Like a lot of people, I’ve been thinking about spiritual dry spells in light of all the media coverage of Mother Teresa’s “dark night of the soul”. (Not that Mother Teresa’s loss of spiritual consolation is really news, since Christians have known about it for years, but nevertheless it’s hard not to think about it since it’s getting so much media and blog coverage.)
It’s particularly interesting to me since, oddly, my conversion started in a dark night of the soul. After reading the works of great apologists like C.S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and other less famous authors, I came to believe on an intellectual level that God exists and that the Christian claims are true. Yet I felt nothing. I had sort of expected that God would throw me a bone after all my years of unbelief, that once I said, “OK, Lord, I believe in you, ” that I’d hear a chorus of angels and be flooded with peace and joy. I thought that I would instantly “love” Jesus like all my Christian friends from childhood did, that God would touch me on an emotional level in at least some small way.
But that didn’t happen.
Weeks stretched into months, months turned into a year, then two years, as I plodded along in my spiritual quest, feeling almost nothing. I often started my prayers with little jokes like, “Is this thing on?” and ended with, “I am totally talking to myself here. This is weird…Amen.” I would sit in the pew at Mass and numbly listen to the scripture readings. I watched without emotion as the priest consecrated the host. I looked at the tabernacle and the crucifix and felt nothing.
So why didn’t God reveal himself to me, and why did I keep going?
As for the first question, I would say that he did reveal himself. His presence was all around me, it always was, I had just looked right past it. Kindness, love, peace, hope, joy, recognition of true beauty — these things don’t come from molecules alone. Just because I didn’t immediately feel thrilled about it doesn’t mean God didn’t show himself to me.
But it’s easy to give up when you don’t have strong emotions, what are often called spiritual “consolations”, to make the practice of faith pleasant for you. So why didn’t I, a lazy quitter who is notorious for not following through on plans as soon as they get inconvenient, give up? I thought about it a lot at the time. I made the calculation of how much more free time I’d have if I cut out things like Mass on Sunday, spiritual reading, daily Mass, prayer, praying the Rosary, etc. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t even bring myself to seriously entertain the idea. Walking away wasn’t an option.
The reason I wouldn’t — couldn’t — give up is beautifully summarized in Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John. The day after Jesus miraculously fed thousands of people with five loaves of bread and two fishes, a crowd followed him to Capernaum. He started preaching again, and ended up laying out some hard, inconvenient teachings. Many people left him (even after he’d performed an amazing miracle just the day before), and walked away to return to their former ways of life.
Jesus turned to the twelve apostles and asked, “Do you also want to leave?” Peter’s response, so disarmingly simple, often echoes through my mind: “Lord, to whom shall we go?”
When I felt discouraged by never having “felt” God’s presence, by having so few consolations for the great effort I put into my faith, I’d remember the words of Peter. If I leave, to whom shall I go? Now that I had heard the Christian explanation for this crazy experience we call life, nothing made sense without it. Having taken a look around through the Christian lens, seeing beauty and suffering and good and evil and hope and tragedy and life and death as seen by the Christians and their Church, I could no longer make sense of the world without it. It was like finally finding the box top that made all the puzzle pieces come together.
When I think of Mother Teresa, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and all the other great saints who experienced spiritual dryness, I often imagine that this is perhaps how they felt about faith as well. Perhaps they took a look at how absurd life would seem without God and his teachings, at the immense fruits that came from their lives when they lived as if God did exist. Perhaps they also thought of Peter’s simple question, “To whom shall we go?” and realized there’s no one else to go to, for there’s only one Truth.
For me anyway, my feelings on dark nights of the soul are this: sometimes it might be hard to believe it’s true. But it’s impossible to believe it’s not true.
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