“[The dark night of the soul] is a time of special vulnerability,
not only the kind that makes you feel weak,
but also the kind that opens you to signals in the world around you…
You may think that the time spent in a dark night is a waste.
You accomplish nothing… [but] you need to see
the waste of your life as having a place in the nature of things.”
Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul,
Talking about spiritual suffering
It’s been difficult to write about spirituality over the last year. Mostly that’s because I haven’t been feeling very spiritual, and that can be difficult to admit — especially as someone who makes my living as a religious leader.
Our spiritual lives are intimate parts of our selves, parts that are often difficult to express in words. Working in ministry, I continue to be amazed at the depth and unique complexity of the spiritual lives of every person I encounter.
So, why is it so hard to say when we’re suffering spiritually?
A missing conversation
One of the main challenges I’ve encountered in my own effort to be authentic and transparent is that we just don’t talk about spiritual sorrow very much in the church.
Sometimes it seems to fall into that category of off-limit topics in the church — like divorce, addiction, financial accountability, or racism. You don’t hear very many pastors preaching about their own “dark nights of the soul,” seasons of spiritual darkness and separation from God. Even grief can become a topic that we push to the more private corners of our worship and congregational lives.
Perhaps it’s that we’re not sure how to measure our own spiritual well-being. Or perhaps it’s something too personal to share. Still, I’ve found myself longing for more openness and conversation within my religious community about the struggle to connect with God.
And I don’t think I’m alone. Often people in conversation with me — many of them also ministers or seminarians — will quietly admit that, secretly, they don’t have any kind of prayer life to speak of, or that they don’t actually get very much out of worship.
I wonder what resonance and edification might be possible if we brought those kinds of conversations into the open.
Re-framing spiritual language
One of the most profound insights I’ve had during my own journey with spiritual atrophy is that a deadened, grieving, or strained spiritual life is still a spiritual life.
We are not spiritual beings only when we are spiritually flourishing: we are always spiritual beings, no matter what our spiritual state.
One of the most helpful exercises for me has been identifying new images for God as my personal faith shifts and moves into new landscapes. Scripture, hymns, and poetry are filled with descriptions of a God that feels distant, or even entirely absent. Sometimes, we relate more to the God who forsakes us than we do to the God who shelters us under wings.
I think it is important to make sure we include these kind of dark or difficult images, names, and descriptions of God in our worship so that people who find themselves in a period of spiritual dryness may know that they are not alone in their struggle and that they may perhaps find new language for what they are experiencing. Otherwise we may unintentionally give the impression that the only God the church knows is the God of spiritual vitality and connection.
And how good it is that God is bigger than that. How good it is that, as Rilke writes, “even when we do not desire it, God is ripening.”