Love, intimacy, friendship, sexuality. These are surely the most important words of our age, as, indeed, they should be, in any age. However, they stand as realities whose mysteries we have scarcely penetrated. At best, we are the edges of them, struggling to touch the hem of their garments. Much can be learned about their reality; however, by examining the parallels that exist between how we interrelate as people and how we relate to God. There are surprisingly similar stages of development, which must be undergone in both instances. In reflecting upon prayer and the stages of religious growth, classical spiritual writers are unanimous in asserting a certain pattern of development: Invariably, in the early stages of religious growth, particularly in one’s life of prayer, God provides us with an enjoyable experience. At this stage, we feel good about praying, about being religious and moral, and about our experiences with God in general. This is, as the classical writes of the spiritual life assert, a period of consolation.
Almost invariably, after a period of time, the emotional satisfaction dries up and disappears. Instead of enjoyment we now experience the desert, the “dark night of the soul.” Feelings of emotional satisfaction and intensity give way to feelings of boredom and barrenness: feelings that leave us sweating about our faith, unable to pray properly, wondering about the seeming unreality of it all. Why? What dynamics are operative here? Put simply, at a certain point of our religious growth, God dries up the good feelings in order to free us from the experience itself. We need a certain weaning. God wants us to be in a vital relationship with himself. Religious life is all about being interested in the person of God. It is not primarily about having a good experience! There is a difference! Knowing human nature as he does, God knows that the experience itself can get in the way of persons relating. We tend to get hung up on the experience, on the good feelings, the emotional satisfaction and not on the person of God. The drying up of the experience affords us the opportunity to move beyond the experience to the person. Dark nights of the soul are necessary. They, and they alone, can wean us from a fixation upon experience that prevents us from being interested in what lies behind the experience, namely, the person of God.
This dynamic holds true, and sadly so, in so many of our human relationships. All of us seek love, friendship, intimacy, and sexuality with a craving bordering upon a fetish. But our pursuits invariably leave us feeling dry and barren, fighting boredom. There are many reasons for this. Often our initial search was not sincere, nor honest, but a distorted self-interest which we did not recognize. However, at times, the search is sincere – and yet, ultimately, it culminates in the same feelings of barrenness.
What is happening here? A necessary “dark night of the soul” within love is taking place. Not unlike our relationship with God, within our relationships with each other, we too tend to get too hung up on the experience, making it an end in itself. We pursue love, intimacy and sex, but too seldom do we actually pursue another person.
More often than not we are hung up on the experience of falling in love, of being in love, of being intimate, of having sex. We are not interested enough in the person to whom we are actually relating. We are in love with being in love. That is why so many of our relationships are ultimately so dissatisfying. When all is bared, we are not interested in the other person and they are not interested in us! That is also why we can change partners so easily and frequently. Whenever, within any important relationship, we experience the waning of emotional intensity, when the boredom and the dryness sets in, and we begin to wonder about the unreality of it all, we should see the waning as a weaning. We should too, I submit, spend more time examining ourselves to see whether ultimately we are actually interested in the other person rather than hastily begin to examine new possibilities for friendship and intimacy. Unless we understand this and act upon it, we risk simply repeating a cycle which is, in the final analysis, selfish. We risk as well condemning ourselves to perpetual immaturity. We need to let our “dark nights” within friendship, intimacy and sexuality teach us to become interested in persons – and not just in having good experiences!