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‘Dark nights of the soul’—illumined

From the January 2012 issue of The Christian Science Journal

A number of years ago a friend, someone I considered to be a spiritual light and inspiration, lost his faith. He’s still the wonderful, wry individual he has always been. But the journey has ceased to be a spiritual one; it has become an outright rejection of spirituality.

Though we were not close friends, I felt a kinship with him. So when his journey took a completely different direction and one of his online posts mentioned the loss of friendships held dear, I felt this loss too, and yearned to reach out. But I didn’t know how to bridge the space between. 

I struggled with this friend’s choice for a number of reasons. After all that had been shared, learned, witnessed, healed, how could there be a turning away? What did his choice mean for my own faith? 

Then there was the inner response that I hadn’t expected: almost an envy that he had been able to set aside all of his spiritual responsibilities—that his life was now somehow carefree.

And yet was it? What remains when faith seems gone? A hungry void, unanswered questions, distaste for the past? What burdens remain, what regrets to grapple with? 

I don’t know anyone of deep faith who hasn’t struggled deeply. When some of his followers turned away from his teachings, Jesus asked his disciples if they would leave too. Peter responded: “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). “To whom shall we go?” The profound experiences of faith, the transforming moments of spiritual understanding and healing—moments born of the purest seeking and surrender—leave us changed in ways we cannot measure. They enlarge the scope of our lives; they propel us to discover more.

When I embraced my spiritual path, I had no idea of the challenges this road would present, the demands that would be made, the stretching I would have to do, the refining of my heart, the quickening of my spirit. There have been days when I have struggled. But still, I would not trade a moment of it. Every tough time has brought me closer to God—has taught me about God’s unbounded grace and how it surfaces over and over as we surrender self and embrace new vantage points.

Perhaps the paradox is, that even in the toughest times, the spiritual dawnings can come with such convincing clarity, simplicity, ease, that we get frustrated when it doesn’t feel easy. When we’re grappling with the entanglements of darkness and disbelief, we’re tempted to despair over the roughness of the road. “It should not be so hard!” We plead, “Where are you, God?” We are surprised by persecution, kickback, indifference, but mostly by the struggles of our own hearts.

Several summers ago while teaching a twelve-day course on Christian Science healing, I woke in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. The words, “There is no God,” were repeating themselves over and over again with great force in my thought. I felt as though I were being held underwater.

Jesus’ message resonates today: No matter what we’re faced with, no matter how dark, how evil, how deep the disbelief—there will always be an answer. God will always be with us. 

I practically hurled myself out of bed and went downstairs. The day before had been a difficult one: A number of the students were struggling with different issues. I vowed to stay up as long as necessary, to turn completely to God—to affirm that infinite, loving Presence. I chose to anchor my thought, heart, and soul in God and nothing else.

Little by little the cold front of darkness, hate, and disbelief began to lift. I prayed for the class and for the whole world until I consciously felt that nothing could separate us from the love of God. After an hour or two, I was filled with the most profound stillness, peace, and holiness I had ever felt. I knew that all was well. I knew that God was present right where I was. Our class later that day reflected this peace.

I’m grateful for this experience. It has taught me not to be afraid of darkness or the impulse to doubt; to see that when we feel engulfed in blackness of thought and despair, it is not because there is no God. Nor is it because we have been abandoned. It is instead a call to reach deeper and higher with a purer and finer trust; to face down the beliefs of evil. And as we do, regardless of how difficult our circumstances may seem to be, we are lifted, strengthened, and equipped to help others with greater tenderness and patience.

Jesus’ experience teaches us a lot about faith, conviction, trust, and hanging in there. He didn’t beat around the bush with his students; he didn’t sugarcoat his teachings. Yet we’re often reluctant to believe him, or to see the direct relevance of his experience and teaching to our own lives. We may balk at the slightest hint of trouble; be surprised by hardship; and be tempted to feel abandoned.

Jesus’ example helps save us. There he was in the garden of Gethsemane, hours before his arrest and crucifixion. He asked his disciples to pray with him. Overcome with grief, heaviness, the darkness of hatred, they fell asleep, and then most of them ran away. Jesus prayed repeatedly: “ ‘Dear Father,’ he said, ‘all things are possible to you. Let me not have to drink this cup! Yet it is not what I want but what you want’ ” (see Mark 14:36, 39, 41, J. B. Phillips). On the cross, in the midst of anguish, he let out one final plea, “ ‘My God, my God, why did you forsake me?’ ”(Mark 15:34, J. B. Phillips). And then he died.

But it wasn’t the end of the story. God had not abandoned him, and during those three days in the sepulchre—sheltered, cared for by God’s healing presence—he rose up from death. Immediately he returned to his disciples, to assure them, to help them see the bigger picture.

Mary Baker Eddy spoke of his experience in this way: “The lonely precincts of the tomb gave Jesus a refuge from his foes, a place in which to solve the great problem of being. His three days’ work in the sepulchre set the seal of eternity on time. He proved Life to be deathless and Love to be the master of hate. He met and mastered on the basis of Christian Science, the power of Mind over matter, all the claims of medicine, surgery, and hygiene” (Science and Health, p. 44).

Jesus’ message resonates today: No matter what we’re faced with, no matter how dark, how evil, how deep the disbelief—there will always be an answer. God will always be with us, and we will see our way clear. We are never alone.

Perhaps we need numerous reminders, encouragement, whispers of divine assurance that say: “I am with you. Don’t be troubled by the days that feel hard or dark. I am with you. I will always be with you. Let these experiences take you higher, deepen you, equip you to be better; let them heal you—and bring healing to others.”

Perhaps we can learn to comfort each other more actively, be more attentive to each other’s needs, lift each other up, hold up each other’s hands as Aaron and Hur did for Moses (see Ex. 17:8–12).

In a letter to Calvin Hill, far into her eighth decade, Mary Baker Eddy wrote these words: “ ‘When first I learned my Lord’ I was so sure of Truth, my faith so strong in Christian Science as I then discovered it, I had no struggle to meet; . . . . But behold me now washing that spiritual understanding with my tears! Learning little by little the allness of Omnipotent Mind; and the nothingness of matter, yea the absolute nothingness of nothing and the infinite somethingness of ALL. O bear with me, loved one, till I accomplish the height, the depth, the Horeb light of divine Life,—divine Love, divine health, holiness and immortality. The way seems not only long but very strait and narrow” (We Knew Mary Baker Eddy, 1979 ed., p. 174).

To see the struggles of such spiritual individuals is a powerful reminder not to be daunted by the challenges we face. “Take heart,” Eddy says, “dear sufferer, for this reality of being will surely appear sometime and in some way. There will be no more pain, and all tears will be wiped away. When you read this, remember Jesus’ words, ‘The kingdom of God is within you.’ This spiritual consciousness is therefore a present possibility” (Science and Health, pp. 573–574).

Doubt, crises of faith, opposition, mockery, disbelief may feel like foreboding storm fronts and “dark nights of the soul,” but they are masking something profound and imminent: the deeper light dawning within us, waiting to transform and illumine our own lives and the world.

Joni Overton-Jung is a practitioner and teacher of Christian Science who lives in Port Hope, Ontario, Canada.

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