Q: I’d like to know more about the dark night of the soul and how it differentiates from clinical depression.
Joy: Thank you so much for asking this question. Many of us are going through a range of difficult feelings with so much going on in the world around us, so much suffering. Although I am a spiritual director and not a psychologist I can provide some of my initial thoughts about your question. You may also find it helpful to read Thomas Keating’s description of it in Invitation to Love.
Let’s start with the dark night of the soul. When we are in the dark night of the soul our prayer life might feel dry. We can feel abandoned because it is hard to relate to God in the way we have related before, and it may seem like God is completely absent. But it’s also a time when God can reveal his/herself to us in a new way. God is actively and completely loving us, carrying us through the whole thing, even when we find that hard to feel. It’s a time when our entire image of God is being expanded, taken out of the little box in which we had it, as God loves us into a new, fuller relationship.
The dark night experience can take time, and it can be painful. We might feel lost or unsure of ourselves and even vacillate in any calling we may feel to serve God. It’s a time when our false self is being revealed to us―our emotional programs for happiness can become more obvious to us. This can include our desire to be sure of things, i.e. for security, as the ways we usually reach for God no longer seem fruitful. Our desire for affection and esteem may have led us into habits or addictions that we come to realize do not feed us the true spiritual nourishment we desire. Our desire for control may rear up as anger, for example, when we realize that we can’t make God show up, or appear to us in the way we would like. All of this can be highly frustrating, and even humiliating. But it’s not humiliating in the sense that we have been found to be bad or horribly flawed, but rather in the sense of its Latin root humus, or earth: we are becoming fertile soil where God’s love can grow and flourish in us and thorough us. As difficult as it is, this whole process of the dark night brings us to see more clearly the barriers we put up that can keep us from noticing, accepting, and receiving God’s love. It comes as a gift to us from God.
Deeply humbled by seeing more and more of the false programs and agendas that have kept us from experiencing the love of God, we may be drawn to give up, in a way. Even this is a gift, however challenging. We can’t “fix” the false self by ourselves: we need God. We can do our part, seeking whatever resources are available including therapy, and trusted relationships with people anchored in God who can gently assure us of the deep love that God has for us and also gently reflect back when are off the mark. We can engage in practices that help us to integrate our bodies, minds and hearts as we affirm our intention to grow deeper in relationship with God; including meditation such as Centering Prayer; and Welcoming Prayer, the in-your-life version of letting go to God.
We don’t come out of the dark night with a sense of accomplishment, or “Oh hey, I did it!” And we don’t necessarily find ourselves in a place of “peace and serenity” or whatever we might have imagined as some ideal spiritual state. What we find is closer to an acceptance of ourselves in any given moment, exactly as we find ourselves, with all that is going on inside us. There is a deeper faith, a deeper seeing that it all belongs to and is loved and cherished by God, in no matter what state we find ourselves. (Just to clarify, this is not the same as passively giving in to the circumstances that surround us, but rather, aligned with who we are at the core, we can choose our actions in those circumstances in alignment with our true self, with who the Beloved created us to be.)
There are some similarities between the dark night of the soul and depression. Depression can also bring pain, discouragement and disengagement. And some feelings of sadness are a normal reaction to grief, loss or other life circumstances. But when clinical symptoms including trouble concentrating, hopelessness and feelings of worthlessness, insomnia, and especially any suicidal thoughts are present they are best treated by a professional―a workup for depression will depend on a lot of factors. When at all in doubt, please consult with a professional to be sure you get the care you need.
That said, there can be a large overlap between depression and the dark night, as there can be a spiritual undercurrent to both. I am touched by Thomas Moore’s words, in his Foreword to Mirabai Starr’s translation of The Dark Night of the Soul:
While I wouldn’t equate the dark night with depression, I do think our depressive moods could be imagined spiritually rather than only psychologically. John might help us see that what we call depression is a kind of initiation rather than just an emotional problem. …We might imagine the same experience as a crossroads in our effort to make a meaningful life and to achieve a sense of union with the life coursing through us. Depression has its physical, emotional and psychological dimensions and is tied in with our background, personality, and experiences. It has its chemical and genetic base. But it is also spiritual and potentially valuable in making a meaningful life.
Overall, know that whatever you may be going through, you are not alone. And when we are brought to our knees, literally or in our hearts, there can be room for God to show us more of who God is. Look for the gentle, small hints throughout the day, the joys that slip between the griefs. There may be wafts in a baby’s smile, in the gentle swish of a breeze through a tree or an ocean wave, or in our abject prayer as we pray for another who is suffering, or as we go through a deep loss. We are all so deeply loved by God, exactly as we are, beyond our circumstances and any hoped-for outcome, from the very beginning. I pray that we can learn how to let go to that, to trust.
I hope this has answered your question, and I pray that you feel met by God, wherever you are.
 St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul. Mirabai Starr, translator. New York: Riverhead Books, translation copyright 2002.