Countless have been the times that I have heard (and probably said) something to the effect: "This is a dark night of the soul." Though I now don't plan on correcting people's misuse of this phrase, Gerald May — with the help of 15th Century mystics St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila — has enlightened my understanding of how the so-called "dark night" experience is an essential, though difficult, part of spiritual formation.i

For starters, the "dark night" is a profoundly good thing. It is an ongoing spiritual process in which we are liberated from attachments and compulsions and empowered to live more freely.ii Of course, this doesn't mean that the dark night isn't painful — for loss and grief do bring pain. The good news is that in obscurity and uncertainty — two realities most Americans do everything to avoid — God is present. And not only is he present, God eventually brings about a dawn; a dawn that is characterized by liberation of love, deepening of faith, gratitude, and awareness of our union with God.

To guide us toward this union with God — to the love we most desire — we must be taken where we could not and would not go on our own. And though the dark night can be quite troublesome and frustrating, it is when we cannot chart our own course that we become vulnerable to God's protection and the darkness can even become a guiding light.iii

Thankfully, though the "dark night" is healing and liberating and humbling, it is not an end in and of itself. It is rather an ongoing transition from bondage to freedom in prayer and in every other aspect of life.iv In other words, one of the greatest fruits that comes from the "dark night" experience is the Spirit's nudge — which sometimes feels like a "yank" — to receive the offer of contemplative prayer as a way of life. Of course, in our fast-paced, busy, compulsive society, few willingly choose contemplation, much less silence. But as life comes to a stop — whether through loss, fatigue, failed expectations or a gnawing sense that life is meaningless — God, through the "dark night," calls us to relinquish our idolatries and see that he is closer to us than we think.

As we — or others we love — go through the dark night, two questions seem especially appropriate: "Do you really want to go back to the way things were?" and "What then do you most deeply desire?" Thanks to the spirituality of St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avilla, and with the contemporary writing of Gerald May, I too can affirm that it is indeed when life seems darkest, and silent, that I begin to experience how close the love of Christ really is and how our ultimate vocation in life is to share this love with the world!

Final Note:
As an explanation of this journey, we offer as a belated Christmas gift to you, Scott's Blog from Prague for your reading between here and the first of the year. But be warned, it is not light reading, especially at first. But then, the "dark night" is seldom fun at the beginning, but when the light of God breaks through, well, it is simply breathtaking. Take a journey to the beautiful and mysterious city of Prague and find an incredible blessing in Scott's Blog from Prague.

i Gerald May, "The Dark Night of the Soul" (Harper: San Francisco), 1994, St. John of the Cross, "Dark Night of the Soul," Teressa of Avilla, "Interior Castle"
ii May, p. 4.
iii May, p.72.
iv May, p.132.