Are You Experiencing a Spiritual Dark Night?

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Call it a prayer answered in an unexpected way.

For me, it started with a guy, as always. I had prayed for a guy to see that I was meant for him. My prayer was three words: “Let him see.”

If you’re praying for someone else to change, it signals your own need to change.

Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” Sometimes what you ask God to do for another is ultimately what you need yourself. If you’re praying for someone else to change, it signals your own need to change.

So God’s answer to my prayer came in two parts. The first was for me to see the guy differently, and the second was more difficult — to experience God differently.

The first part of the answer took about three years of a lot of reflection and suffering. My friend said, “You’ve got to see him for the liar he is.” I had so much emotional investment in the relationship that I didn’t want to admit I was wrong about him. I was embarrassed that I had been “had,” and I wanted to “prove” to others that I was right. I wanted things my way.

God pulls you away from someone or something that is interfering with your faith.

This was my first experience with what St. John of the Cross calls the “Night of the Sense,” described in his book, The Dark Night of the Soul. I devoured the book while licking my wounds after the break-up. The book uses a lot of “thither” and “wont” language that was incredibly difficult to understand, but it was a balm to my pain.

The Night of the Sense is the first of two “nights” calling you to a deeper walk with God. In this first night, God pulls you away from someone or something that is interfering with your faith. Although the book allowed me to loosen my grip on my past relationship, there was still a lot of work to be done on me.

I would fall for two more guys after that, even though the intensity wasn’t the same. God held each of them just far enough away so I wouldn’t be hurt as badly as before. I was still productive in most aspects of my life, even though love remained elusive.

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I eventually would move up north, free from the emotional attachments that haunted me during my era in the Deep South. Rather than jump onto dating sites, I found a group that was starting a 30-week Ignatian Spirituality practice. God was now calling me to experience Him differently. This was the second part of my answered prayer.

During this practice of imaginary prayer, I kept asking for clarity. My weekly meetings with the group had me sharing the same thing — that my life was unclear. There were so many times when I would just sit in the dark for 30 minutes, and my mind imagined nothing. Every day I would wake up dreading going to work, yet I would remain faithful to the prayer. I had reflected a lot on how I lived my life, and I was experiencing regret.

Each day was similar. My group leaders kept me hopeful that some clarity would emerge. But I remained in the dark. I was so jealous that so many other people had found their purpose, and I was on the cusp of turning 50 with no clue of my own.

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Nothing excited me. There was a deep, dark hole inside. Yet I endured because I began to notice a stillness that I hadn’t experienced before. It was far from heavy, but instead it was a feeling of grounding and centeredness.

We might not be aware we are going through it until it has passed.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was experiencing further purging in the Night of the Sense. Gerald May, a psychiatrist who wrote several companion books to The Dark Night of the Soul, emphasizes the obscurity of the Dark Night. We might not be aware we are going through it until it has passed. He writes, “When the first glimmerings of contemplation are born, they are so dark and delicate that a person is likely to overlook them altogether.”

St. John sets forth three signs that we might have entered the Dark Night. It’s important for us, though, to distinguish this from depression. St. John writes that one who is depressed has no desire to serve God, whereas the desire to serve God is maintained in the Dark Night. May explains the distinction.

[A] person’s sense of humor, general effectiveness, and compassion for others are not usually impaired in the dark night as they are in depression. There is also often a sense that down deep, people really wouldn’t trade their experience of the dark night for more pleasure — it’s as if at some level they sense the rightness of it…I never felt the negativity and resentment I often felt when working with depressed people.

May does, however, suggest that often there is an overlap.

The first sign is similar to depression in that the person finds no pleasure in things. However, not finding pleasure does not equate to pain, although it might include a feeling of yearning for lost pleasure. My experience felt more like a numbness or “aridity,” according to St. John.

I had developed unhealthy attachments to men in my life to the point that it caused significant disruption to my personal and professional life. By drawing pleasure away from my attachments — I no longer felt the “thrill” of meeting someone new — it was like losing taste in something. St. John calls it “insipidity.”

Last summer a friend wanted to set me up on a date. If this had been my 17-year-old self, I would have leaped at the chance, calling or texting her several times a day wondering when we would be set up. I kind of agreed “ok,” but deep down I wasn’t interested. Again, it wasn’t sadness or depression that kept me away, just a lack of interest.

Eckhart Tolle describes his experience as an erosion of what the ego self considered to be important.

[Y]ou had built up your life, and given it meaning — and the meaning that you had given your life, your activities, your achievements, where you are going, what is considered important, and the meaning that you had given your life for some reason collapses.

St. John describes the second sign to be the concern about not serving God. In the past, I might have felt joy in doing things for God, even feeling great consolation in prayer. But since I no longer felt that sense of consolation or reward, I felt like my soul was, as St. John writes, “backsliding, because it finds itself without the sweetness in the things of God.”

St. John differentiates this purgative aridity from lukewarm faith. Lukewarm faith is not caring about the things of God, whereas this arid state still cares, but feels no progress because there is nothing in the senses to indicate God’s presence.

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This was the most frustrating part — the idea that I was spending 30 weeks in this “retreat,” but I felt like I was going nowhere. I even reported this in my notes. I didn’t want to do something different, I just wanted to sit in quiet peace. I didn’t want my mind to “do” anything. It almost hurt when I would sit and try to imagine myself entering a part of the gospel. My soul was just saying, “Just let me be.”

The third sign John describes is the lack of imagination in the senses. Whereas God might have previously communicated via the senses, providing beautiful reflections in prayer, these are withdrawn as well. As much as I tried, I couldn’t jumpstart my imagination in prayer. What is going on is that God is communicating through the spirit, beyond the senses.

The Night of the Sense isn’t just one night. It can be an extended period of time in one’s life. Because God knows where we are in our faith, He knows when to give us reprieve. Therefore, this Night of the Sense might not occur all at once.

There might be several stretches where waxing and waning of the senses might occur. In one season, prayer might be arid, yet others are filled with imagination. If you are entering this night, the waxing and waning are not caused by your actions. In other words, it’s nothing you “do” to make prayer more arid or imaginative. The seasons in the Night of the Sense are determined by God.

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St. John writes that the soul experiences suffering not because of the aridities themselves, but that the old ways of the past no longer bring pleasure. Our attachments begin to lose power over us. We don’t feel compelled to retreat to our ways in the past, but we also don’t feel compelled to try anything different. It feels, in terms of the senses, like no man’s land.

Our attachments begin to lose power over us.

I desperately wanted to stop my Ignatian Retreat because I yearned for consolation. I wanted to try something different, something that would “wow” me. St. John warns if we try to do something to change this process, it will hinder God’s progress. He compares it to a painter trying to paint a portrait. If the subject moves constantly, the painter’s work is disrupted. So I endured the aridity.

St. John gives us confidence that if we endure the Night of the Sense, we will acquire a little more self-knowledge and awareness. We become aware of the attachments and sensory experiences that caused us suffering. We recognize which choices led us to our spiritual (and sometimes mental, physical, or financial) downfall.

The door to our inner sanctuary remains locked if we seek self-gratification.

Thomas Merton stresses the importance of these Dark Nights as integral to a life in contemplation. In his book, The Inner Experience, Merton writes that our attachments inhibit us from connecting with our spirit. “[O]ne cannot find one’s inner center and know God as long as one is involved in the preoccupations and desires of the outward self.”

The door to our inner sanctuary remains locked if we seek self-gratification. The Dark Night chips away at this self-imposed lock, removing the mental and physical “stuff” that limits our ability to open the door and see clearly. Buddhist nun Pema Chodron describes this path⁠ as “shedding, not collecting.” This seems counterintuitive to a materialistic culture hell-bent on accumulating.

Ultimately we submit to this path because we’ve tried others and have fallen short. We become aware of how our ego has puffed itself up with pride, but now we are called to deflate the ego. This humility — knowing that we haven’t always made the wisest of choices — is what draws us closer to God.

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Because the Night of the Sense pulls away sensory pleasures, it gives us light to see what motivates our behaviors. We recognize that we can stay where we are in illusion, or we can endure the Dark Night to see what new paths emerge from our adventure. As May writes, “[T]he feelings of aridity and emptiness are the birth pains of a freer life and deeper prayer.”

Because we are recognizing our faults, we acknowledge that to walk with God, we have to clean up our act. Yoga maintains the practice of brahmacarya, which includes engaging in self-control to “walk with God.” Even when Moses spoke with God, Moses had to take off the sandals of his desires and pleasures.

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We also experience a sense of newness, as if we are experiencing things for the first time. Our senses are detoxified, cleansed, and purified. Tolle calls it a “re-birth.”

You look upon events, people, and so on with a deep sense of aliveness. Your sense the aliveness through your own sense of aliveness, but you are not trying to fit your experience into a conceptual framework anymore.

This night also cultivates virtues such as patience, long-suffering, and fortitude. Sloth also loses its grip. We calm the passions of grief, hope and fear. We let go of the sensual desires. We cease all the struggles of the inner mind.

My prayer for someone else to change brought me to this deeper understanding of God. My practice of prayer no longer requires words, although they sometimes help.

Enduring the Dark Night opened up a profound peace beyond understanding. Faith, patience, and perseverance brings quietude, or, as St. John writes, “My house being now at rest.”

Written by

Former TV person, current college professor and media researcher. Ironman triathlete, meditation teacher and yoga instructor.

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