordinary religious experience, but that we let our disillusion, broken symbols, and failed meanings become the space wherein God can reset our faith, feelings, imagination, and intellect inside of a new horizon wherein everything is radically reinterpreted.
How do we do this concretely? How do we contemplate? We do it by sitting in the tension, helpless, patient, open, waiting, and staying there however long it takes for us to receive in the depth of our souls a new way of imagining, thinking, and feeling about God, faith, and prayer – beyond the impasse.
Moreover, the broken symbols, the disillusion, and our helplessness to think or feel our way out of the impasse is precisely what assures us that the new vision which is given to us comes from God and is not the product of own imagination or projection or self-interest.
One of the most penetrating criticisms of religious experience ever given was made by Friedrich Nietzsche who claimed that all religious experience, all of it, is ultimately human projection. He argued that we create God in our self-image and likeness for our own self-interest, and that is why a lot of sincere faith and religion can be hypocritical and false. Reacting to this, Michael Buckley, the renowned Jesuit philosopher, and theologian, made this counterclaim: Nietzsche is 95% correct. Ninety-five percent of what claims to be religious experience is in fact human projection. But, Buckley adds, Nietzsche is 5% wrong and that 5% makes all the difference – because in that 5% God’s revelation flows untainted in our lives.
Now, and this is the essential point here, that 5% happens precisely when we are in a dark night of the soul, when our symbols are broken, our intellect is impotent, our imagination is empty, and our hearts are at loss. It is precisely then, when we are helpless to help ourselves that we are also helpless to fudge and taint the way God is entering us.
God can flow into our lives pure and untainted when we are at an impasse and unable to substitute our vision for God’s vision.