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MAN OF THE HOUSE | Learning to be grateful for spiritual darkness

Back when my depression overwhelmed me with its most vicious roar, I often woke up in the morning and immediately cursed the daylight. “Why did I wake up?” I would say in my head. “Why did I have to live through the night?”

Those initial thoughts clearly had nothing to do with God. Instead, they involved how I ever would make it through the next 24 hours.

Praise God, that roar has sounded more tame lately. I’ve been able to hear the urging of the Holy Spirit.

“As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God” (Psalm 42:2).

During those darkest times, my soul was longing for God. I just couldn’t tell, not overtly in a way that provided immediate consolation. That has changed. Dramatically. Every morning the last several months, I’ve awakened with thoughts of God.

“My soul thirsts for God, the living God. When can I enter and see the face of God?” (Psalm 42:3)

The Psalmist compared a deer panting out of great thirst to the way his soul longed for God. For years, I consistently have prayed for that powerful feeling. God rewarded my perseverance occasionally, for fleeting moments, with such an experience. But I ached for more, for deeper, for longer lasting.

The prevalence of the darkness actually made it feel familiar after a while, almost comfortable. Despite maintaining hope for otherwise, I quite frankly didn’t expect any lengthy breakthrough of light.

“My tears have been my bread day and night, as they ask me every day, ‘Where is your God?’” (Psalm 42:4)

I wish I were the only person to experience spiritual darkness — which never has been a symptom of my mental depression. No more than the darkness experienced for most of her life was a signal of mental illness in St. Teresa of Kolkata. Same for St. Therese of Lisieux, who knew lengthy stretches of “complete aridity” as well as another of my spiritual heroes, St Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, and her five painfully dry years.

St. John of the Cross, perhaps my most admired spiritual guide, famously called such bitterness “the dark night.”

Canonized saints don’t have exclusive rights to this prolonged desolation, frustration and suffering in the soul. I’ve met many Catholic brethren who try to pray diligently, endeavor to grow closer to the Lord, but feel like they are talking into a vast emptiness. I have heard from dozens of people who say they completely understand the painful aridity amid temptation to give up.

“Why are you downcast, my soul; why do you groan within me? Wait for God, for I shall again praise Him, my savior and my God” (Psalm 42:6).

Yes, it is a distinct, tangible darkness. Every once in a while, the darkness disappears — only for a moment — when something forces the light switch on and, look — there is God in the room with me. He has been there all the time, for some reason sitting silently but always just a whisper away. The room quickly returns to black and again I am left alone, so it seems, for days … weeks … maybe months. And I feel alone. Yet I stay.

The light switch flips on again, without warning, and I delight in the sight of my Lord, the sound of His voice, the warmth of His Presence.

Here’s the thing: The more often this happens, the less anxious I feel in waiting for the darkness to be dispelled. I’ve learned to just sit in joyful anticipation.

I’ve learned to be grateful for the darkness, the dryness, when it appears. To embrace it. To consider it a great gift of love. Because I’ve come to understand that the dark night was God’s way of teaching me deeper trust in Him, in developing a more powerful faith, to know that just because I can’t see, feel or hear Him, still He is present.

St. John wrote that the dark night “is most fitting and necessary, if the soul is to pass to these great things.”

Where is my God? He’s right there, from the moment I awaken every day. Always ready to quench my spiritual thirst.

Eisenbath is a parishioner at St. Cletus Parish in St. Charles.

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