The Dark Night of the Soul
Meaninglessness, Despair, Hope, Redemption, Clarity
The brightness of the new dawn was worth the horror of the long dark night.
It was a beautiful Friday afternoon and I smiled to myself for the first time in several weeks. I will never forget the date — Friday, December 24th. The day my life felt worth living again.
On the first of November I ruptured my left bicep tendon. Between then and Thanksgiving I fell three times. The third fall was severe enough for those watching to call 911 and have a team of EMT’s check me out and help me up.
We still went to my mother’s for Thanksgiving and visited our son in Homestead, Florida. But I didn’t feel quite myself. When we got home on December 2nd my body was sore and full of pain. My attitude was dark and nasty.
Then came the cold, rainy, gray days. One after another—my body was racked with fibromyalgia pain. I was unable to shake the feeling spreading across my body and soul that I was worthless and alone. And so began my “dark night of the soul”.
The “dark night of the soul” is a term that goes back to St John of the Cross, a 16th Century Spanish mystic and poet. It has come to be a term used to describe what could be called a collapse of a perceived meaning in life… an eruption into your life of a deep sense of meaninglessness.
It is the “rock bottom” people talk about. It held on to me so hard that I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t process thoughts, couldn’t work, and couldn’t perform the simplest of tasks. I now understood why some people just can’t get up in the morning, how their brain is so tired and their spirit so frayed that no message, no matter how well intended, to “get stronger” or “to get out of bed” or to “walk it off” makes any difference. All I wanted during that dark night was for someone to hold me and tell me, “It’s okay if you can’t fight your way out of the dark. I’ll stay with you in the dark until you’re ready to move.”
After several weeks of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual pain, I finally screwed up what little courage I had left and reached out for help. In my years of ministry, I had told hundreds of students that the worst thing to do when you feel surrounded by darkness is to snuff out the light. Yet that is exactly what I did. It had been weeks since I had read my Bible or prayed, unless yelling my anger at God is prayer.
I remember sitting in my recliner, thinking about the responsibilities that I was ignoring, and wondering how I had come to just not care. I felt like I was outside of my own body, watching myself sitting there like a lump. The shame was heavy on me, and I kept trying to figure my way out of it. If I had been sitting next to myself in my living room, I would have said to myself “Your life is one big failure”.
Knowing what I know now, and how hard I fought to move from the darkness back into the light, I have a different take on myself sitting in my recliner – I was treading water trying desperately not to drown. Instead of judging myself I should have moved to my side and said, “Darkness is part of the journey. It is unavoidable. You can’t swerve away from it. You can’t dodge it. You can only move through it. There’s no other way—you must move through it. But you don’t have to do it alone. And one day, one day soon, you are going to celebrate how you came out of the darkness and the light will feel so incredibly good.”
Those days were some of the hardest of my life. They were filled with false starts, heartbreaking stops and fits of anger. I treated my dear wife shamefully. Yet her steadfast love was a constant. I felt like I was on an emotional roller coaster. One day I felt like dawn was about to break. The next day I felt that dawn was a myth, and the only reality was that life was hard, heavy and pitch black. Day after day just waking up seemed like a victory. But I began taking baby steps through the dark finally reaching out to God, my church, and my friends.
Until on December 24th I was standing in the light ready to rebuff the darkness and commit myself anew to God the Father, Son, Holy Spirit to live by His Grace a life that felt more beautiful than I could have ever hoped for. I prayed that the darkness was over.
As Christmas morning dawned, I didn’t know how to feel. There was still a part of me afraid that the Dark Night wasn’t over. A huge part of me didn’t want to even think about what would happen if my anger took hold of me while with my family on Christmas. But I decided as the time for us to leave home inched its way to the front of the line that I was going to trust God to enable me to show love to my daughters, their husbands, and my grandsons in ways they could receive and equally He would enable me to receive and feel their love. I decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus by reflecting His light as best I could.
The “dark night of the soul” didn’t win. Hope kept punching little holes in the darkness. Victory came by God’s grace, but His grace was distributed to me by a constantly praying friend, by a friend on the church staff who took time to call and pray with me even though he was in Arkansas visiting his family, and by my pastor who visited me, listened to me, let me vent my anger, and tenderly prayed with me. Of course, God showed me His grace most through the unconditional love of my wonderful wife.
As a result of my weeks in the darkness I now have eyes that see in the dark. Now I know the importance of showing up for others and helping them move through the “dark night of the soul”.
I share my story in the hope that someone going through this struggle will realize that it feels unique but, in truth, it is common to all of us.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas my life felt like a wrecking ball was swinging through it. Maybe that is where you find yourself. You feel depressed and desperate for dawn to break. I’ve been there recently and as a fellow sufferer I encourage you to break out of the moment and look back at just how far you’ve come. I wish I had done that earlier! Stop and celebrate that you haven’t given up! Look at the steps you’ve trekked and reach out for help. Dawn is waiting on the other side of the “dark night of the soul”.
This may sound bizarre but celebrate the ways you’ve clawed your way through the dark night, you haven’t given up. Celebrate that today. The “dark night of the soul” is incredibly hard, but the clarity that comes with the new dawn is worth it!
You are not alone. You matter. You are a child of God. Don’t give up - the victory is yours.
Here’s to the darkness never winning and to you and I reflecting the Glory of God as we walk in the light of His grace.