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..."]

 

 

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Missionaries, who often feel under a duty to be spiritually enlightened so they can find and convince the people who are most ready to receive the restored gospel, are among those who can experience feelings of despair. In communities where people are especially resistant to listening to a religious message, a missionary might work for months to a year without the positive feedback of a conversion and baptism. Gordon B. Hinckley was told by his father to forget himself and go to work, and he affirmed that this advice worked for him.

    We should recognize that the dramatic narratives in scripture of spiritual enlightenment and divine manifestations are telescoped in time so that they can be tolerable to read. An awful lot of slogging takes place between the epiphanies and spiritual gifts. I think part of the test in such circumstances is whether we have the integrity to be true to the things that we HAVE experienced of the Holy Ghost, even if we cannot feel so at the present time. What was true a year or ten years ago is still true now.

    • JohnH

      When one is in school and something is demonstrated once then it is normal for one to say that ones knows the thing demonstrated or proved (or even merely presented) many years afterwards. For some odd reason though in life when one has a spiritual witness of something once many feel uncomfortable with saying they know that thing if they do not have at that moment the same witness that they had even many times before. I know of many examples of people becoming less active in the church in part due to them not having something that they know to be true reaffirmed constantly. It doesn’t make a lot of sense but it happens.

      • Rachael

        JohnH,
        I can certainly appreciate the point behind your analogy; taking your analogy a little further, however, aren’t experiments and studies called into question if the instruments or methods used were later found to be faulty? I am certainly not saying that this is the case with spiritual witnesses, but I am saying that people experiencing doubt may feel similarly; they may question their former emotional and mental state, their understanding, etc. Hence, it might be helpful to empathize rather than call their logic into question from the start. Of course, Mormon doctrine and scripture place much emphasis on remembrance, the will to believe and trust, and “not casting away your confidence,” for a reason, too. I’m trying to say that it may not always be a black and white “faithful” or “faithless”.

    • http://redkonnect.com Bryce J

      @Raymond I like that you zeroed in on missionaries who have a “duty to be spiritually enlightened” because I think it’s a theme for church members across the board. Remaining active in the church during the “dark night of the soul” is hard when you have a responsibility to receive God’s direction about your calling, or about what to say when you’re asked to address the congregation or pray publicly, or about how to help your families you’re called to watch over. That Mormonism is interested in activating its membership with callings and assignments may be a good thing for people who need somewhere to direct their spiritual fire, but for people whose fire has dwindled into a few windblown coals, pressure to faithfully participate puts them in a position where they either have to be inauthentic or withdraw. I’m really interested in how people deal with this.

      • Rachael

        I think part of the point of LDS members give callings and assignments isn’t just to channel spiritual fire, but kindle it: I’m thinking of the Alma analogy of nurturing the seed of faith [with action]; Christ’s call to “do [God's] will” to “know the doctrine,” the Proverb to “commit your works unto the Lord, and your thoughts [faith] will be established,” etc. If the seed of desire or experience was never there to begin with, or the fruits never come– that is a different issue, and one, of course, that I’d also like to explore… Whether it’s an issue of recognition, patience, self-discovery and authenticity, purification, appreciation, testing, or simply a “bad seed”; what are our limitations, what are the reasons and/or costs to leaving or staying: these are all the possibilities and questions I am finding in others’ experiences and would like to expand.

    • Rachael

      I think the idea of telescoping scriptural narratives is very useful, Raymond

  • Mike S

    I liked this post. I think this is a difficult area for Mormon’s to feel comfortable discussing because of 2 words – “I know…”

    We hear in every General Conference, in every stake conference, and in just about every meeting that people KNOW that the Church is true, that God lives, etc. It also seems that the higher up in the hierarchy one is, the more emphatically they “know”. After years and years of hearing this, it is only natural to feel “less” if you don’t can’t say “know” but can only say “I hope” or “I have faith”.

    • Rachael

      Yes, Mike S, I agree: the measure of faith by the force of conviction as opposed to the confidence to ask questions or the trust to proceed on hope or will is an unfortunate byproduct of this “certainty” culture.

  • http://www.scholaristas.wordpress.com Liz

    Yes, yes, yes! Thank you for this, and particularly for this: “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.” I think that HAS to be it. At least, that is the conclusion I am coming to with making decisions when inspiration seems not to be forthcoming.

  • http://notoriousbiggins.blogspot.com austin

    Although I haven’t gotten a chance to read it yet, it sounds like Stephen Carter’s collection What of the Night? would fit in well with what you’re saying, Rachael.

    • Rachael

      I look forward to reading that, Austin! thanks for the link.

  • Saskia

    I read a book on Benedictine spirituality last year with my small group and I remember being both relieved and kind of apprehensive when it talked about the dark night of the soul. In the Benedictine view, dark nights are to be expected and worked through. The writer, a lay monk, wrote about a fellow monk who had a dark night that lasted ten years. But he didn’t leave the monastery because the Benedictine vows mention staying put and working through whatever it is wherever you are. I thought that was beautiful, but also kind of unrealistic. I doubt I would keep coming to church for ten years. But that, and your post, is certainly food for thought for a person like me that has my fair share of dark nights.

    • Rachael

      Thanks for sharing, Saskia. I’d love to read about the Benedictine monk’s experience; I wonder if he came to any conclusions for the reasons behind his dark night, and what his reactions and feelings were during the process. In my experience, reading about these experiences also gives me relief as well as apprehension– though mostly relief. A brother of mine has pointed out that the words faith and fidelity share a root for a reason; also food for thought.

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    Very nicely done Rachel. I often equate the darkness with “head-cases” are so into their heads that they experience the paralysis of analysis and refuse to trust the soft, still voice that is so silently speaking to their hearts. I suspect that is often the case. However, it seems to me that you must be correct that God purposefully withdraws at times — when it is in our best interest to be stretched way beyond our comfort zone where alone soul-growth can occur. If the Father was absent from the Son on the Cross, and the Son felt that loss of that companionship that I suspect that he had always intimately known, then the loss for him that he felt in that moment must have been excruciating. I suspect that we have all passed through the dark nights when the heavens are as dark as coal and as suffocating as pitch. The sweetness of God’s voice when he again speaks, the love of his return to the presence in my heart after the absence is among the most cherished experiences in my life.

  • Rachael

    Thank you for that comment, Blake. I agree that “head-cases” is often the correct diagnosis (I wrote about such an experience here), but I think you describe very well that sense of divine withdrawal and return; I can’t help but think that sharing such experiences would be (to me, at least) more educative and edifying than blanket assertions of belief or “I know”‘s.


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