Dark night of the soul, Darkness, Light, Soul, Spirit, Spiritual and emotional darkness, Spiritual growth, Spirituality

The Dance of Darkness and Light

Stunning photo of an Oklahoma ranch provided by my friend, Molly Hunt

I was amazed today by this breathtaking image of a ranch in Oklahoma. Sometimes it doesn’t take a lot to amaze me, but today the object of amazement for me is quite stunning. It’s art, an image to contemplate and appreciate, an image in which one could find meaning. Finding meaning in it is exactly what happened for me.

I see a play of lightness and darkness and I see that to experience light is also to experience darkness. We cannot really embrace one without the other. The beauty of one enhances the beauty of the other. Light and darkness are inseparable. I have always been intrigued by the wisdom of this thought written by Gregory Maguire, “The eye is always caught by light, but shadows have more to say.” I find such truth in these words, and they are illustrated by the shadows — the times of darkness — in my life.

Oh, the stories I could tell about the many times when my reality has been lightness and darkness together. Both juxtaposed and moving, blending and coalescing, always showing me a kind of dance, a holy movement that makes both appear beautiful. But this “light and darkness together”thing came to me late in life. Emotional and spiritual maturity offered me this important insight that both darkness and light are in me and around me simultaneously. I experience them both together.

I also remember the past when I feared the darkness, wanting always to be in the middle of the light of things. During my illness and long hospitalization in 2014, I hated the nights. I had come to believe over the years that in hospitals, bad things happen at night. That thought was cemented in my mind when I was a hospital chaplain. In thinking of the many nights when I was on call, what I recall most were dark crises that happened at night — deaths, terrible accidents in the ER, patients on the psych unit having meltdowns.

What I’m recalling today is one particular night in the hospital. I was so sick for so long and so lonely at night. This particular night remains in my nightmares. It was actually in the middle of the night when I experienced an excruciating pain in my kidney area. I almost screamed in pain, but tried to stifle myself. The pain continued for several minutes, long enough that I felt as if I would pass out. I called for the nurse, who could hear panic in my voice and came immediately. The doctor followed within minutes. By that time, I had been given pain and anxiety medications, so I was in a kind of twilight. I knew that the room was now full of people doing things, but I had no idea what sort of things they were doing. The ultrasound people came and soon after that, the crisis team came to get me. I was moved to a hard stretcher and was quickly transported to . . . somewhere for some kind of procedure.

The only words I really understood were, “Call her husband and tell him to get here immediately!” Not such a calming message to hear, but in a medication-induced twilight, it really didn’t matter. The crisis team moved me into the inner sanctum of the hospital. They moved me through the cold halls so quickly that the wind felt cold and the ceilings of the corridors were a blur, one minute bright lights above, the next corridor completely dark. The speed of the ride made the corridors look as if they were one seamless movement of light and dark.

One repaired internal bleed later, the pain was eased and I was comfortable, back in my familiar hospital room full of cards and flowers, and with late night television still on. Obviously, I survived the darkness and lightness of my transport and the repair of my bleed. And I still survive, every day, the darkness and lightness that is my life. I did not know that night what I have learned since: that darkness and light always exist together.

Darkness and Light:
Together


To be certain, I have experienced darknesses that seemed to smother me completely and leave me with only the darkest dark. I have felt the unrelenting darkness of the soul at times. My spirit has cohabited with the deepest darkness in life that seemed never-ending, with not a single source of light anywhere.

Thankfully, the great Teacher has taught me to see the darkness and the light all at once, moving together through my life. I have learned that light is almost always a welcomed force, but it is in the darkness that I find the most life-changing, cherished moments. in myself. The darkness is the place where my soul sees itself, where my spirit entertains its longings and urges and dreams. The darkness is where my heart can break into a million pieces in mourning and lament. In those dark moments, I can see the dance, the slow and soothing rhythms that enfold me in both — darkness and light — because the two exist together. Thanks be to God.

Darkness was
and darkness was good.
As with light.
Light and darkness
dancing together,
born together,
Born of each other,
neither preceding,
neither following,
Both fully being,
in joyful rhythm
.

— Madeleine L’Engle
Dark night of the soul, Darkness, Light, Moon, Psalm 91, Spiritual and emotional darkness

Why Not Be the Moon?

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Darkest hours come to everyone. Some people know dark hours often, while others seem to experience dark hours every once in a while. Life teaches us that every one of us will know a dark hour or two during our journey on earth. For the earth turns as it will, we are not perfect, our physical bodies are not perfect, our seats of emotions and spirituality are not perfect. And what’s more, the people who touch our lives are not perfect. Imperfect people, things and circumstances sometimes create dark hours.

I have experienced many dark hours, so I know that I can survive them and even find a glimmer of light to guide me through them. Of that, I am confident, because I have in my life the presence of a healer and light-giver. The grace-giving God, who sometimes bathes me in the exhilaration of sunshine, knows about my dark hours — every one of them, every time. So I do not fear the shadowed darkness if the night. I have it on good authority that the Holy One is near me.

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refugeand my fortress,
    my God, in whom I trust.”

Surely he will save you
    from the fowler’s snare
    and from the deadly pestilence.

He will cover you with his feathers,
    
and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

You will not fear the terror of night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness . . .  —Psalm 91(NIV)

Under God’s wings, under the Spirit’s wings, I have found refuge time after time. The light glowed upon my dark times and the small light was enough. My faith assures me that even the tiniest beam of light will be enough, always. So I have survived my darkest hours.

Still, there is in me a fatal flaw: that it is not enough for me to survive the dark; I must be the light for someone else. For that, I want to bring the lightest rays of sunshine to dispel every hint of darkness. I want to be “the sun that brightens up someone’s life.” The sun? Maybe I should instead try to be “the moon that shines on someone’s darkest hour.” Maybe that’s enough. Maybe it is best, even, because that person needs the dark hour to fully live.

Why not be the moon?

“The Prayer”, Dark night of the soul, Darkness, Fear, God's presence, God’s creation, Light, Spiritual and emotional darkness, Stars

In Darkness, God Will Whisper to the Soul.

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Throughout my life there were times, many of them, when the only thing I could do was pray. In spite of knowing that praying was the very best thing that I could do, my soul held a kind of dark, helpless, hopeless sadness. My brother’s serious illness has taken me into that “dark night.” Thinking of him in the hospital’s ICU fighting the ravages of the coronavirus brought me to darkness, especially at night while trying to fall asleep. Lying in bed, I experienced panic attacks. Being unable to visit him brought even more darkness to my spirit. The fear of losing him triggered every past trauma I have suffered throughout my life.

The dark night! The unknown! Yes, I fear it. I dread it. And it is here with me now.

The writing of Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross (1542–1591) gave me a kind of marker that helped me measure my current experience of “the dark night.” He described his darkness as a place of  “unknowing.”

Yet when I saw myself there
Without knowing where I was
I understood great things;
I shall not say what I felt
For I remained in unknowing
Transcending all knowledge.

— St John of the Cross

I suspect that every person has sometimes been in places I can only describe as the “dark night of the soul.” It is a place most people experience as abandonment by God. It is a place where I have found myself many times. And yes, I fear it. I dread it. Perhaps you fear it, too.

Many people believe that the dark night of the soul comes to them because of something they have done, some sin they have committed that results in God’s absence. Yet, we find the experience of darkness in the life stories of those we think of as having been faithful followers of God. People such as Mother Teresa, C. S. Lewis, Henri Nouwen and Martin Luther. Each of these suffered particularly intense episodes of the “dark night of the soul.” 

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In his secret journal, Henri Nouwen wrote   about a dark season in 1988 in which he could not feel God’s love. He had brought millions of others into a more tender and intimate experience with God, but he writes that he was in a “dark night of the soul.”

C.S. Lewis’s dark night came after the death of his wife Joy, the love of his life who died four years after their marriage. Lewis explained that he experienced the emotional pain of Absence — not just the absence of his wife, but the immense Absence of God, his “dark night of the soul.”

Mother Teresa’s darkness came at the very founding of her Missionaries of Charity and lasted to the end of her life, with little respite. Martin Luther’s dark night plagued him as a young monk, and then in several other forms as a Reformer.

The dark night! The unknown! Yes, I fear it. I dread it.

It is for me a time when prayer is my only response. At least, what I understand of prayer. At times I have found myself turning to music to quiet my soul in my darkest night. One song that I turn to almost every time in the darkness is “The Prayer” written by Carole Bayer Sager, David Foster, Tony Renis and Alberto Testa. “The Prayer” is a song of safety and inspiration.

Carole Bayer Sager speaks about how the song’s theme of safety is so important to her:

I think it embodies everything I looked for my whole life. “Lead us to the place, guide us with your grace, to a place where we’ll be safe.” I didn’t find that safety until my mid-40s.

I wonder if the words and thoughts in “The Prayer” might comfort you on this day, reading its words and listening to the video I’ve embedded below.

I pray you’ll be our eyes
And watch us where we go
And help us to be wise
In times when we don’t know

Let this be our prayer
When we lose our way
Lead us to a place
Guide us with your grace
To a place where we’ll be safe.

I pray we’ll find your light
And hold it in our hearts
When stars go out each night
Remind us where you are.

Let this be our prayer
When shadows fill our day
Lead us to a place
Guide us with your grace
To a place where we’ll be safe.

A world where pain and
sorrow will be ended
And every heart that’s
broken will be mended
And we’ll remember we
are all God’s children

Reaching out to touch you
Reaching to the sky.

We ask that life be kind
And watch us from above
We hope each soul will find
Another soul to love.

Let this be our prayer
Just like every child
Needs to find a place
Guide us with your grace.
Give us faith so we’ll be safe.

The dark night!  The unknown!  Yes, we fear it. We dread it. Praying ourselves through it may seem impossible.

Yet, might we look at darkness and the unknown in another way by reflecting on the creation story in Genesis? When I consider God’s creation of day, and night, it seems that God’s astounding creation of day and night reside in a continuum where neither are bad. They just are! When I consider our gift of “In the beginning,”I cannot help but look on in awe and wonder as God and Spirit create light out of darkness.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” 

God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day.    — Genesis 1:1-3, 16-19

God saw that it was good. In that, I have confidence. I see the brightness of the day, and the night, night that God has filled with a glowing moon and glistening stars — light in darkness. Perhaps this thought, this truth of Scripture, will help us to not fear the darkness of night, for without it, we would can never enjoy its light. And as for the dark night of the soul, the unknown that we so fear, perhaps we can embrace it as a place to linger and to wait for the Spirit to guide us into the realization of God’s presence, even as we are experiencing God’s absence.

One of my favorite writers, Mirabai Starr, knows about the way of unknowing personally and intimately. She describes what happens between the soul and God in the “dark night:”

The soul in the dark night cannot, by definition, understand what is happening to her. . . . she does not realize that the darkness is a blessing. She feels miserable and unworthy, convinced that God has abandoned her, afraid she may herself be turning against him. In her despair, the soul does not recognize that God is teaching her in a secret way now.

At the same time that the soul in the night becomes paralyzed . . .  a sense of abundance starts to grow inside the emptied soul. . . . God will whisper to the soul in the depth of darkness and guide it through the wilderness of the Unknown.

Barbara Brown Taylor intentionally moved herself into an experience of forced darkness, a place where her intention was to stay there for a long period of time. In that darkness, she said this: “St. John of the Cross says that the dark night is God’s best gift to you, intended for your liberation.”

The dark night!  The unknown!  Yes, I still fear it. I will probably always dread it. But after being in dark spaces so many times, I think I can stay there now, knowing in my heart of hearts that my soul’s dark night really is God’s best gift to me, intended for my liberation.

The dark night!  The unknown!  Yes, I still fear it.

I may fear the darkness, but I love the stars.0F63D52B-65D9-49F5-AA31-A5A12364D676

Though my soul may set in darkness,
it will rise in perfect light;

I have loved the stars too fondly
to be fearful of the night.

― Sarah Williams, Twilight Hours: A Legacy Of Verse

In my soul’s darkest nights, I learned that the light of the stars is always there, even in the times when I cannot see them. I also learned something profound about prayer — something so profound, so holy and intimate — that I am at a loss to describe it. I learned that a part of prayer in the dark is the miracle that Spirit holds me close and God whispers to my soul.

I know that the stars still comfort me in the dark, that in the darkest of my soul’s nights, I can still pray. For that, I give thanks to God.