This Thursday, December 21st, the winter solstice, is the culmination of our march toward the longest night of the year. Our church, The Table, will have a service commemorating it. We will gather not only to acknowledge the night of the year with the greatest hours of darkness, but also the stark human experience of living in the current days of a long, dark night.
A dark night. We all likely know what it means, even if we aren’t familiar with St. John of the Cross (16 C) who conceived the term. The experience of life lived in light’s absence means for some the absence of meaningful relationships and human connection. There are others whose darkness is circumstantial—the result of difficult, painful loss and uncertainty. For others, it’s the absence of meaningful, rewarding work and/or work that pays the bills. Still for others it describes the spiritual experience of being “in the dark” in relation to God’s proximity.
However you translate a dark night for yourself, suffice it to say it’s disorienting. So what might spiritual direction offer during a dark night? Well, before I answer this question, I must clarify first what spiritual direction isn’t and is. Contrary to how it may sound, spiritual direction isn’t one person telling another person which way to go. Spiritual direction actually refers to the “direction of the Spirit” within us. It asks, “Which way is the Spirit directing you right now?”
So how or where is the Spirit directing us during a dark night? If you’re looking for a formula to answer this question, I’m sorry to say you’re out of luck. But if you’re willing to consider some general navigational guidelines, then spiritual direction might offer a few. As we’ve often said, questions are the “power tools” of a spiritual director. So, here are three questions to consider as you navigate your longest, darkest night.
1. What grace might God be inviting you to offer yourself as you acclimate to the dark?
I’m sure you’ve noticed that whenever you walk out into a starless night, or even into a very dark room, it takes time to acclimate to the darkness. Our senses need time to adjust to the absence of light. Yet once they do, suddenly a very dark space doesn’t seem quite as dark, quite as foreboding. Yes?
So the question, “What grace might God be inviting you to offer yourself as you acclimate to the dark?” is important, largely because we have a bad habit of not being very gracious with ourselves. The dark makes us nervous, fearful, anxious because we can’t see what’s going on. We often panic during a dark night and assume that we’ve done something wrong to end up in such an ominous place.
So grace can look like taking time to acclimate to what’s happening or not happening. Grace can look like breathing deeply and slowing down. Grace can look like reassuring yourself that you will be okay—that you’re not alone. Even if you lack human connection, God is with you, whether you see evidence or not. What grace do you need to offer yourself right now?
2. What feelings, desires, and tensions do you notice emerging in the dark?
Dark nights dredge up a lot of emotions, desires, and tensions. And while this is not particularly fun to experience, if you think of all that’s dredged up as “important information,” it can actually be quite helpful. We learn a lot about ourselves during a dark night, especially our inner world of desires, motivations, and attachments—the things we cling to in order to stay afloat.
In spiritual direction, we try to cultivate a non-judgmental attitude toward what comes up. Like an investigative journalist who seeks to be unbiased, we examine these feelings and longings, drives and dependencies, and we ask, “What is this telling me about myself and what’s important to me?”
As we wrote in When Faith Becomes Sight, “Feelings make terrible masters and important messengers” (P 138). The same can be true of anything that gets whipped up from the experience of walking in the dark. So how can you notice what you’re feeling and what you most want without judging what comes up? This is a practice, if cultivated, which will serve you well while you’re journeying through a long, dark night.
3. What are some of the monsters that have appeared to you in the dark?
When I was a small child, I still recall lying in my bed at night noticing the wood grain of my door and how it would begin to swirl with ominous suggestions of monsters. The knotty holes formed eyes; the streaks of grain outlined willowy arms and bony fingers; the grotesque faces seemed to flicker with evil delight as they howled with open mouths in the darkness of my room.
Do we ever really grow out of this tendency of imagining monsters in the dark? Maybe not. It seems evident that when we’re in a long night of sadness or turmoil, we begin to feel all alone and imagine that it’s “me against the world.” Others who would like to be our companions, albeit sometimes clumsily, will become our enemy. Even God can begin to take on the features of a monster.
We imagine that if God was really good, if Christ was really with us, then “this” wouldn’t be happening. We may think to ourselves, “If I were God ( a risky proposal), I would intervene and make things right.” It’s hard to accept suffering as part of life, especially life with God. So we turn how we feel about our suffering and project those feelings of hurt, dismay, and confusion onto God. God begins to look unkind, indifferent, even ghoulish.
As we come to the winter solstice during the season of Advent, a season of waiting, may we wait for the direction of the Spirit within us—a direction that leads us to be gentle with ourselves as we acclimate; non-judgmental toward ourselves and one another in this hard place; and we remember that “there be dragons here” is a conjecture taken from old, antiquated maps that no longer serve us well.
May we meditate on and savor these words of King David in Psalm 139:11-12, The Voice.
Even if I am afraid and think to myself, “There is no doubt that the darkness
will swallow me, the light around me will soon be turned to night,”
You can see in the dark, for it is not dark to Your eyes.
For You the night is just as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are the same to Your eyes.