The Gift of Mystical Darkness
On the spiritual path, there is a certain phase that seekers have described which reveals deep anguish and feelings of separation from the Lord. At the time of meditation, the disciple’s inner world is filled with an intense darkness and his heart feels cold, empty and alone. The disciple longs intensely to meet the Radiant Form within, but feels incapable, as he believes his devotion is lacking. At times, the disciple may even feel abandoned or orphaned by the Lord.
Mystics and saints who have gone through this phase describe their pain using different metaphors such as: “the dark night of the soul” or “the cloud of unknowing.” Saint Thérèse of Lisieux wrote:
He allowed my soul to be overwhelmed with darkness, and the thought of Heaven, which had consoled me from my earliest childhood, now became a subject of conflict and torture. This trial did not last merely for days or weeks; I have been suffering for months, and I still await deliverance. I wish I could express what I feel, but it is beyond me. One must have passed through this dark tunnel to understand its blackness.
The Story of the Soul
What does one do during this most painful phase of the spiritual journey? How does one focus on meditation when faced with such unbearable inner pain? The mystics who went through this painful experience show us by example that they persevered in their spiritual practice despite how they felt. They begged for forgiveness for feeling abandoned by the Lord and asked for strength to go through this agonizing phase. They knew that it was only amidst their dark, empty prayers that the Lord would hear their cries of help, and so they continued with faith to knock and knock, persistently for as long as they needed to, until the Lord responded.
Those of you who find yourselves in this predicament need to comfort yourselves. Patiently persevere and do not let yourselves get upset. Trust in God, who does not abandon those who seek him with a simple and righteous heart. He will not neglect to give you what you need for your path until he delivers you in that clear, pure light of love. You are meant to receive this great gift, yet it is only through the dark night of the spirit that he will bring you to it.
Saint John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul
The Masters explain to us that spiritual darkness is, in fact, a blessing in disguise. It is during this phase that we grow spiritually. We learn that we cannot accomplish the spiritual journey without the guidance and presence of our Beloved, thereby teaching us to believe in the Master’s grace. By going through the furnace of dryness, the pain of longing, our love for the Master becomes stronger and we develop the strength to persevere in our spiritual practice. When we diligently practise because we want to follow his instructions, because we want to please the Master, we are, in effect, building a strong foundation for our spiritual life. Our faith is strengthened and our meditation becomes our greatest treasure.
The mystics explain to us that this darkness does not imply that the inner Master is absent, for he never leaves his disciple; they assure us that the Master leads the disciple every step of the way throughout the spiritual journey, even when the disciple does not feel his presence. The darkness is there to teach us, to cleanse our inner hearts, strengthen our faith and make us fit to stand in his presence. If we were in a dark room and someone were to switch on the light suddenly, our eyes would momentarily hurt due to the brightness. In the same way, this phase prepares us to experience the true form of the Master. It is a necessary part of spiritual progress.
Suppose you are going to fill some holder or container, and you know you will be given a large amount. Then you set about stretching your sack or wineskin or whatever it is. Why? Because you know the quantity you will have to put in it, and your eyes tell you there is not enough room. By stretching it, therefore, you increase the capacity of the sack, and this is how God deals with us. Simply by making us wait, he increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us.
Saint Augustine, as quoted in When the Well Runs Dry
Meditating in the ‘dark night’ is about being fully present in the tender, emptiness of our souls. It is not about turning away from the pain but learning to rest in it. As we grow spiritually, we begin to love the darkness and feel the need to pray more because we truly believe that beyond this veil, the Master awaits us with open arms. We begin to realize that the pain, longing and agony is part of the Lord’s plan to mould us into perfect beings. In time, we understand that the darkness is there to fill us with the light of the Lord’s love. If it were not for the darkness, we would not persevere for the Light; without his absence, we would not yearn for his presence.
It is through this mystical darkness that we travel towards the Light. Moreover, just as the metaphors imply, we understand that this pain and agony is just a temporary phase, and we accept whatever spiritual circumstances he puts us in, for ‘the dark night’ will eventually turn into the bright light of a new day; ‘the cloud of unknowing’ will make way for the sun to reappear.