Awhile back I wrote extensively on a long period of spiritual darkness that I went through for a few years. This past Advent I wrote a reflection borne from another darkness. The crushing interior sense of God’s absence, the difficulty praying and going to Mass, the fear that your relationship with God isn’t what you thought it was… it’s a phenomenon that I have come to know well, whether I wanted to or not. But as painful as spiritual darkness can be, my experiences with it have proven to be formative and fruitful. They have taught me a lot, and ultimately, I’m grateful to have gone through them.
Here are just a few things that I’ve learned from my own periods of spiritual darkness and desolation.
I’ve learned that faith can’t be founded in feelings. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that feelings in the spiritual life are bad, or a distraction, or that they can get in the way of doing God’s will. Feelings are good! Positive feelings in spiritual consolation can move us to prayer and service. The joys of spiritual consolation are gifts from God, and we should rejoice and enjoy them when they come. But like all virtues, the way we react to such feelings swings on a pendulum: trusting them too much is just as dangerous as distrusting them altogether. If your faith falls apart when those feelings go away, your faith didn’t have much of a foundation. When I experienced my first bout of spiritual darkness, I panicked and eventually gave up practice and pursuit of my faith. I may have loved Jesus, but I loved the feelings He gave me more. When those were gone, I lost interest. I didn’t endure and push through when things started to get difficult. And that’s not true love.
I’ve learned that darkness teaches us how to pray. My most recent experience with it (which was blessedly short but at times crippling) led me to the writings of St. John of the Cross and other great Catholic thinkers, who all agree that darkness is often an invitation to deepen our prayer. It’s God calling us to put aside some of our old methods of praying so we can encounter Him even more deeply. This sounded nice in theory, but in practice it didn’t make sense. How do I pray if God is possibly calling me to leave my old methods of praying and meditating? I wondered. I started receiving answers to that question soon enough, though! I learned that our prayer does not need to be busy with our own words, thoughts, and imaginings to be pleasing to God. I started to become aware of how verbose I can be in prayer, constantly trying to fill the silent void between me and Jesus with words and meditations. It made me think of Jesus’ conversations with St. Faustina. He told her many times that He wanted her to speak to Him in simple trust. During this time I also started to become sleepy during my morning adoration, and I got frustrated with myself because it meant that my prayers often trailed off into stumbling, incoherent thoughts. But when that started to happen, I again remembered that Jesus doesn’t need my beautiful thoughts and words. My simple presence and my desire to be with Him and my loving awareness of Him were enough. Interestingly, I felt my darkness lift as I embraced these new modes of prayer.
I’ve learned that darkness teaches us how to suffer. In addition to drawing me to deeper prayer, I’ve found that spiritual darkness can be redemptive and fruitful if it is approached with the right attitude. It’s easy to complain about it or to beg Jesus to take it away. But many great Catholic saints and thinkers believe that Jesus uses spiritual desolation to draw us deeper into His suffering, so that we can offer the pain of our darkness in union with His Passion. Jesus felt abandoned in Gethsemane and on the cross, but He has has also complained to many mystics that He still feels lonely and unloved today. The commentary of Servant of God Luisa Piccarreta’s “The Hours of the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ” says that sometimes Jesus will allow us to feel desolate because He wants someone to share in His loneliness. And St. Paul of the Cross, founder of the Passionists, wrote in one of his letters that when darkness comes, we must be content to remain in it, because it is a way of sharing in Jesus’ suffering on the cross. The pain of spiritual darkness presents us with a great opportunity to “offer it up” and unite ourselves with the Lord in His suffering and thus to aid Him in His work.
I’ve learned that a relationship with Jesus can’t be based solely in what we receive from Him. I’ve already said it and I’ll say it again: consolation is a gift from God, and when it comes, we should enjoy it! But it’s easy to let those feelings become our pursuit in our faith life. It’s easy to forget, in the joy of receiving consolation, that our relationship with Jesus is just as much about what we can give Him as what He can give us. My most recent season of darkness left me thirsting not so much to receive Jesus’ love, but to pour myself into Him in any way I could. I started making a more conscious effort to show the Lord the love that He deserved from me: by going to morning adoration and mass whenever I could (even when I was sleepy!), by not flaking in my commitment to praying a daily rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet, by being kind in moments where it would have been easier to be rude or short with someone, by remembering throughout my day to give Jesus the fruits and merits of my work, by interceding for others in prayer more often. When we don’t feel much for Jesus, it’s important to continue showing Him our love, whether it’s in prayer, service, or simply resolving to do our day-to-day tasks in union with Him and His work. Loving Him when it’s easy is great, but loving Him when it’s hard is even more dear to Him, and even better for our souls.
I’ve learned that darkness is necessary. Nobody wants to experience trials and difficulties in any relationship, be it friendship, a dating or married relationship, or a relationship with God. But the difficult, uncomfortable places are where we experience growth, where we learn to trust, to give, and to love. St. John of the Cross offered this simple analogy to explain why spiritual darkness is necessary: just like a baby finds the most comfort and peace in its mother’s arms, we find great comfort when we feel that God is close to us in consolation. But there comes a time when a mother has to set down her baby so it can learn new things: how to eat solid food, how to hold its neck up on its own, how to sit up or roll over. God also has to withdraw feelings of consolation with us to strengthen us and to help us grow. And just like a small child learns object permanence over time (it begins to understand that just because it can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there), spiritual darkness helps us to trust that God is still with us even if we can’t perceive Him, even if we feel totally abandoned by Him.