A couple years ago, after heart issues had me in and out of the hospital, I fell into a dark place. I use the word dark to describe how sleep escaped me, and how each successive night of wide-eyed toss and turns left me weaker, more anxious and wondering if I’d ever get a full night again. The phrase, at a total loss, summed it up. After two weeks of this, I clung to a faith stretched thin and borrowed hope from a few songs and sermons. In a word, I was delirious! There wasn’t even a pin hole of light to see with. This dark night, to borrow the phrase of John of the Cross, left me with no defense, and no idea how to navigate out of it. I entered a palpable and intense agony of spirit.
If you have ever found yourself in that place, you are nodding with empathy. But if you haven’t, perhaps your curiosity over how God brought me through has been piqued. Lessons this hard tend to live long in the memory. Now, three years later, that groping journey toward hope informs many of my spiritual disciplines.
Hans Urs von Balthasar said, “Every contemplative must be prepared to experience the dark night to some degree, a sure sign he is on the path of Jesus.” Lesson one: to find oneself in that place doesn’t mean God has turned his back, and it doesn’t display weakness. It only proves that the heart wants what only God can give through the path of the Son of Man. Recently, a friend seemed surprised when I told them about my being in that dark place; taken back that I had found myself there, curious as to why because it seemed to him ‘my life was so strongly built on intimacy with Christ.’ My response was, that unless I had been deeply connected through prayer with God, I wonder how much further I would have fallen into that abyss. Contemplative prayer was about all that held me together, kept me in hope of the prospect of hope again.
Lesson two: During that dark night, the person I thought I knew, the one I displayed to everyone I met, had vanished. Left staring back at me, was someone hardly recognizable. Me, yes, but someone else, as if I had been turned inside out, as though all my secrets past and present were on display, and I shuttered at the image staring back at me. God had not abandoned me, far from it. He was wooing me by teaching a new level of grace, and by doing so, was putting me back together, one step of hope at a time.
Lesson three: Last month, for the first time in three years, I took a personal retreat. I stayed at a small dwelling beside a river in the hill country outside of Austin, Texas. Remote, isolated from any conversation with anyone, I spent four days in prayer and contemplative practice. Out of that time came a list of lessons, moments where God seemed to speak back to me, either re-arranging my priorities, or affirming my convictions. One of those lessons rose higher than others and is worth mentioning here. It was something Thomas Keating said, “If we have not experienced ourselves as unconditional love, we have more work to do, because that is who we really are.”
…”THAT is who we really are!” Thank you, God, for dark nights, for in them I have re-discovered how committed you are to pouring love into me, not despite of, but according to, the darkest nights on the journey. Hope left, hope right. One step of hope at a time.
Hope left Hope right,
Hope left Hope right.
The relentless march,
Fraught with such ache and toil,
Ended where they lifted Him.
Tired, tested Son of Man,
As the tree that bore your shame
Ever loomed on horizon’s light,
Each step of faith you took, hope left, hope right
Promised me light in my darkest hours.
So now when twilight eclipses hope,
And I grab my heart in pain,
A thought like sound broken on the dawn,
Rises in me, I hear its refrain:
‘Heavy steps on this darkened road
Will cease where He trudged no more.’
Hope left, hope right,
Hope left, hope right.
My own cross I march on toward,
With Hidden Holy Dove beside me,
Evidenced by His love inside me.