In contemplative circles, whether spiritual formation, spiritual direction, or contemporary spirituality, one often comes across the phrase The Dark Night of the Soul. The phrase calls to mind a certain image and is fairly accessible to a modern mind on the surface.
But all too often it seems interchangeably used with terms like depression or suffering. We hear the phrase and automatically call to mind the worst time in our lives. Maybe we had to face a harsh reality, suffered deep and prolonged depression, or lost a loved one. But is that what this phrase refers to?
Recently an old friend of mine suggested we get together for a silent retreat to catch up, rest, and spend time in silence and meditation. We usually struggle to find a time that works with both of our schedules, but we finally managed to make it happen. We picked a retreat center about halfway for both of us and made the reservation.
I’d never been to this location before and had no idea what to expect. What were the accommodations like? Was there heat in the rooms? What would the food be like? Who would be there? Would we be expected to participate? What would we be participating in exactly? It was all pretty vague, and I don’t particularly like vague.
Since roughly puberty, one of my life’s struggles has been intermittent bouts of depression. Maybe it’s inherited, maybe it’s just my portion, or maybe it’s connected with long-time sleep issues.
Whatever its source, in daily life, I work hard to counterbalance the onset of periods of low energy, negative thoughts, and aimlessness with contemplative practices, spiritual readings, exercise, music, family, and meaningful work. Or as much meaningful work as I can muster. These keep me in rhythm, aware, grateful, at peace.
But when I slip out of this delicate rhythm my well-being can slide pretty fast. If family issues come up, or a sickness, or even a vacation or a family visit, the amount of sleep, contemplative practice, and exercise routine all suffer.
Soon after I started dating my future wife (we met in Seminary), I explained some of the ways in which my faith had been stretched, and she had a pointed question, “but you still love Jesus, right?” Having grown up overseas, I was wary of the question.
Americans in general and Evangelical subculture in particular seemed to have an addiction to sentimentality.
The agape of the Gospels, this moment to moment love-in-action springing out of rootedness in the divine so often seemed instead to refer to an intense emotional attachment.
We hear the language all the time, but what in fact did it mean to “love Christ?” What did it mean to “follow Christ?”