A Godly Depression: Dark Nights and Interior Gardens
A person’s thoughts during the Dark Night of the Soul
What is the Dark Night of the Soul to me? It’s depression–but a different kind of depression. Why should the above thoughts in the animation be going through my head? There are people who have been in failed relationships, lost parents/siblings, and could relate because of their terrible loss. They have a physical emptiness, something they could hold and touch that was there and now it’s gone. Then there’s me: Never dated, never “liked” anybody, haven’t lost anyone in the past 3 years that could leave such an emptiness in my heart. I lost my Grandpa but I’ve healed from that.
I’m not the only Christian struggling with this. It’s not new. It’s called the Dark Night of the Soul. Devout Christians feel this emptiness. It’s an unbearable feeling; It’s proof that we can never have enough of the Lord. If you think you’re praying “enough,” and then feel this emptiness, you’re probably not.
The Saints have stories of this empty feeling. What is it? Here’s a passage from the first chapter of Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross:
It must be known, then, that the soul, after it has been definitely converted to the service of God, is, as a rule, spiritually nurtured and caressed by God, even as is the tender child by its loving mother, who warms it with the heat of her bosom and nurtures it with sweet milk and soft and pleasant food, and carries it and caresses it in her arms; but, as the child grows bigger, the mother gradually ceases caressing it, and, hiding her tender love, puts bitter aloes upon her sweet breast, sets down the child from her arms and makes it walk upon its feet, so that it may lose the habits of a child and betake itself to more important and substantial occupations.
Every great Saint has gone through something like this. I read that Mother Teresa spent most of her life feeling lost and devoid of the presence of Jesus. St. Faustina struggled with it, too. This article describing St. Faustina’s experience also has a good summary of what a Dark Night is:
If, however, one truly knew what the dark night is like, he or she wouldn’t wish for it. To sum up in a few words what properly takes a book: the dark night of the soul is the feeling of utter abandonment, an interior suffering that seems as if it will never end.
That’s why a lot of people feel so utterly lonely half the time, even when everyone they love is very much alive and around them. This experience is going to benefit you in the end, but it’s not something anyone in their right mind would ask for! Nobody wants to feel like God’s abandoned them, but during a Dark Night, it truly feels like so–even though the Bible says that He’s never gone. (Christ said, “I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Matthew 28:20, RSV.) I can tell you, it happens to me all the time–and He always pulls through and uses the experience to help me. It’s kind of like the potter shaping the clay. I know I’m a better Christian because of all the times I’ve felt so empty, since He fills me up with more than He takes!
How do I get through these Dark Nights? I pray, even if it feels like a one-sided conversation. I cry if I have to. I keep going on with my duties. It’s important to read your Bible and have a devotion to the Rosary–Mother Mary will intercede and make this period of darkness end more quickly. The Rosary has always given me a feeling of God’s presence when nothing else works.
If you’re going through something like this, here are some Psalms for you to meditate on. Read them slowly. Let the meaning of each one sink in. Memorize the words if possible. (All of the following passages are from the RSV version of the Bible.)
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Let only darkness cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to thee, the night is bright as the day; for darkness is as light with thee. Psalm 139:7-12
I say to the LORD, Thou art my God; give ear to the voice of my supplications, O LORD! Psalm 140:6
I cry with my voice to the LORD, with my voice I make supplication to the LORD, I pour out my complaint before him, I tell my trouble before him. When my spirit is faint, thou knowest my way! In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me. I look to the right and watch, but there is none who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me, no man cares for me. I cry to thee, O LORD; I say, Thou art my refuge, my portion in the land of the living. Give heed to my cry; for I am brought very low! Deliver me from my persecutors; for they are too strong for me! Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to thy name! The righteous will surround me; for thou wilt deal bountifully with me. Psalm 142
*Try going through as many Psalms as you possibly can: Mark the passages that make your heart feel in the presence of the Lord, at least for a moment, so that you can come back to them next time.
Understand that, as much as the Dark Night hurts, you will rejoice after. Remember not to take the presence of the Lord for granted when He ends your test. If you let your mind wander back to worldly things, you’ll be drifting away by your own personal choice. Don’t stop reading the Bible when it’s over; let His voice be ever-present in your heart. Be consistent in prayer and know your priorities. Jesus won’t be put aside for worldly things. He wants, and He deserves your everything. He will either throw stones at your window–or wait for you to notice His absence. I wouldn’t want either of the two. I want Him with me at all times, but for that, I need to treat Him like a friend–a best friend, a confidante–and not put him aside to watch in the corner of my room, while I’m filling my heart with distractions. There should be a special part of me, an area of my heart set aside for Him alone, a part of me that nothing worldly can penetrate–only then will He be able to dwell within me, and I’ll have less Dark Nights.
It’s fitting to share another excerpt from the Dark Night:
The loving mother is like the grace of God, for, as soon as the soul is regenerated by its new warmth and fervour for the service of God, He treats it in the same way; He makes it to find spiritual milk, sweet and delectable, in all the things of God, without any labour of its own, and also great pleasure in spiritual exercises, for here God is giving to it the breast of His tender love, even as to a tender child.
Start working on a special place in your heart where only Jesus can enter. We’ll call it a garden. Weed out the distractions; plant the flowers of prayer and thanksgiving. Scripture memorization is important for this. If you plant a Scripture in your heart, it’ll grow and blossom into something beautiful. If you can’t find the gates to your interior garden, ask Mother Mary to show you the way. She knows how badly Jesus wants to be with you! As His mother, she’ll do the favor for both of you. She’ll help arrange for a meeting-place with your Loving Savior, but only after you decide that you have time for Him.
Your depression will lift as your garden flourishes. Depending on the person, it could take weeks or years. Keep searching for it; then, don’t forget to water the seeds you’ve planted. It’s hard to start a garden, so don’t let it die.
Tip: Ask St. Therese the Little Flower for help with your garden! Here’s a great page of pictures and quotes from her.
Ah! If God had not showered His beneficent rays upon His little flower, she could never have accustomed herself to earth, for she was too weak to stand up against the rains and the storms. She needed warmth, a gentle dew, and the springtime breezes. Never were these lacking. Jesus had her find them beneath the snow of trial!
You know, dear Mother, how much I love flowers; when making myself a prisoner at the age of fifteen [when Therese entered Carmel of Lisieux], I gave up forever the pleasure of running through the fields decked out in their springtime treasures. Well, never in my life did I possess so many flowers as after my entrance into Carmel. It is the custom for fiancés to often give their fiancées bouquets and Jesus didn’t forget it. He sent me in great abundance sheaves of corn flowers, huge daisies, poppies, etc., all the flowers that delighted me the most. There was even a little flower called corn-cockle which I had never found since our stay at Lisieux; I wanted very much to see it again, that flower of my childhood which I had picked in the fields of Alencon. And at Carmel it came to smile at me again and show me that in the smallest things as well as the greatest, God gives the hundredfold in his life to those souls who leave everything for love of Him.
-St. Therese the Little Flower
Not a Carmelite nun? Create a garden anyway in your heart where you can retreat! It is a place for you and Jesus only!
The Dark Night of the Soul today has increased with more distractions and less time in one’s daily life for prayer. Society’s pushing Jesus away. Make Him a place in your heart, a garden where the Holy Spirit can dwell. The difference will be radical. God will send you less Dark Nights when you have more time with Him in the first place. Cooperate with the training and don’t be lazy with prayer. If you come to Him, He will come to you.
One last passage to meditate on:
I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. John 14:18-20, RSV
So start building that garden already!