The Dark Night of the Soul

This is the second in a series of meditations inspired by

Barbara Brown Taylor's book, Learning to Walk in the Dark.

Scripture can be found here...


By my count, it’s happened to me at least three times. This was the first time.

I was seventeen years old, a freshman at Boston College, a school I loved, in a great city. I’d been accepted into the University Chorale, and was rehearsing solos for the Vivaldi “Gloria.” My biology major didn’t yet feel like a huge mistake. I had great roommates, people I love and good friends still.

And yet, one fall night as I was walking from lower campus to upper, past beautiful grey stone buildings, crunching through crisp fall leaves, I abruptly felt a little like you do after the roller coaster passes over the crest of the mountain and starts to fall. Something inside of me dropped. Dropped away… some mental, emotional, spiritual thing I had been standing on, and which I’d thought was a big solid rock, turned out to be just a trap door, like the ones the condemned man is standing on with the hangman’s noose around his neck. And in that moment, everything I’d been sure of simply… fell away. I was terrified.

And within a second or two, I already knew what this was called. This was what John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.”

John lived in sixteenth century Spain, and he was part of the counter-Reformation. Together with Teresa of Avila, he tried to correct the abuses that were going on in monasteries… things like big fancy apartments with servants and relatives for monks and nuns from rich families.  Guess who didn’t like these attempts at reformation? John was thrown into a monastery prison for 11 months, given only bread and water to eat, and beaten. While there, he wrote his book, The Dark Night of the Soul (which became a much easier project after a kindly jailer provided him with ink and paper).

It’s reasonable to assume that John’s book is a memoir of the worst period of his life, a description of suffering that was ultimately rewarded by John’s unwavering faith in God. But that’s not exactly the case. In fact, John doesn’t talk about his faith. Instead, he tells a passionate love story in which God is, as Barbara Brown Taylor describes it, “the most elusive lover of all.” She goes on,

One of the central functions of the dark night, [John says,] is to convince those who grasp after things that God cannot be grasped. In John’s native Spanish, his word for God is nada. God is no-thing. God is not a thing. And since God is not a thing, God cannot be held on to. God can only be encountered as that which eclipses the reality of all other things.[i]

For myself, I was instantly aware of the truth of this in my own dark night. I had thought I could grasp God. The creeds and the prayers with which I’d grown up… the bible stories that described people’s encounters with God, the stories about Jesus and his followers. The comfort of familiar rituals. All these things had lulled me into the idea that I had a grip on my faith, and that meant, having a grip on God.

But God is not a thing to be grasped. God is a reality to be encountered.

The dark night can descend following a great loss, or during a time leading up to a big decision. It can emerge during almost any life phase, and the only consistent quality it seems to have is a sense of not knowing and not having any control. As Taylor notes, this might mean it’s time to see a doctor, to make sure all is well with the mysteries of the chemistry of the brain. And if all is well in that department… it may be best to hunker down in the darkness and realize: What is happening is actually a gift.

John emphasizes that the dark night is intended for our liberation. It’s about freeing us from our ideas about God, our fears about God, our attachment to all the benefits we’ve been promised for believing in God, our sure cures for doubting God. All these things and more actually become a kind of spiritual pillow between us and an encounter with the Divine.  They’re substitutes for God. They get in God’s way.[ii]

I can’t tell you what bad news this felt like to me, when I was smack in the middle of it. I remember going over to a friend’s house to complain, actually, about my not-knowing, my not having clarity. And she listened, and then she finally, hesitatingly said, “Maybe you need to accept that you are in a time of not-knowing. And that you won’t know until you know.”

For some reason, that lifted a part of the burden from me. Once I knew I was in a place of not-knowing, I no longer felt all the weight of what I thought I should know or do, and instead, was able to simply be.

The dark night of the soul invites us to simply be.

There is nothing harder. And there is nothing more liberating.

I also found this psalm, Psalm 88, liberating, because it did not insist on a happy, knowing, understanding ending. It is a psalm of lament, and almost all such psalms end with a statement of conviction that God will set things right, and that God is most worthy of praise. (And I do trust that God will, and God does, and God is.) But this psalm is truer for some moments in our lives, especially that last line. Our translation says, “my companions are in darkness.” I far prefer the Message paraphrase (by Eugene Peterson) “The only friend I have left is Darkness.”

Hello Darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again.[iii] There is no better moment for such a thing. To simply be, to give up on the idea of managing God, or gaming God, or pleading effectively for God to come out, come out, wherever you are… to let go of those things and befriend that spiritual darkness is not something any of us thinks we want to do. And yet, if we can, something profoundly new and surprising is made possible.

Yes, they were nights of great loss. Yes, the soul suffered from fearful subtraction. Yes, a great emptiness opened up where I had stored my spiritual treasures. And yet. And yet what? And yet what remained when everything was gone was more real than anything I could have imagined. I was no longer apart from what I sought. I was a part of it, or in it… There was no place else I wanted to be.[iv]

That fall night in 1978, I took a detour on my walk to upper campus, and stopped in Saint Joe’s Chapel. (Imagine, for just a moment, what his particular dark night of the soul must have been like, Joseph, the father of Jesus. I imagine it felt like betrayal. I imagine it felt like not knowing. I imagine it took at least nine months of waiting with Darkness, his old friend.) There were lights on in the chapel, and I found a friend there. I tried to describe what was going on inside of me, and, to my relief, he didn’t try to talk me out of it. Then, I turned around and went back into the dark night. I could smell the sweet scent of a fire burning, in a fireplace, or maybe a wood stove. Somewhere, someone was home.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2014), 137-138.

[ii] Ibid., 145.

[iii] Paul Simon, “The Sound of Silence” (song), C) 1964.

[iv] Taylor, op.cit., 146.