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Deep in the Dark: Abiding During the Dark Night of the Soul

By December 27, 2013 One Comment
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Guest blogging for Theresa Latini today is Nkiru Okafor. Sr. M. Nkiruka C. Okafor IHM is a member of the Religious Institute of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Mother of Christ. A PhD Candidate in Pastoral Care and Counseling at Luther Seminary, she is interested in research on spirituality in youth ministry, media, culture, and religion.

The metaphor I hold for life, especially for spirituality, is a journey. No matter how much we prepare before embarking on a journey, we are always confronted with the unknown. This is even more evident in the journey of spiritual life. Here one of the unexpected realities that confronts us now and again is what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul,” which is also the title of his mediaeval classic on spirituality. 

What is darkness in spiritual life? I know that this is not a topic that is easily embraced or talked about with enthusiasm, perhaps especially not at this time of year when so many people have just etched out their resolutions for improving their lives. Yet, darkness is a reality that comes regardless of our plans.  I have listened to Brené Brown describe her “breakdown” when she discovered that the same thing she is avoiding continues to show up as the bedrock of authentic human living—vulnerability.[1] She goes on to say that her spiritual director named her breakdown a “spiritual awakening.” Lately I have been wondering about the connection between “breakdown” and “spiritual awakening.”

The dark night is a great moment of uncertainty that wrestles us to the point of deadening. At this point, we are no longer wrestling, dancing, questioning, playing, or doing anything with faith.  We may seem to be totally defeated and knocked down.  Every foundation of our faith crumbles in on us. We find ourselves in a deep abyss completely drained of strength, energy, meaning, purpose, vision, and faith. A number of biblical concepts capture this state:

  • Prison or Dungeon (Genesis 39, Jeremiah 37, Acts 16)
  • Cave (1 Kings 19)
  • King’s Palace (Esther)
  • Cistern or Well  (Jeremiah 38)
  • Cooking Pot (Ezekiel 11, 24)
  • Fiery Furnace (Daniel 3)
  • Lion’s Den (Daniel 6)
  • Belly of a Whale (Jonah)
  • Desert (Luke 4)
  • Garden of Gethsemane/Mount of Olives (Matthew 26, Luke 22)[2] 

Notice that transformation accompanies each of these concepts. My favourite from this list is the King’s Palace. I understand it to mean that even places that appear attractive to the world could still be a place of darkness. What appears bright actually may be quite dark.

The next question would be what to do at such moments. How do I escape? This is where a disappointing response may come. The nearest solution to a dark night of the soul is to ABIDE.  Abide represents a spiritual disposition that may characterize those to whom God’s unfailing promises have been given.[3]

I said that this may be disappointing for our generation of fast age natives. We want to put things under our control. We live in a fast age where we use fast jets, fast computers, fast information transfer, fast drugs, fast, fast, fast, faster, and faster. Our generation wants to fix, solve, medicate, diagnose, and cure everything. Shults and Sandage note that “spiritual transformation often aborts early in the process because it is difficult to face the depths of darkness that threaten nonbeing; it is tempting to revert back into the comfortable sleepiness of life before the experience of awakening.”[4]

So whatever your journey holds in 2014, ABIDE! Do not be in haste to jump out! Spiritual transformation and awakening are the work of the Spirit not ours, and that transformation and awakening may occur in the midst of the unknown and even in darkness.

 


[1] Brene Brown, http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame.html.  

[2] F. LeRon Shults and Steven J. Sandage, Transforming Spirituality: Integrating Theology and Psychology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 240.

[3]  Jason Jackson, “Be Still and Know that I am God,” http://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1245-be-still-and-know-that-i-am-god.

[4] Shults and Sandage, Transforming Spirituality: Integrating Theology and Psychology, 27.

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