Dark Night of the Soul
Insanity spread through his mind. The once proud king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar suffered the worse form of a mental breakdown. Psychologists today call it Boanthropy. One’s psyche becomes so strained that a person snaps. He falls into a delusional state and thinks and behaves like an animal. "He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched as an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird" (Dn. 4:33). Darkness engulfed his soul. The whole world became bleak.
Nebuchadnezzar’s is an extreme example of the dark night of the soul, the feeling of God’s absence. In the most profound cases, a person can feel a total sense of God’s abandonment. King David prays: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…I sat there in despair, my spirit draining away, my heart heavy, like lead…My bones wasted away through my groaning” (Ps. 22,2; 143,4; 32,3). It is an existential crisis, which the saints say can last for years. St. Silouan wrote, “The soul feels her fall from light as a spiritual death…God has wounded our heart with love and then departed. We are faced with the prospect of an austere struggle which may last for years…many, many years.” The sense abandonment of God is devastating.
For most of us, the feeling of abandonment is more subtle and stale. God simply seems far away. This is definitely the climate of our own times. One philosophy has called the 21st century, “A flattened human universe where the escapes are boredom and distraction” (J. K. Smith). The scriptures call it a hardness of the heart. When we pray, our prayers are stale. Our heart is not really in it. Our mind wanders from heaven to the grocery market. We are too distracted to feel Him or want him. So what do we make of this? What can we do?
The gospel story about the Canaanite woman addresses this situation exactly. Jesus came into the region of Tyre and Sidon. “Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’” Yet, Jesus remained aloof. He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The woman fell down on her knees begging, “Lord help me!” Jesus responded, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The ice in his words – where is the God of compassion? The woman still begged on, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She stood the test and the Lord we know beamed with joy. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Her daughter was instantly healed (Mt. 15:21-28).
God is swift to help. He tends the soul like a mother. This is what we teach, is it not? What then was God doing when this woman asked for help? Jesus stood unmoved, like a lifeless wall. God was silent. It was for just one moment, but that moment felt like eternity. This meeting between God and the Canaanite is a mirror of our own relationship with God, stretched out for a lifetime. Where is God? We experience God in spurts. We are zealous and excited at times. Then something comes up. We get sick. We lose our job. Our friends die. Life feels horrible. After all our prayers and service, we wonder where is God when we need him. The spiritual life is a cycle of ups and downs.
So what can we do when we are dry? We have to turn to God more fervently than ever. St. Anthony the great was once left in a state of depression for weeks until God appeared to him finally. The saint appealed, “God, where have you been?” A voice responded, “I was here, Anthony, but I waited to see you struggle.” St. Paul wrote to the Romans:
“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rm. 5:3-5).
God wants to see us reaching for him. If God does not answer you now, keep on asking. If he does not answer you for years, keep on asking. God waits to see if we will persist.
St. Isaac the Syrian often counseled monks who felt dejected. They had given up everything for God. They lived on their knees begging, just as this Canaanite woman. God remained distant, cold. St. Isaac counseled:
“During periods of these temptations, when someone is darkened, he ought to fall on his face in prayer, and not rise up until power come to him from heaven and a light which will support his heart in a faith that has no doubts.”
Pray. Meditate on scriptures. Go to confession again and again. These, according to the saints, are the only remedies for a cold heart. So often, we simply give up. If God does not come in an instant or in a day, we figure we might as well look elsewhere. Look at the Canaanite. She prayed and God was silent. She fell on her knees, and God was icy. She begged, and God hurt her. She begged even more. God, seeing that she was determined, swooped her up in his arms and granted all her desires.
What can we do? Spend more time studying scripture. Nothing warms the heart so much as slow, constant reading of the holy words in the Bible. Spend time praying slowly, meditating on every single word with forced fervor. St. Isaac tells us: “Reckon every prayer wherein the body does not toil and the heart is not afflicted to be a miscarriage, for this prayer has no soul.” We have to put our heart into our prayers, to pray slowly and intentionally, letting every word echo down into our hearts. Go to confession. Most of the time, the staleness in our hearts is due to our own pride. We will not seek help and delude ourselves into thinking we can reach God on our own. The Church has all the medicine for our soul, if we will bend down low enough to receive it.
What if nothing happens? Endure.
“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rm. 5:3-5).
This life on earth is the winter of eternity. Natural life is almost entirely dead, but seeds lie deep in the earth waiting for spring. Do not despair. Reach out to Christ and he will come with all his warmth and healing. Lent is the time, now, for us to stretch ourselves a little more, just so much as we can handle. God watches every effort. Eventually the day came when Nebuchadnezzar woke from his depression. He lifted his eyes, and praised the God of heaven and earth. May our Lord give us strength to lift up our eyes too that we might find our rest in Him.