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2008-02-05 issue:

When you can't pray

The dark night is a gift of God.

by Dan Schrock

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Some months ago, I was eating sandwiches with a friend who doesn’t normally pay attention to the news. Yet when I casually referred in our conversation to “the dark night,” he brightened. “Oh yes,” he interrupted, “Mother Teresa had that, didn’t she?”

I nodded. Lots of folks have heard about Mother Teresa’s dark night, thanks to recent coverage in Time magazine and other news media. While many Christians throughout history have gone through the dark night, Mother Teresa’s dark night was unusual in that it lasted 50 years.

The dark night is a special spiritual experience that has three distinguishing signs, which must occur simultaneously:

• an inability to pray in our usual way,

• a general sense of dryness in our spiritual life,

• an increasing wish to be alone in loving awareness of God.

The dark night is not due to religious doubt, psychological depression, spiritual laziness or some new and terrible sin. Instead, the dark night is a gift of God.

Carrie’s story
Carrie’s story illustrates how the dark night can unfold. Since her baptism in high school, Carrie has participated actively in the church. She has led singing, taught Sunday school, served on committees and volunteered in the congregation’s ministry to homeless people. For many years, her inner life of prayer has been equally active. Typically she has prayed for 15 minutes before going to work and 10 minutes before going to bed. In the morning she read from the Bible, then praised God, interceded for her friends and petitioned for herself. Before bedtime, she reviewed the events of her day, confessed the sins she committed and thanked God for the graces she encountered. This pattern of prayer nourished Carrie for years and kept her connected to God.

But then Carrie felt like she had walked into a desert. During prayer she had a hard time finding words, and when they finally came, the words floated into empty space, as if God had fled the universe. Hoping that the sense of God’s presence would come back if she prayed longer, she doubled the length of her prayers, but it didn’t work. God seemed to have abandoned her.

Her work at the church also became dissatisfying. Song leading felt coldly mechanical rather than attuned to the Holy Spirit. While teaching her class, the life seemed to have gone out of the Bible. Working with women at the homeless shelter, once a joy, was now drudgery. She felt spiritually flat, bereft and restless. Yearning for God, she sometimes sat in her bedroom and cried. “What’s wrong with me? Why, God, have you forsaken me?”

Two things gave her peace. The first was sitting silently by the bay window in her living room, staring at the large bed of native grasses and flowers she had planted the year before. The second was prayerfully walking an outdoor labyrinth at a retreat center near her house.
The dark night among Mennonites

Carrie (a fictitious person whose story is based on many people I’ve known) is in a dark night. In my work as a pastor and spiritual director, I’ve watched many Christians struggle through a dark night. So in 2005-2006, I completed a research project (for a doctor of ministry degree) on the dark night among Mennonites. While my research was mainly qualitative rather than quantitative, in the early phase I surveyed 160 adults in my congregation and 169 credentialed ministers in my area conference (Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference) to get preliminary data on how widespread the dark night might be.

Of the surveys returned, 40 percent of lay people in the congregation and 59 percent of ministers in the conference claimed that at some point they simultaneously experienced all three signs of the dark night. These figures should be treated cautiously because I am not trained in the methods of rigorous, quantitative research. Yet these figures—four in 10 lay people and six in 10 ministers—do suggest that the dark night happens frequently among Mennonites, though we rarely discuss it. Four-fifths of lay people said they have never known any Mennonite to talk, write, preach or teach about the dark night.

Next I interviewed 15 people who were then, or once had been, in a dark night. This group included seven lay people and eight ministers (nine women and six men), ranging in age from 24 to 82. During their dark night, most of these people felt bewildered, since little in their religious training had prepared them to understand what God does in the night or how they could cooperate with it.

From meditation to contemplation
The dark night is a gift from God that orients us more fully to light and love. God does this by lowering our interest in meditation and heightening our interest in contemplation.

Meditation refers to spiritual practices that mainly use words, images and our five senses. Examples of meditation include almost any prayer that relies on words, many forms of Bible study (although not all), memorization and Christian education classes, whether taught by lecture or discussion. Most worship services fit here as well, including traditional, contemporary, charismatic and liturgical worship. We largely control the practices of meditation, having much say about when, where and how they happen.

Contemplation, by contrast, is a loving, peaceful and transforming inflow of God that comes to us as pure gift, usually beyond words, images and our five senses. Some spiritual practices are specifically designed to open us to contemplation, including centering prayer, lectio divina, silence and walking a labyrinth. However, we cannot control when contemplation begins or ends.

During the dark night, God reduces our interest in meditation in order to increase our interest in contemplation. The process is similar to weaning infants from breast milk. When we wanted to wean our two sons, my wife and I sometimes refused to give them breast milk in order to increase their hunger for other food, such as puréed carrots. We knew they could not grow into adulthood unless they ate a variety of foods in addition to milk. We were successful. Today our sons eat many different foods, including milk and milk by-products.

Both meditation and contemplation belong to a rich spiritual life in Christ. God initiates a dark night to wean us away from a narrower range of spiritual practices (meditation) and deepen our interest in a broader range of practices (contemplation). The story of Carrie illustrates this. God reduces her satisfaction in prayers of intercession and petition in order to interest her in silent, contemplative prayer. As Carrie sits quietly gazing out her bay window, the Holy Spirit is pouring grace, love and shalom into her. The writer of Ephesians describes this as knowing “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (3:19).

My interviews of Mennonites who were in or had emerged from a dark night revealed five patterns.

1. While the dark night often appears in prayer, it can also appear in marriage, family life or the workplace.

2. People often feel confused about what is happening to them. This sense of obscurity is one reason we might call the night “obscure” rather than “dark.”

3. God acts during the dark night to purify us from our disordered attachments to power, prestige and possessions that hinder our ability to worship God with all our heart, mind and spirit (Mark 12:29-30).

4. As people emerge from the night, a new and deeper friendship with God takes shape that they have never before experienced.

5. The growth of contemplation makes people more profoundly countercultural. As contemplation roots them more securely in Christ, they become more committed to peace, forgiveness, love and justice. Their mission becomes more  pronounced.

The dark night is therefore a gift from God, though it doesn’t feel that way at first. Early on, it seems that God has forsaken us; yet we know God has not, for we can go nowhere where God is not (Psalm 139). While the night continues, God works for our good, intricately shaping us more nearly into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Over the several years of her obscure night, Carrie incorporated two other contemplative practices, lectio divina and centering prayer, into her daily life. Gradually she noticed the subtle movements of God’s presence in her life, work and church. Not only did she feel more united with Christ than ever before, but she ultimately left her job with its comfortable income and accepted a lower-income position in order to work more closely with the homeless in her city. Through the dark night, the Holy Spirit shaped Carrie to participate more fully in God’s mission.

Dan Schrock is one of the pastors at Berkey Avenue Mennonite Fellowship, Goshen, Ind. He is writing a book on the dark night and may be contacted through his Web site,

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