Photo: Felix Carroll
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jul 2, 2008)
Toward the end of the classic movie, "The Wizard of Oz," when Dorothy is saying goodbye to her friends before returning to Kansas, she gives the Tin Man a kiss, and he responds: "Now I know that I have a heart: because it is breaking!"
A couple of weeks ago, I completed a two-part series on the meaning of the word "soul" and on the created dignity and supernatural destiny of the marvelous body-soul persons that God created us to be. Shortly thereafter, I received an e-mail from a regular reader of this column, a letter that sounded very much like the Tin Man's sincere lament.
This reader is someone who, as a child, suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a relative. He kept the secret locked away in his heart for decades. He wrote:
I thought I could go to my grave with it, protecting everyone ... But life stopped, by God's will not mine ... I broke down ... Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder hit hard. I became so NUMB; I even had amnesia for a while, not recognizing my spouse and my home. Through these events the ugly secret was forced out ... To my shock, the maturity was not there in my siblings and parents, and I was rejected again; PTSD symptoms came back again, also with the question of LOVE? Where is their LOVE? Numb again on top of everything. (1) Is this a sickness of my SOUL? ... Doctors say it is part of the PTSD. (2) But my other question is that I am so afraid that I will be punished by God because I CAN'T FEEL LOVE OR RECOGNIZE MY SIBLINGS OR PARENTS BECAUSE I SHUT THEM DOWN ... I have gone to a couple of healing Masses, but to no avail. Is there something I am doing wrong??? Should I ask for healing, or suffer like some of the old saints say is a gift??? ... I am serious: this numbness scares me. I have prayed and gave my will to God ... not much else to give ...
First, let me respond to my brother in Christ here, and his particular questions. He is definitely experiencing what the saints have called "The Dark Night of the Soul." We shall talk about that in general in a minute. But first, to my friend:
Be at peace. From what you have written, I am sure that you are not at all apart from God or His grace. I know you do not "feel" love for God or even for your relatives right now, and that must feel pretty bad at the moment. But remember, feelings of love and affection are not actually of central importance to the health of your soul. That's because "love" is not primarily a "feeling." Rather, it's primarily a commitment of the will to the good of others (and even to your own good, as a child of God). It's clear you are not seeking revenge on your relatives or wishing them ill. And it seems clear that you have entrusted your will to the one who can take good care of it: God Himself. All these are good signs that you are in a state of grace.
Actually, I know someone who has been through exactly the same feelings that you are experiencing now: Jesus of Nazareth, Our Lord. When He was nailed to a cross, misunderstood by his countrymen, and even abandoned by most of his friends and relatives (from whom he had every right to expect both love and solace in his time of need), He was emotionally "numbed" by it all, too. He felt as if God, His Father, was far away. That is why he cried out in His agony, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?" But even though in His agony He did not "feel" love and affection (when He experienced any feelings at all in His agony, they were surely feelings of overwhelming grief and sorrow), He was expressing His commitment of love for us and for His heavenly Father more deeply at that moment than at any other time of His earthly life.
So, my brother in Christ, you are truly on the cross beside Jesus. Just remember that this does not mean that you are apart from Him at all (no matter how numb or grief-stricken you may feel at times), for your will is united to His, and you are loving your persecutors as He did from the cross by praying for them and seeking them no harm. The true center of your soul, your will, is safely enfolded in the arms of your heavenly Father, right where you left it! He will take good care of it.
And remember how the Gospel story ends: Easter morning is coming. Just wait for it in trust. Psalm 130 says it best:
Out of the depths I cry to Thee, O Lord!
Lord, hear my voice!
Let Thy ears be attentive
To the voice of my supplication! ...
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in His word is my hope;
My soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.
The journey through the Dark Night of the Soul is something that every disciple of Jesus Christ will need to take, at some point in life. This Dark Night can come upon us for any of three reasons:
1.) Because we are holding onto mortal sin or deliberate venial sins. The Holy Spirit gives the comforting sense of His presence to us in our hearts in the early stages of our walk with Christ. He does so in order to show us that He is our heart's desire and to refresh us along the way. But if we stubbornly refuse to let go of one or more of our besetting sins along the way, then these lingering sins can dam up the waters of His grace and prevent Him from refreshing our parched spirits. As a result, we can feel rejected by God, or feel that He has gone far away, when, in actual fact, it is we who have (at least partially) rejected Him. Remember that He loves us so much that He does not want to have only half of our hearts, but all of our hearts as His own! If we stubbornly resist His loving advances and His sanctifying grace, He may allow us to lose a sense of His presence. He will do so in order to wake us up to the need for honesty with ourselves and true repentance.
If you want to know what some of these faults may be that are getting in the way, try making an in-depth general confession (your priest can help you here), and try asking your loved ones, some friend or relative whom you can trust to tell you the truth about yourself. But don't get defensive about what you hear!
By the way, this reason for the dark nights and desert times in our relationship with God — lack of repentance for sin — is certainly NOT what my friend who wrote to me (above) is experiencing!
2.) A second reason for the soul's Dark Night may be physical or emotional exhaustion or illness. Remember what we said a few weeks ago: The human soul and body are very closely related. They affect each other deeply. The fact is, we are vulnerable, breakable creatures. When our bodies and emotions are broken, this can act like a dark cloud that envelops the soul, preventing it from feeling normal and healthy affections of love, either for God or for our neighbors, and often preventing us even from feeling the presence of God in prayer and worship. If we are used to feeling such affections and such consolations, this can cause the soul great distress and even make us feel as if we have been rejected by God or have lost Him altogether. But, again, our love relationship with Him is not primarily a feeling; it's a commitment of the will. And that commitment can even be strengthened in the midst of the Dark Night. God gives us the grace to cling to Him in love and trust even when we are pummeled by doubts and fears and emotional numbness or distress.
This is the kind of Dark Night that Jesus experienced on the Cross. This is the kind of Dark Night that my friend is experiencing now. Let's face it: It feels awful! And it may last longer than we think we can stand. Actually, for us, this is the kind of Dark Night for which we can and should seek healing, as it arises from natural causes.
When I was a college student, I went through a terrible time of this, and along the way, with the help of a Christian counsellor, I developed something that I called my "Dark Night Emergency Kit". I hope that some of my readers will find it helpful. It goes like this:
• Trust in the objective truth of the Gospel. No matter what you may feel at the moment, the following statements from the Bible are infallibly true and trustworthy: "You are the light of the world" (Mt 5:14 ) ... "the salt of the earth" (Mt 5:13 ) ... Beloved, we are God's children now; it does not yet appear that we shall be ... but we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is (1 Jn 3:2 ) ... "Underneath are the everlasting arms" ( Dt 33:27).
• Take good care of yourself, as you know Jesus Christ would want you to do: Get plenty of rest, wholesome food, proper medical attention, time for recreation, and time with friends. Nature has remarkable power to heal, set there by God, our Creator.
• Keep doing something useful for someone else, however small it may be, with the little strength you have, and wait patiently for God. He will, very gradually, increase your strength.
• If these three things are not enough to bring relief and healing, then open your heart to an experienced and wise Christian counsellor or spiritual director. There may be deeper wounds that need to be faced, in the light of Christ. A counsellor or spiritual director may be able to help you locate the festering wound and bring it into the daylight for healing. But continue with numbers 1-3 of this "Emergency Kit" — they always help!
3.) The Dark Night of the Soul can be supernaturally induced by God Himself.
This does not appear to be the kind that my friend is experiencing, and it may or may not be the kind that our Lord experienced on the cross (theologians differ on that point). It is not necessarily different than number 2 above: it just has a different cause. Sometimes, as a result of no unrepented sin (indeed, when a soul is walking faithfully in the way of God's commandments!) and for no discernible physical or emotional reason, our Lord simply withdraws from His chosen ones the sense of His loving presence. Again, the primary reason He does this is to strengthen our loving commitment to Him so that we learn to rely totally on His will and His invisible (even unfelt) grace. There is no point seeking "healing" for this condition, because its cause is supernatural, not natural. My little "Dark Night Emergency Kit" will help. It always helps! But this Dark Night will fully end only when — and as — the Lord wills. He is performing surgery in the very depths of the soul. All we can do is let Him work and trust Him for everything.
Saint Faustina is a clear example of someone who experienced this. It was during her novitiate, primarily, that the darkness descended. While she was going through it, she believed it might never end.
Towards the end of the first year of my novitiate, darkness began to cast its shadow over my soul. I felt no consolation in prayer; I had to make a great effort to meditate; fear began to sweep over me. Going deeper into myself, I could find nothing but misery. I could also see the great holiness of God. I did not dare to raise my eyes to Him, but reduced myself to dust under His feet and begged for mercy. My soul was in this state for almost six months. ...
At a certain point, there came to me the very powerful impression that I am rejected by God. This terrible thought pierced my soul right through; in the midst of the suffering my soul began to experience the agony of death. I wanted to die, but could not. ...
The soul is drawn to God but feels repulsed. All other sufferings and tortures in the world are as nothing compared with this sensation into which it has been plunged; namely, that of being rejected by God. No one can bring it any relief ... It finds itself completely alone; there is no one to defend it. It raises its eyes to heaven, but is convinced that this is not for her — for her all is lost. It falls deeper and deeper from darkness to darkness, and it seems that it has lost forever the God it used to love so dearly. ... (Diary of St. Faustina, entries 23 and 98)
Saint John of the Cross wrote in depth about this kind of Dark Night, but the feelings that St. Faustina expresses here could just as well be experienced at times by someone suffering from a Dark Night induced by natural causes (as in #2 above). The feelings of rejection and abandonment by God, of finding no consolation in prayer at all, of having "lost forever the God whom it once loved so dearly" — all this is characteristic of any deep, Dark Night.
And the fundamental remedy is always the same. Trust Him, even in the darkness. The darkness is not dark to Him; the night is as bright as the day; to Him darkness and light are both alike, for He can work in the depths of our souls, and work out His loving plan, even when all seems dark to us (see Psalm 139:7-12). If your feelings tell you anything different, then don't trust your feelings. Trust the Bible. Trust the Church. Trust the Saints. And remember that Easter morning is on the way. He promised!
Saint Faustina said it best:
Jesus, do not leave me alone in my suffering. You know, Lord, how weak I am. I am an abyss of wretchedness. I am nothingness itself; so what will be so strange if You leave me alone and I fall? I am an infant, Lord, so I cannot get along by myself. However, beyond all abandonment I trust, and in spite of my own feelings I trust, and I am being completely transformed into trust — often in spite of what I feel. (Diary, 1489)
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.