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James Martin, S.J.March 17, 2008
Photo by Kaylah Otto on Unsplash

One challenge for readers of Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, the collection of Blessed Teresa of Calcuttas letters published last fall, is to distinguish among the terms darkness, dryness, desolation, doubt, disbelief, depression and despair - the seven Ds. On a popular level, some journalists, media analysts and bloggers conflated Mother Teresas darkness with disbelief. Christopher Hitchens, the atheist author of God Is Not Great, was not the only one who asked, after reading selections from the book, whether the saint of the gutters was a closet atheist. Even devout Catholics had difficulties grasping how Mother Teresa, considered a paragon of faith, could have suffered from a feeling of abandonment by God. While some Catholics saw her example as one of remarkable fidelity, others were disturbed to read such lines as, I have no faith. One woman asked me, How can I expect to pray at all, when even she couldnt believe?

Such reactions show how easy it is for the media and the public to be addled sometimes by the complexities of the spiritual life and, also, how confused terminology can become, even among those familiar with prayer.

The seven Ds, however, are distinct, and Christian spiritual masters have long used specific terms to refer to distinct experiences. One may experience dryness without depression (for example, during a retreat when one suspects that the period of dryness in prayer is temporary). One may encounter darkness without disbelief (as did St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who continued to believe despite spiritual aridity near the end of her life). Experiences can overlap, too. Darkness can lead to occasional doubt, as in the case of Mother Teresa. And depression can lead, as even atheists and agnostics know, to despair.

Darkness Visible

Darkness has been an important theme in Christian spirituality since St. Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century. Perhaps the most often quoted source on the topic is St. John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic. Ironically, he may be the most misquoted as well, as illustrated by frequent references to the dark night of the soul. His original 16th-century poem is called simply Noche Oscura, Dark Night.

Dark night, however, is only one way of describing a particular state of feeling isolated from God. Around the same time St. John was writing, St. Ignatius Loyola wrote of desolation in his Spiritual Exercises. So even the most educated Christian can be forgiven for wondering: Are the two saints talking about two phenomena that are the same, or similar or different?

To add to the confusion, where one spiritual director uses darkness, another might use dryness to describe the same experience. And sometimes directors can be presumptuous, too, says Jane Ferdon, O.P., who has trained spiritual directors in California for 20 years. People may say that they are in darkness, and we spiritual directors assume we know what they're talking about!

Perhaps confusion stems not only from an imprecise, overlapping and shifting use of terms but also from a failure to recognize that everyone who prays will at some point encounter many of these states.

What are these states? How do they affect our relationships with God? Lent is a good time to reflect on these categories, not only as a way of taking stock of our spiritual life but also as an invitation to meditate on Jesus own expression of isolation on the cross, My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

What follows is a brief overview of the seven Ds, beginning with some simple definitions, followed by comments from past and present spiritual masters.

Definitions and Descriptions

1. Darkness is a feeling of Gods absence after having developed a personal relationship with God. For St. John of the Cross, there were two types of dark nights. The dark night of the senses is an experience of one's own limitations and the removal of attachments to the consolation felt in prayer. It is an inflowing of God into the soul whereby he purges it of its habitual ignorances and imperfections, wrote St. John. At a later stage, some experience the dark night of the spirit, which is a more profound challenge to faith. But both are steps toward deeper union with God.

Janet Ruffing, R.S.M., professor of spirituality and spiritual direction at Fordham University, describes St. Johns dark night as a mystical experience of God that overwhelms our normal way of apprehending God, and leads not only to an increase in faith, hope and love, but also eventually into a place of light. She believes that while almost everyone who prays seriously will encounter the dark night of the senses, relatively few will experience the dark night of the spirit.

An experience of darkness can be a gateway to finding God in the nada, or nothingness, and an entry into the via negativa, the negative way. Ruth Burrows, a Carmelite nun, writes in her book Essence of Prayer that God wants us to trust him enough to live with him unafraid, totally defenseless in his presence. We can truly say that John of the Cross teaching has as its sole aim to bring us to this inner poverty.

A person in darkness feels isolated from God. Yet with patience (whether or not one can identify which dark night one is experiencing), one can let go of the need to feel Gods presence constantly and gradually move through the darkness to discover greater intimacy with God.

2. Dryness is a limited period of feeling emptiness in prayer. Dryness is more temporary than darkness, says William A. Barry, S.J., author of God and You: Prayer as a Personal Relationship. Anyone who prays will at times feel dryness in prayer, when nothing seems to be happening. There is little in the way of sensible consolation, Father Barry said in an interview.

These natural parts of the spiritual life can increase our appreciation for richer moments. One never knows what kind of inner change occurs during dry times, and being with the living God in prayer is always transformative. As a Jesuit novice, I once confessed to my spiritual director that nothing was happening during my prayer. It seemed a waste of time. Being in the presence of God is a waste of time? he asked.

Much as even a close friendship goes through some quiet or dull times, so our relationship with God may go through dry patches. But being with a friend in such times is necessary if the friendship is to be sustained and grow in intimacy.

Much as even a close friendship goes through some quiet or dull times, so our relationship with God may go through dry patches.

3. Desolation is feeling Gods absence coupled with a sense of hopelessness. St. Ignatius Loyola describes it as an obtuseness of soul, turmoil within it, an impulsive motion toward low and earthly things, or a disquiet from various agitations and temptations. It is more than feeling dejected or sad. Desolation is often confused with simply feeling bad, says Barry. But it's more accurate to say it is a feeling of estrangement from God.

Margaret Silf, a columnist for America and author of Inner Compass: An Invitation to Ignatian Spirituality, notes that desolation has a quality of isolation. Those in desolation are turned away from the light of Gods presence, she told me, and more focused on the shadows. Father Barry agrees. In desolation it's more about the person than it is about God, he says. Ultimately this leads to despair.

Desolation is distinct from St. Johns dark night. In desolation, writes St. Ignatius, one is moved toward a lack of faith and is left without hope and love. In the dark night the opposite is happening, as one moves toward complete abandonment to God. For the one experiencing this, it may be easier to see this in retrospect, says Janet Ruffing. But in the Ignatian worldview, the dark night is actually consolation.

The desolation Ignatius describes may seem far removed from the lives of average Christians. But it is a common, painful state experienced by many people, coupled as it is with feelings of gnawing anxiety, as Ignatius puts it. He counsels that in these times one should, among other things, redouble ones efforts in prayer, remember times when God seemed more present or remind oneself that it will eventually pass. He also reminds us that all the fruits of prayer are really gifts from God, which we cannot control.

4. Doubt is an intellectual indecision about Gods existence. Many believers face doubt at some point in their lives. Most people are relieved to be able to talk about doubt in spiritual direction, says Ruffing. But no one reaches adult faith without doubt. And frequently people encounter doubt and then move toward a faith that is more complex, paradoxical and, ultimately, more adult.

Doubt is a supremely human experience, shared by nearly every Christian since St. Thomas the Apostle. Recently, in John Patrick Shanleys Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Doubt, a priest (who faces his own doubts and the doubts of his parishioners about his background) points to this universality in a homily: When you are lost, you are not alone.

5. Disbelief is an intellectual state of not accepting the existence of God. Some commentators concluded that because Mother Teresa suffered darkness, she did not believe in God. Once, in her letters, she bluntly wrote, I have no faith. But, as Father Barry explains, She was still praying and writing letters to God.

Sometimes disbelief is a way of discarding old images of God that no longer work for an adult believer. Margaret Silf reflects on her own experience: I've been through times when all the old props have fallen away, and have felt that I just couldn't go on believing. So what to do? Bolster this old system, or let things be and see what happens? For me, this finally enabled me to break through to a deeper level of faith, which I would call trust. Disbelief is a serious challenge in the spiritual life. If the journey ends at that point, there will be little space for God. The key is to continue seeking, even in the midst of disbelief.

6. Depression is a profound form of sadness. In the medical and psychological community, it has a more technical definition. It's a clinical category that is often able to be treated medically, says Barry, who is also a psychologist. We don't want to spiritualize primarily psychological problems, says Jane Ferdon. But today, she adds, we can also psychologize spiritual issues. So it's very important to discern the root causes of depression.

In The Dark Night and Depression, an essay in Keith J. Egans book Carmelite Prayer, Kevin Culligan, a Carmelite priest, writes that in the dark night there is an acute awareness of one's own incompleteness. However, in this darkness, one seldom utters morbid statements of guilt, self-loathing, worthlessness, and suicidal ideation, as one does during a period of clinical depression.

So one can be in darkness but not be depressed. What about the other way around? Father Barry responds, Rarely is the clinically depressed person able to experience consolation in prayer.

Therese Borchard, who writes a blog on depression, Beyond Blue, for the spirituality Web site Beliefnet, has suffered from depression herself. She understands it from both a theoretical and a personal point of view and agrees with Barry. When you're depressed you feel so angry at God, she told me. For some people, it can lead you closer to God, as you struggle to express your anger and also cling to God as a last hope. For others, it can distance you and lead to turning away from God. In general, though, depression usually leads to darkness and dryness in prayer. Clinical depression needs to be treated by medical professionals as well as to be addressed in a spiritual setting.

How do spiritual directors and counselors distinguish between darkness and depression? When I'm with depressed people, I feel swallowed up by their depression, says Janet Ruffing. It's the opposite with people going through the dark night. Once, I accompanied one of our sisters, who was dying, through an experience like this, and in her presence, I felt Gods luminosity though she couldn't touch it at all.

Sadness is different from depression. As Barry notes, Sadness over a painful reality in your life can be a sign that you are in touch with God. Jane Ferdon says, These are some of the people who are the most alive, since they are feeling deeply.

7. Despair is a feeling that all is, and will remain, hopeless. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton defined despair in his book New Seeds of Contemplation as the ultimate development of a pride so great and so stiff-necked that it accepts the absolute misery of eternal damnation rather than accept that God is above us and that we are not capable of fulfilling our destinies by ourselves. The form of despair Merton describes implies that we know better than God does, and what we know is that things can never get any better. Such pride leads to a spiritual dead end: despair.

This may sound harsh. For those living in grinding poverty, facing a life-threatening illness or confronted with some other tragedy, despair may seem a rational response. It can also stem from depression. When you are depressed you are often without hope, says Therese Borchard, and this can lead to despair.

Jane Ferdon thinks that sometimes despair is not a spiritual dead end, but appropriate. She remembers one woman describing her painful circumstances by saying, I feel like Im walking among the living dead. Ferdon always asks people if they can find God in this state. Also, its important to know if the despair is a reflection of something else, say, aloneness or depression, and what happens when the person brings that despair to prayer. Sometimes the person doesnt want to pray about it, and if not, why not? That may be where Thomas Mertons notion of pride comes in.

Ferdon respectfully disagrees with Merton in definitively identifying despair with pride. It may be that pride is actually the opposite of what is happening. Despair can be an experience of letting go of our need to control everything, and it can lead to change, revitalization and even consolation. So while a despair that says, Nothing can change is perilous in the spiritual life, a despair that says, I cant do it by myself could lead to growth.

Distinctions and Deliverance

One need not be a scholar of Christian spirituality, a spiritual director or a person under spiritual direction to see that disentangling these spiritual strands can be encouraging, clarifying, consoling and freeing. Understanding that most of these experiences are common can encourage us by reducing anxiety. These are stages in everyones spiritual life, says Janet Ruffing. Knowing that these stages are not identical can be clarifying and help us discern the correct responses to different events in our spiritual lives. (St. Ignatius, for example, prescribes definite steps to take when one is in desolation.) Being able to bring such experiences to prayer can be consoling, since it can deepen our relationship with God, in the same way that speaking about a thorny problem with a friend can strengthen a friendship and lead to greater intimacy.

Finally, knowing that all these experiences can lead us to God can free us from fear, which can cripple our spiritual lives. For the God by whom Jesus felt abandoned on the cross is the same God who delivered Jesus from death, giving him new life. My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? is the beginning of Psalm 22. A few lines later, though, the psalmist sings another song. For he did not hide his face from me, but heard me when I cried to him.

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leonard Nugent
16 years 4 months ago
This is one of the best descriptions of prayer I have read. One of the most precious experiences you can have while praying is to pray for something and get no response. Then pray for it again and again and get no response. At this point you turn to God and ask him "Do you really think you can stop me?" That is faith that is not felt in the senses but in the will, the place where the love of God takes place. Thanks for an inspiring article.
16 years 4 months ago
Leonard, Thanks for the kind comment. I'm glad you found the article helpful. And yes, besides the various experiences of "shadows" in prayer, sometimes it does feel like we are getting no "response" to our prayers. That may be where the daily "examination" is also helpful: in that exercise you search for God's presence in your daily activities, as you cast your mind back over the day. As Jesuits and their colleagues practice it, it is a five step process: first, placing yourself in God's presence; second, recalling what you are grateful for; third, reviewing the day to see signs of God's presence; fourth, asking for forgiveness in anything sinful that you have done in the day; and then, fifth, asking for God's grace in the next day. Perhaps you would find this practice helpful as well, for it helps you to "see" God, and God's responses to your prayer, in ways that are often very subtle. It is the "still, small voice" that the Old Testament talks about.
16 years 4 months ago
Once again, Father Martin shows that he is a gift to the Catholic Church.
Daniel Sorensen
16 years 4 months ago
Thank you for this wonderful article. I am a hospital chaplain, and very often I find that people who are in or near one of these categories are feeling embarrassed, guilty, or even shameful as a result. They do not want to talk to a spiritual leader because they fear being deemed unworthy or unable. This article is going to become a great tool for me in helping people normailze their experiences and see them as transitions along the way in their relationship with God. The terms are confusing until they are unpacked. I think it is best summed up in the opening woman's comments about Mother Teresa, "How can I believe if she didn't/couldn't." My response: "May we all have an opportunity to disbelieve, shed our old images of God, perservere AND find a new, more intimate, more meaningful relationship with our Lord."
15 years 9 months ago
This is awesome! I'm not catholic, but I do follow this newsletter. I'm just a normal person in a non-denominational church, but love all Christians everywhere. The article is just what I need during my periods of deep depression when I feel like I'm losing my faith and God has deserted me. I'm doing great right now and the Holy Spirit's presence is in my daily life. Thank you for this wonderful article once again.
15 years 4 months ago
Would it be accurate to say that the difference between desolation and darkness is the direction of desire? In desolation the direction of desire is away from God and in darkness the direction of desire is twoard God. In both cases, God seems absent, but the orientation of the person varies between the two. Is that how you would summarize it? Karen
12 years 1 month ago
Thank you so very much, Fr. Jim, for posting this piece again and that of Fr. Barry's "A Mediation on Death and Life".
Monica Doyle
7 years 10 months ago
I'm glad you ended this with a reference to Psalm 22. I am in the process of learning about Chiara Lubich's amazing synthesis of the abandonment with the ability to love. I can barely understand it myself, as it is very deep, and I wouldn't do it justice to try and explain. Suffice to say if we can learn to love the abandonment, our own and others, it will lead to new life and joy.

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