Mormonism and the “Dark Night of the Soul”

The Mormon narrative seems to always start with a young boy who asked God a question one spring morning in 1820. Because of his great faith, God answered. Joseph Smith’s words on returning to his mother—“I know for myself…” and his subsequent lifetime of constant revelations—constitute the take-away of every missionary discussion, family home evening, or sermon: God answers prayers.

Enter Mother Teresa. According to letters sent to her spiritual directors (intended to be destroyed but nonetheless preserved and published during her posthumous beatification), this legendary saint experienced vivid divine encounters in 1946 and ’47, and then, for the next five decades—nothing.

Absolutely, agonizingly, nothing.

“I am told God lives in me,” she wrote: “and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” And elsewhere, “Heaven from every side is closed.”[1,2]

Cultural Mormonism deals little with such intense, enduring periods of divine silence. In contrast, we occupy ourselves more with the didactic formulas of personal revelation (“Ask and ye shall receive,” or for the more persistent, perhaps, “study it out in your mind…and then ask [God]”) and the presumably inspiration-led machinations of the local and institutional Church.  Then, of course, there is the promise that baptized members will receive the “constant companionship of the Holy Ghost,” a promise renewed weekly through communion. A Puritan legacy of a robust regimen of ecclesiastical commitments and spiritual labor keep Mormons rather busy—and often attuned to externals at the expense, perhaps, of a more reflective or probing internal relationship with God. At the very least, it sometimes presumes a reliably budding, if not already comfortable, faith.  On the other hand, divine silence is often treated as a symptom of faithlessness or sin–a diagnosis that would not apply easily to Mother Teresa, I think.

While cultural Mormonism seems to offer little space or explanation for this divine silence, the more theologically sensitive leaders have acknowledged it–at least, the brief, if disconcerting, episodes. Neal A. Maxwell wrote: “By developing our individual capacities, wisely exercising our agency, and trusting God—including when we feel forsaken and alone—then we can, said President Young, learn to be ‘righteous in the dark’… during the deliberate, divine tutorials which God gives to us—because He loves us. These learning experiences must not be misread as divine indifference. Instead, such tutorials are a part of the divine unfolding.”   [3]  Sensitive readings of the Book of Mormon also reveal a subtext of collective and individual remembrance, as exemplified poignantly in 2 Nephi 4, where a grief-stricken and guilt-laden Nephi finds solace and strength in recalling, rather than experiencing, divine succor.

Mormonism stands much to gain by carving out a greater space to talk about this terrible vulnerability that so many others have experienced. These “dark nights of the soul” (a phrase coined by 16th century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross) have been a defining, if grueling, period for many a Christian and mystic. Thomas à Kempis, 15th century author of Imitatio Christi, wrote that “such alteration of grace [from spiritual satiety to spiritual darkness] is no new thing and no strange thing to those who have had experience in the way of God.” Walter Hilton, 15th century English mystic and hermit, admitted, “The painful consciousness of self, the assaults of sensible love and fear, and my lack of spiritual strength, form as it were a continual cry from my soul to God. And yet He estranges Himself for a time and does not come, however much I cry to Him.” [4]  19th century Carmelite nun St. Therese of Lisieux exclaimed to her sisters during the illness preceding her death: “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into…” [5] And even Emily Dickinson wrote (if more sanguinely) of such “evenings of the brain” and the sometimes-painful process of “grow[ing] accustomed to the Dark.” [6]

Many have found in this divine silence an educative or sanctifying purpose. Evelyn Underhill wrote that this constant element of the mystic life—the period of “utter blankness and stagnation…impotence…solitude”—serves as a “dark fire of purification.” A necessary part of the spiritual journey between awakening and divine union, the “dark night” entails a “remaking of character, the growth of the ‘New Man’; his ‘transmutation in God’… a Divine Negation which the self must probe, combat, resolve.” [7] James Martin, Jesuit priest and author, believes Mother Teresa initiated a “ministry to a doubting modern world” at the same time she decided that “these painful experiences could help her identify not only with the abandonment that Jesus Christ felt during the crucifixion, but also with the abandonment that the poor faced daily.” [8]  And C.S. Lewis’s Wormwood acknowledged that the spiritually mature would understand the “Law of Undulation,” whereby God allows spiritual peaks to subside into (often extensive) troughs in order for “servants to finally become Sons,” “stand[ing] up on [their] own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish… growing into the sort of creature He wants [them] to be.” [9]

Perhaps the silence is a token of God’s otherness, an element of unknowableness that Mormonism’s audacious collapse of sacred and ontological distance may sometimes overlook.  Perhaps it is a divinely appointed space for individuals to manifest their most authentic selves, revealing will, motivations and desires uncompelled by any external force—something even Christ himself seemed to experience on the cross.

Whatever the reasons, there may come a point for all who experience this divine silence when the decision to release one’s self from the endless spiritual struggle is too welcoming—or logical—to resist. The perceived line between hypocrisy, superficiality, or self-deception, and patience or intuitive persistence, may grow thin. Others, however, may feel that in spite of the painful or bewildering silence, there persists a hunger, a seeking, that affirms, as it did to Augustine, some preexisting relationship that irresistibly beckons reacquaintance. Were we to create more space for a dialogue about these “dark nights of the soul,” perhaps such individuals—Mormon and otherwise—might find one of those choices a little easier.

 

 

 

[1] Carol Zaleski, “The Dark Night of Mother Teresa,” First Things. May 2003.

[2] “Letters show struggle typical of saints, mystics, experts say.” Toledo Blade October 17, 2003

[3] Neal A. Maxwell, “Be of Good Cheer,” October 1982 General Conference.

[4] quoted in the compilation by James Bell, From the Library of C.S. Lewis. (Deckle Edge) 2009.

[5] James Martin, “A Saint’s Dark Night,” The New York Times, August 29, 2007.

[6] Emily Dickinson, “We grow accustomed to the dark,” in Selected Poems (Bloomsbury Publishing, 1992) 57. Written in 1935.

[7] Evelyn Underhill, Part II Chapter 9 “ The Dark Night of the Soul” in Mysticism, published in 1911.

[8] Martin

[9] C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters, chapter 8.

**And thanks to James, for pointing out another very valuable source on this topic that I’m now adding here: “The Eloi,” by George MacDonald.  ["See, then, what lies within our reach every time that we are thus lapt in the folds of night..."]

 

 

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