The Fruits of the Darkest Night: When the Great Darkness Breaks and How to Speak to Travelers of the Dark Night of the Soul

Several years ago I spent many months researching the poetry of Tiutchev and Novalis, two poets from the 19th century. One was Russian and the other German – and if you’re wondering, yes, this was during my graduate school years! My goal: to understand why the night was so important to them in their poetry. Night is depressing, terrifying or absolute bliss to them in their writings and I wanted to figure out what made them tick.

Honestly, though I didn’t tell my professors at the time, I was interested in how that process of turning from light to darkness related to me as a person with mental illness. You see, my life had gone from light to darkness, and would go to still darker depths in the years ahead, through the experience of mental illness. But I thought that in studying these poets I could find at least something positive in the night.

If all is dark, everything looks the same: bad! If it is dark we can look inside ourselves and can’t see outside! Have you ever felt that no matter where you go in the day, no matter what wonderful thing happens, you will be stuck in the gloom of your mind? Take heart: those of us who have known and experienced this great darkness in our lives seem to know ourselves best. And our joy later is still deeper for it.

God forbid we stay in the darkness! As Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going!”

While all of us who have been through the dark night of the soul can speak to the growth and joy that came into our lives after experiencing it, we should be careful how we sing songs to a downcast spirit living through that hell in the present. We must inspire hope, and speak to light after darkness, yes. But we must never forget that sometimes speaking itself is not the right approach. Maybe we shouldn’t speak of Christ. In fact, we should call upon Christ and be a witness to Christ by merely being there with the person as a witness to Christ’s love.

I don’t know about you, but when people have tried to talk me out of my suffering, it has made me feel horrible, and actually angry at myself for not being able to snap out of it.

The most important thing I learned from Tiutchev and Novalis is that our way of understanding ourselves and looking at our nature while experiencing darkness is often inadequate. We become estranged from ourselves when we dissect the darkness of our minds without care and compassion.

When I first started struggling with mental ill health, I read a ton about it. But not uplifting things about overcoming. Not stories of survival or triumph. No, I read books written for therapists describing what was wrong with me, I read horrible Wikipedia articles and books on how trauma never is fully healed, how my childhood had damaged me. And then all I could see in myself was a problem to be fixed… and one that would never be fixed or lovable again.

And I realized that some people thought that just because of my illness I was not worth their time, and worse, that I could possibly be dangerous.

I lost all of my awareness of my own humanity and sense of self-worth.

I would like to conclude with a message of hope:

For my favorite poets, the world of night, which could be so terrifying to them, was also a spiritual place that brought them closer to God. God is accessible when we are in Nature, and God is always there with us in the darkness of the darkest nights of our lives.

If our modern drive is to dissect our minds and the minds of others, and if that is creating illness and disharmony that is becoming ever more frequent in the world, then I firmly believe that being in nature and God is what will bring us back to ourselves. Reminding ourselves that we are not God, the DSM whereby our illnesses are laid out is not God, and our therapist, though hopefully God’s helper, is still not God.

Many churches facilitate this return home to God through Christ, while others create still more judgment and self-hate that will only further separate us from the Lord. My prayer is that all hurting people seek God in multiple churches until they find their church home. A home that is meaningful, enriching and affirming, and allows them to access their God. Our God. The Father wants all of his children to come home. This is why he sent His Son, who willingly endured the darkness of the crucifixion so that we might all be spared eternal darkness.

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