Here I am at 11pm, in the final hour of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. And I’m doing that thing again. That thing I do when I’m staying up too late because my day felt meaningless. I want to do something fulfilling with these late hours after my kids are in bed (they are 4, 3, and 10 months old). Instead, all I do is scroll my phone or stare out the window because so much infant- and toddler-care for 4 ½ years has wrecked my ability to know what I want for myself.
I think about picking up my guitar but I can’t do that. The kids are asleep and it would wake them up. My wife went to bed at 9 because she’s fighting off some viral respiratory infection. She caught it from my oldest who has pneumonia, who gave it to my three-year-old who has an ear infection. Down the hall, the 10-month-old whimpers periodically because he probably has one too.
I think about writing some poetry but nothing comes.
I think about reading but getting interested in reading something is hard these days. I want a book that integrates weird Catholicism with poetry, homesteading, dragons, and wild utopian theories. Maybe I should write it? No, I can’t.
I try to think of friends I could talk to. But anyone else I could talk to is doing the same thing as me: keeping watch over toddlers in the night, silent like a guard in a watchtower, unable to do anything else.
I think about starting a prayer habit. I’ve been trying to do that for years now. But it is useless. I know whatever plans I have will get destroyed tomorrow night around this time when one of the kids refuses to sleep, so why bother?
And then the guilt sets in that I don’t pray. Isn’t that what I should be doing? Talking to God about it? But when I try the words seem obscured. Language fails. So I just stare out the window again at the lake effect snowfall, whiting out the night sky illuminated by Christmas lights on the homes across the street.
I used to be the guy who was all about prayer and devotion. Read Scripture daily. Prayed the rosary diligently. Ecstatic at Mass when receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. I joined the Church over a year ago and wanted to do all the Catholic things with all of the effort I could.
Now, so much of it offers so little to satisfy me. Because I have no idea who I am anymore. My aspirations for the future, my thoughts about what my life and family would be (teeming with gardens, chickens, homemade foods and drinks, playing music around a crackling fire), all of it has crumbled under the weight of never-ending demands for snacks, butt-wiping, playing games with one child while the other bursts into tears because I’m not paying attention to her. And the guilt of not being able to be that father I want to be. I love my children and they bring me a lot of joy. They also need so much and it is a recognition of my limitations that brings me to this state.
The best approach I have for understanding this – as I watch the snow pile up in the driveway that I won’t have time to shovel before I get the kids to preschool at 7am – comes from St John of the Cross. The truth is, I’ve read Dark Night of the Soul before and hated it. I just didn’t understand it. Too austere, seemingly almost gnostic. What could be wrong about taking delight in one’s spiritual life? Or in everyday life for that matter?
Now, I’m starting to understand what that saint meant.
“…it is at the time they are going about their spiritual exercises with delight and satisfaction, when in their opinion the sun of divine favor is shining most brightly on them, that God darkens all this light and closes the door and the spring of sweet spiritual water they were tasting as often and as long as they desired…God now leaves them in such darkness that they do not know which way to turn in their discursive imaginings. They cannot advance a step in meditation, as they used to, now that the interior sense faculties are engulfed in this night. He leaves them in such dryness that they not only fail to receive satisfaction and pleasure from their spiritual exercises and works, as they formerly did, but also find these exercises distasteful and bitter.”
I didn’t have some mystical experience in which the light faded. I had mundane experiences that cast this darkness over my soul. I had spilled mac and cheese, temper tantrums over a lost blue crayon, demands for terrible toddler cartoons, and nights of no sleep, putting feverish children back to bed. These ordinary, hard Providences were what slowly brought the darkness.
So this is what I can do for prayer. If I am stripped of all delight in my spiritual and worldly life, this is the best I have. It is keeping watch. The baby still whimpers. If I get him up, he will be keeping watch with me.
This is my Advent, my preparation, my longing. Feeling this interior darkness as I sit in the darkness. Waiting for light to come; the True Light whom the darkness cannot overcome. But now, in this waiting, I see a darkness.
D. Meade lives in NY and works as an educator. When he’s not parenting he’s blogging at inalium.wordpress.com.