Sometimes, your best efforts just won’t bear fruit. No matter how hard you pray, how persistently you network, how creatively you market, the right job or client just isn’t there. If you’re fortunate enough to have a job or client, sometimes things just don’t work out in myriad painful ways.
St. John of the Cross called times like this “the dark night of the soul.” However the challenge manifests, there’s a sense that you’re at the end of your road. Whatever spiritual practices worked in the past don’t work now. Just when you need clear guidance, you’re more clueless than you may dare to admit.
That, as St. John wrote, is as it should be. Sometimes, the only way to deal with pain is to stop trying to understand it, and simply experience it. It’s as if we’ve taken all our spiritual wisdom to its edge, and the only way to find our next step is to go past all we think we know, into the darkness of unknowing. Only then can we see the faint light in our own heart, guiding us to whatever wisdom we need next.
The Dark Night of the Soul Is Rich
Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, showed us how even in the midst of great suffering (for him, it was Auschwitz and the loss of most of his family to concentration camps), we can choose how we deal with circumstances. By finding our own meaning, we become empowered and courageous.
Yet there is a limit to what we can individually do, no matter now courageous or inspired we are. We don’t create all our own reality, and sometimes the most effective thing we can do is to stop trying to “reframe” what is, and simply be present to ultimate reality, to the eternal presence, to consciousness itself.
Such a stance requires humility, receptivity and letting go the ego’s focus on itself, including our particular dramas of the moment. That’s not easy.
A Personal Experience of the Dark Night of the Soul
My life’s work coalesced in the early 1990’s, when my husband John was frequently out of work. Just to pay the bills I took a legal secretarial job (which paid more than more interesting paralegal work) in a corporate law firm. Shortly after, the first of three relatives became mortally ill back east. Our cat also became ill, requiring expensive veterinary care and frequent injections of fluids under his skin.
Often, I tried to give John a vision for how he could solve his vocational problems, so I wouldn’t have to do so much overtime to pay for all those trips back east. That our marriage survived is due to friends who could confront as well as support, to John’s basic goodness, and to the strength of the vows we had taken.
Finally, I began practicing what I had learned in graduate school under theologian Matthew Fox. Matt often quoted Meister Elkhart’s statement that God is Isness. That same statement has been used by Zen masters and others, recognizing God as ultimate reality, or constant presence. Truly, in the vernacular, “it is what it is.”
Matt often defined the spiritual journey as a constant interplay of the wonder and joy of the Via Positiva and the need to let go and let be in the darkness, suffering and silence of the Via Negativa. Out of this interplay of the positive and negative come the Via Creativa (self explanatory!) and the Via Transformativa, or compassion, interconnection, and justice-making.
Inspired by these and other teachings, I prayed to apply them in my job. Over time I discovered that this huge law firm was filled with kindred spirits. I also discovered the soul of law, along with my call to serve that soul. When John found a job as research director of a spirit and work resource guide, I was ready to see clearly my true place in life.
Much as We Try to Avoid It, We All Need to Go Through Many Dark Nights of the Soul
As a culture, we create a lot of pain by trying to avoid it. Sometimes, painful things just have to be faced for what they are, not “reframed” into something seemingly more positive, or medicated away. Instead of blaming ourselves or others because something we deem bad has happened, sometimes it’s more important to accept both how much and how little we can control things like the economy.
Here’s my dream: instead of pressuring ourselves or our leaders to come up with a quick solution to problems, we support each other to be more prayerful and reflective. Instead of individually and collectively maintaining a desperation to know it all, we help each other through the humble frustration of knowing that right now, we’re not clear about the best path towards ending war, creating jobs, or anything else. Then into that field of unknowing, we plant our most powerful and true desire to see clearly what’s best.
Hopefully, this is just the beginning of a larger discussion. I pray you join me in your own reflections about the dark night of the soul and how it applies to your life, work and financial dealings. Hopefully, we can then help each other go through those scary times when being clueless is absolutely the right way to be. Only then can we come through to new vision.
As always, many blessings,
Pat McHenry Sullivan