The Darkest Night…

Posted by on Mar 24, 2024 in Blog | 2 comments

wide road with street lights

About 40 years ago an older friend spoke to me about “the dark night of the soul” that he was going through. I had never heard the term, but he told me it was initially coined by St John of the Cross in a poem of that title. I was struck by the idea, conjuring up images of a stormy night when in the thunder, damp and gloom you temporarily lose perspective and doubt the goodness of God. Not that I related to the idea. My own life was going well – I was recently married, we had brought our first home, doors were opening up to me – there was one good thing after another.

But my friend told me that though much of his life had been lived with an awareness of God’s close presence, that had changed very suddenly. The God who was close now seemed to be the God who had evaporated; the God who opened doors now seemed to close them; the God who brought light into his life, now seemed to have disappeared into the deepest darkness. 

The social worker in me wondered if he was spiritualizing depression – making the black dog sound like a faith crisis. I advocated counselling and positive thinking and all those other things you suggest when you don’t have a solution but want to feel you have been helpful.

He wasn’t one to be fobbed off, and told me he knew the difference between depression and the dark night of the soul, because depression was an old enemy of his that over the years had turned into a friend. He knew depression’s script, and how to navigate its seasons, but this, he said, was completely different. This was spiritual. It was about a profound sense of absence. And it was awful. But it was also an invitation to trust at a completely new level. He quoted someone (I no longer remember who) saying, “It is rather a privilege to be allowed to trust God in the dark rather than to be treated like a young child in need of a night lamp.” Clearly it made an impression on me, for four decades later I can recite it back – though I googled it and it didn’t come up, so perhaps I have remembered it wrong.

Feeling somewhat out of my depth, I left the conversation thinking I had been given much to ponder, but was soon back into a lovely worship routine where raising your hands was the new mark of spiritual maturity and a sign of a genuine encounter with Jesus. I loved it. 

A few weeks later I heard news that this same friend’s wife had died. She was in her 40’s and there was no warning. He arrived home with his daughter and they found her dead on the floor after a massive coronary. I had stayed in their home a few times and she was one of the warmest and kindest women I had met. Their daughter was just 12. The dark night of the soul indeed.

How do we make sense of life’s most agonising seasons? Let’s not be trite. It was Evelyn Underhill who wrote: “If God were small enough to be understood he would not be big enough to be worshipped.” Who can dispute her wisdom?

One experience from which the people of God have sometimes drawn comfort is the dark night of the soul – counter intuitive though that may sound. Why a comfort? Because knowing you are not alone in what you are going through helps keep things in perspective.

Why might we go through the dark night of the soul? God alone knows, but perhaps these reasons might turn a flickering light on…

St John of the Cross wrote: “If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.” When we can’t see, and can’t make any sense of things, keeping on can be the deepest form of trust. It can serve a profound purpose, for the dark night of the soul is sometimes the space between who we have been and who we will become. As we commit to the deepest changes, we might feel bereft, for in that liminal space we don’t know who the “new me” will be, and are deeply aware of what we have lost. But it is a journey, and we trust the God we cannot see or experience to guide it well, even when the evidence of that is less than convincing.

Psalm 88:18 finishes with the haunting words: “You have taken from me friend and neighbor – darkness is my closest friend.” If there is any consolation in these words it is that if this is our experience, we are not alone. 3000 years ago it was the Psalmist’s lot. Perhaps we can make an amendment possible for those experiencing this. Though darkness might be their closest friend, perhaps we – their friends and neighbors – can make sure we are not removed at this time, but stay especially close.

In No Man is an Island Thomas Merton wrote that God “may be more present to us when he is absent than when He is present” And even if you can’t get your head around that, why not keep trusting in the dark?

As always, nice chatting…

This is a lightly edited version of a piece I wrote as part of a series from several contributors on God and suffering, written for the Centre for Faith and Life. This was the final post of that series. Here is a link to the first – and you can then click on the newer post button to work your way through all 7.

Jon Bergmann and I started the Centre for Faith and Life towards the end of 2020. It’s stated aim is to “promote faith without fear by providing spaces that cultivate spacious hearts and curious minds”. Don’t you love that byline “Spacious hearts – curious minds.” It reflects the posture of the Centre – it’s an online presence that is both spacious and curious. Many of those we interact with are on the margins of faith – some have been hurt and walked away, others have felt their questions were not heard. We are hoping to create additional resources for the Centre over the coming months, including a podcast series based on my soon to be released book: Stirrers and Saints. Why not give the site a visit?

Photo by Alex Fu on

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  1. Thank you, Brian, for courageously providing space for spacious hearts and curious minds.

    • Thanks Paul. If you have any material you think would sit well on the site, do be in touch.

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