Growth Through Dark Nights

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

During my last years of seminary training, I attended a series of lectures given by a prominent Polish psychologist, Casmir Dabrowski, teaching at the time at the University of Alberta. He had written a number of books around a concept he called “positive disintegration”.

Positive disintegration. Isn’t that an oxymoron? Isn’t disintegration the opposite of growth and happiness?

It would seem not. A canon of wisdom drawn from the scriptures of all the major world religions, mystical literature, philosophy, psychology, and human experience tells us that the journey to maturity and compassion is extremely paradoxical and that mostly we grow by falling apart.

Ancient myths talk about the need sometimes to “descend into the underworld”, to live in darkness for a while, to sit in ashes so as to move to a deeper place inside of life; the mystics talk about “dark nights of the soul” as being necessary to bring about maturity; Ignatius of Loyola teaches that there is a place for both “consolation” and “desolation” in our lives; the philosopher, Karl Jaspers, suggests that the journey to full maturity demands that we sometimes journey in “the norm of night” and not just in “the norm of day”; the Jewish scriptures assure us that certain deep things can only happen to the soul when it is helpless and exposed in “the desert” or “the wilderness” and that sometimes, like Jonah, we need to be carried to some place where we’d rather not go “in the dark belly of the whale”; and, perhaps most challenging of all, we see that Jesus was only brought to full compassion through “sweating blood in Gethsemane” and then dying a humiliating death on the cross.

All of these images point to the same deep truth, sometimes in order to grow we must first fall apart, go into the dark, lose our grip on what’s normal, enter into a frightening chaos, lose our everyday securities, and be carried in pain to a place where, for all kinds of reasons, we weren’t ready to go to on our own.

Why? Isn’t there a more pleasant route to maturity?

James Hillman answers this with this image: The best wines have to be aged in cracked, old barrels. And so too the human soul, it mellows, takes on character, and comes to compassion only when there are real cracks, painful ones, in the body and life of the one who carries it. Our successes, he says, bring us glory, while our pain brings us character and compassion. Pain, and sometimes only pain, serves to mellow the soul.

But almost every instinct inside of us resists this wisdom. We don’t like living in tension, try at all costs to avoid pain, fear chaos, are ashamed of our humiliations, and panic when our old securities fall away and we are left in the dark, unsure of things. So our natural instinct is to get out of the darkness and tension as quickly as possible, before the pain has had its chance to mellow our souls, purify our hearts, bring us to a deeper level of maturity and compassion, and do its full purifying work within us.

And, sometimes, we are helped in this escape by well-meaning therapists and spiritual directors who don’t want to see us in pain and therefore try to cure the situation rather than properly care for the soul inside the situation. They want to restore us to normality and good functioning because, as Thomas Moore puts it, they can’t envision us fulfilling our fate and discovering the deeper meaning of our lives.

And so what we need when we are in a “dark night” isn’t the well- intentioned sympathy of a friend who wants to rescue us from the pain, but the wisdom of the mystics who tell us: When you lose your securities, when you find yourself in an emotional and spiritual free-fall, when you are in the belly of the whale, let go, detach yourself, let the pain carry you to where it needs to take you, don’t resist, rather weep, wail, cry, and put your mouth to the dust, and wait. Just wait. You are like a baby being weaned from its mother’s breast and forced to learn a new way of nourishing yourself. Anything you do to stop what’s happening will only delay the inevitable, the pain that must be gone through in order come to a new maturity.

Thomas Moore, in a recent book on Dark Nights of the Soul, offers this advice to anyone undergoing this kind of crisis of soul: “Care rather than cure. Organize your life to support the process. You are incubating your soul, not living a heroic adventure. Arrange your life accordingly. Tone it down. Get what comforts you can, but don’t move against the process. Concentrate, reflect, think, and talk about your situation seriously with trusted friends.”

Or, as Rainer Marie Rilke would advise: “Don’t be afraid to suffer, give the heaviness back to the weight of the earth; mountains are heavy, seas are heavy.”