"My soul to God, My body to the earth, and My material possessions to my nearest relations." ~ Michelangelo's will.
Mother Theresa knew it well. Jesus experienced it on the cross. St John of the cross named it the dark night of the soul. At some point every Christian who is seeking after the Lord with everything they've got is going to hit this wall ~ & I do wish the happy~clappy lot would study the church fathers just a little bit rather than expecting everything to always be happiness & light. Not only is that not what Christ himself taught, it deprives people of the resources of those who have passed this way before us & left signposts along the way.
The Dark Night of the Soul began life as a poem by Spanish poet, mystic & carmelite Yuan de Yepes Alvarez ~St John of the Cross. St John belonged to a Spanish converso family ~ Jewish converts to the Christian faith & was in his early 20's when he joined the Carmelite order. Along with St Teresa of Avila he was responsible for reforming the Carmelite order ~ for which he was imprisoned by his fellow Carmelites, isolated & lashed before the community weekly. Yet his poem speaks of love, of the desperate seeking after God, of the mystical union between the Lover of his soul & the beloved.
This poem has become a synonym for the spiritual experience characterized by spiritual dryness, aloneness, desolation. It is, quite literally, like hitting a prayer wall! Nothing gets through, neither your prayers to God, nor God to you. It is a stripping away of everything that delights the soul as it seeks after God: the sense of His presence, the touch of the Holy Spirit, the imagination is bound & the will weakens. Even strong & experienced Christians like Mother Theresa find themselves hanging on to their faith by their fingernails. A massive cloud of depression descends like a pall ~ & that is a good metaphor. This is a spiritual death of sorts. It is a desert place.
Now in our walk with Christ there are all sorts of ups & downs. There is the initial flush of first love when we first come to know our Lord ~ but the Lord desires for his babies to grow up & become mature so we find ourselves being set very firmly on our own feet & led to strengthen our faith with knowledge, prayer, good works etc ~ all the bulwarks of the committed Christian life. There is a danger in this because we can grow complacent & our spiritual journeying grinds to a halt. This is not what God desires for His children His desire is to bring us ever closer to the inner sanctuary of His heart but we cannot enter as we are & so He lovingly prepares us for the holy of holies. As this is rarely a pleasant process we do everything we can to escape, seeking *spiritual highs*, new spiritual experiences, more dynamic worship, ecstasies...actually anything at all that prevents us from facing our own essential solitude wherein the Lord God might deal with us & bring us more fully into His presence.
That is the essential purpose of the *dark night*. It is not, despite how it seems, a punishment. It is a sanctification, a cleansing of His vessel that it might be more fully His. Many of us will experience this in a small way. Some may experience it for longer & more painfully. The biggest trap is not recognizing it for what it is & desperately seeking an escape. It is not meant to be escaped. It is meant to bring us into greater dependence as any & all spiritual props we may rely on, even unknowingly, are stripped away. Indeed it is such a common experience that all faith traditions make mention of it.
George Macdonald, who was something of a mystic himself, made an analogy with a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. The man watching it watched it struggle for hours to emerge from its cocoon. At last it seemed to have exhausted itself, unable to force its way through the small opening. Thinking to help it the man enlarged the hole & the butterfly promptly emerged ~ but oh! What a sad excuse for a butterfly! Its wings were small & shrunken its body swollen. In the struggle to free itself from the cocoon fluid was forced from the swollen body into the wings so that they could enlarge & support the butterfly in flight. The easy emergence meant this butterfly never flew. It spent its life crawling round with its swollen & obese body totally unable to fly.
There is something about our struggles with God that grows spiritual muscle. There is something about having to strive that grows us up. There is something about working for our relationship with God that makes us value it more. Cheap grace is a shallow & unsatisying thing. True grace is never easy but it eqips us for life, both in this world & the world to come.