Late author Olga Rosmanith wrote, “You do build in darkness if you have faith. When the light returns you have made for yourself a fortress which is impregnable to certain kinds of trouble; you may even find yourself needed and sought by others as a beacon in their dark.”
The imprisonment of Saint John of the Cross in the 16th century is perhaps the most famous of dark nights. The 35-year-old Carmelite was abducted by his own monastic brothers who opposed of his reforms and kept in a windowless cell, the ceiling so low that he couldn’t stand up. He was flogged and starved, but the bulk of his despair came from his spiritual doubts. And yet it was in those bleak hours that he composed his two greatest works, “Spiritual Canticle” and “The Dark Night” – about the soul’s union with God.
Australian neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl spent three years in four concentration camps, where he lost his wife, father, mother, and brother. After his liberation he wrote the classic Man’s Search for Meaning, originally titled A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp. Frankl’s suffering inspired his “logotherapy,” based on the belief that human nature is motivated by the search for a life purpose. His concept established the founding principles of positive psychology.
The Waiting Place
It is my belief that the rebirth that follows so many dark nights has to do with humility, a gift that grants us insight that we can’t come by when we are comfortable. Time in the waiting place – when we have our noses pressed up against the grainy corner of life – contains the irritants needed to produce our pearl.
When I’m in the time-out, I am convinced that I will die there, of course – that no life exists outside of that dreadful corner. Like the time a babysitter told my daughter that she absolutely could not get up from the table until she ate her broccoli. My husband and I returned to find her asleep at the table, her plate shoved aside.
However, my own experience and the testimony of other people tell me that Rosmanith is right. There is potential in those dark hours to build an inner fortress that can serve us when our time-out is lifted. If we persevere with hope through weeks or months or years of fear and uncertainty, we return to our routines and responsibilities standing on a foundation that is less vulnerable to the incidentals of life.
When I look back at the seasons of my life where I was least “productive,” quantified by the amount of work generated, I see they were actually the most fruitful in the things that matter: establishing my identity as a child of God, learning to be present the people I love the most, growing in faith, and recognizing how I might become more an instrument of God and less an agent of my own desires.
Just as soil needs time to rest and replenish its nutrients in order to produce quality crops, we need periods of quiet and stillness to remind us of the pecking order of things here on earth … “there but for the grace of God go I.” But it usually happens the other way around – our sense of control is shattered by something really painful, and then we retreat to prayer to get our bearings.
Only in our most desperate hours are we usually able to tap that raw abandonment that gives us a sense of peace.
In her book The Breath of the Soul, Joan Chittister, OSB, writes, “It is possible that there is nothing that teaches prayer more quickly, more effectively than having nothing to pray for that can possibly happen. We are lost in the land of nowhere to go but God, not to change the circumstances of our lives but to change our whole attitudes about what life is really about.”
I am no expert at disciple–I failed two sessions of dog training—but I know the purpose of a time-out is to learn a lesson. If Little Timmy is rewarded with Twizzlers and tootsie rolls after shoving his buddy, chances are good he will do it again or worse. But if the corner is so stark that it seems intolerable, the young guy just might learn civil conduct.
A dark night isn’t necessarily a result of bad behavior, but the degree of discomfort can still teach us something. We do a life review. We reprioritize. We realize what we absolutely need to survive, and what we don’t. Pain plays a critical role in all of this. If the time-out is effective, we operate in a new way once our lives resume some normalcy.
We may get too comfortable again. We may forget the lessons we learned and require another stretch of time in the corner to set us straight. However, if we persevere, the adjustments we made while staring at a wall or walking in the dark will stick, and we gradually evolve into the people we want to become. We have built our fortress of faith, hope, and love that sustains us in good times and in bad.