C S Lewis’s dark night of the soul

Cover of "A Grief Observed"

Lewis's dark night was triggered by the loss of his wife Joy to cancer

Working away on a “dark night of the soul” article for Leadership Journal. I’ve already posted a longer version of the section on Mother Teresa. Here is the piece’s introduction and its treatment (so far) of C. S. Lewis:

The faith of Christians is built on Presence. Whether in the pillar of fire, the still small voice, or the Incarnate Son, God has been Emmanuel, “with us.” He has promised never to leave nor forsake us. In thousands of hymns, we have sung of an experienced intimacy with God in Christ. We have asked: “Is Jesus your personal Lord and Savior?” We have prayed, wept, and rested in His presence.

For a committed Christian, then, nothing is more devastating than Divine Absence, spiritual loneliness, the ceiling of brass meeting our every prayer.

Yet when the sixteenth-century mystic John of the Cross identified and described a kindred phenomenon—a sort of desolation called “dark night of the soul”—he insisted that it is an important spiritual discipline. We enter the dark night, said John, as a tortuous but fruitful ascetic path to the mystical goal of union with God.

John’s work on this subject became a spiritual classic. He was honored as one of the very few “doctors of the church” by Roman Catholicism, and he is still widely cited by Catholics and Protestants alike. But most modern Christians have forgotten that for the great Carmelite, “the dark night” was just one part of an elaborate apophatic theology. Apophaticism is the theological mode that tries to penetrate beyond the realm of our senses and our reason and come before God as The Awesome Unknown. (Although some conservative Protestants fear apophaticism as unbiblical and suspiciously “Eastern,” it is well-supported both in tradition and Scripture.)

Few today subscribe to or even understand John’s system. Instead, we have taken over John’s phrase “the dark night of the soul” to describe a subjective experience of the complete loss of God’s loving presence—and without its rootage in John’s larger theology, we are not always sure what to do with it. It seems a rather unpleasant episode, often associated with doubt, that may plague a Christian for a while but that, we hope, will soon pass. We treat it almost as a pathology. In fact, one might ask why we should bother to talk about this sort of loss of the divine presence at all.

I’d suggest one good reason for giving the “dark night” a second look is a shocking fact about who undergoes it. It would be one thing if this experience enveloped only, say, backsliders or immature Christians or those involved in obvious sin. But with great regularity, we find the experience in the life stories of those we think of as having been especially faithful witnesses to the faith: People such as C. S. Lewis. Mother Teresa. Martin Luther. Each of these suffered particularly intense episodes of “dark night of the soul.” And perhaps the best way to begin to understand this experience for ourselves is to listen in on their struggles to find meaning in their darkness.

Lewis’s dark night came after the death of his wife Joy. Mother Teresa’s came at the very founding of her Missionaries of Charity and lasted to the end of her life, with little respite. Luther’s plagued him in one form as a young monk, and then in several others as a Reformer.

Of course, we could draw our own conclusions about why these saints have suffered thus—and historians have frequently done so. Perhaps some character flaw or pathology has led them away from the Divine Presence. The rational apologist Lewis, say some scholars, finally discovered after the death of his wife Joy that the God he had imagined was no longer a supportable hypothesis. The Absence he felt was in fact his coming to realization that Christianity was a fiction. Some critics have traced Mother Teresa’s “dark night” to an almost masochistic proclivity for pain, rooted in a certain Catholic understanding of suffering as inherently redemptive and spiritually meritorious. Most famously, Luther’s life story spawned in the 20th century a cottage industry of psycho-historical interpretation, led by Erik Erickson’s argument that a fraught relationship with his father created a cycle of overachievement and self-doubt that plunged the Reformer into the Anfechtungen—periods of depression and self-doubtwhich never left him alone for long.

This sort of analysis opens up an even simpler explanation. Perhaps the Dark Night is nothing more than an artifact of depressive states of mind that have decidedly non-spiritual origins. So Luther’s many episodes of spiritual darkness (it is said) can be explained easily. Each one was preceded by, and triggered by, a physical illness. (The pinnacle of this sort of interpretation must surely be the book by German scholar Annemarie Halder that chronicled the Reformer’s bladder stones from 1536 to 1546, linking these painful occurrences to his Anfechtungen.)

Of course, the psychosomatic dimensions of illness do run both ways—from physical to psychological (and indeed, spiritual) as well as vice-versa. But such interpretations of the Dark Night remind one of Ebenezer Scrooge who, when confronted by the Ghost of Christmas Past, loudly insisted that the apparition was just a stomach disorder, a mere trick of the psyche resulting from “an undigested bit of beef . . . a fragment of an underdone potato.” Certainly in the opinions of Lewis, Teresa, and Luther, something more was at work in their darkness:


It was in 1956, in his late 50s, that C. S. Lewis finally found love. He married the object of his affections, American writer Joy Gresham; but four years later, after an agonizing battle, Joy died of cancer. During the period of intense grieving that followed, Lewis filled four notebooks—first, with words of anguish and rage, then increasingly with an introspective record of the changes that this loss worked in his character. The notebooks were published one year after Joy’s death as A Grief Observed, under the pseudonym N. W. Clerk.

Lewis was identified as the book’s author only after his death, and some have guessed that the great apologist resorted to this subterfuge because his journey through grief also took him to the very the precipice of doubt. Not surprisingly, he asked the same sorts of questions that the grieving often ask: How could a good God allow this woman to die, and in such a painful way? Was He, after all, a Cosmic Sadist? Or did he even exist?

Lewis experienced, in other words, both the emotional and the intellectual pain of Absence—not just the absence of his wife, but the immense Absence of God. The “dark night of the soul.” In his words,

“Meanwhile, where is God? When you are happy, so happy you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels— welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. . . . Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?”

What disturbs Lewis most at first is not the thought that God does not exist. Rather, it is the thought that he does, and that he may inflict pain from motives that we do not recognize as positive or even ethical: What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, ‘good’? Doesn’t all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite? What have we to set against it?” But even this angry thought, written early in his notebooks, he soon subjects to cooler judgment: “I wrote that last night. It was a yell rather than a thought.”

Yelling at God in times of darkness has a long history, beginning with Jesus himself: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” A vivid cinematic example occurs in Robert Duvall’s movie “The Apostle,” when evangelist Sonny Dewey, who has had his own share of darkness, paces up an down in his room, abusing God in a loud voice. “I love you, Lord,” he bellows, “but I’m mad at you!” Below, his mother is awoken by a phone call from a neighbor, complaining of her son’s raucousness. She only grins and says, “I tell ya ever since he was an itty bitty boy, sometimes he talks to the Lord and sometimes he yells at the Lord, and tonight he just happens to be yellin’ at him.” Somehow I think Jesus intercedes for those in pain and darkness who yell at the Father.

Upon reflection, Lewis decides that the pain he is experiencing must have some redemptive purpose. We see the first glimmering not far into the book: “It doesn’t really matter whether you grip the arms of the dentist’s chair or let your hands lie in your lap. The drill drills on.” What is a dentist’s drill for except to remove the rottenness from the tooth? It makes us whole, removing (in the long run, at least) a cause of suffering. And of course Lewis would not have published this account of “a grief observed” unless he had concluded that such experiences of Absence—not only absence of a loved one but also Absence of God—in the midst of suffering have at least potentially an educative and perhaps even sanctifying function in the life of the believer.

Ultimately, Lewis decides that his spiritual darkness is a sort of divine shock treatment. “Nothing less will shake a man—or at any rate a man like me—out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.” Likening his former faith to a house of cards, Lewis concludes, “the sooner it was knocked down the better. And only suffering could do it.”

Torture? In the wake of waterboarding scandals, this seems extreme imagery. But Lewis means it: “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.” God simply does to us whatever needs doing, and it is often painful. Think Eustace, turned into a dragon by his own “greedy, dragonish thoughts,” and turned back only by the deep, gouging ministrations of the claws of Aslan.

Lewis also makes another, different move in trying to understand the spiritual desolation that accompanies his grief at the death of his wife. This move is in the direction of the apophatic mysticism of John of the Cross (whose thought he know doubt knew, along with the great work of English apophaticism, The Cloud of Unknowing). First, he acknowledges how inadequate our senses and reason are in perceiving God: “I, or any mortal at any time, may be utterly mistaken as to the situation he is really in.” Then he admits his own incapacity to know the reality of God: “Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them—never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?”

Finally, Lewis acknowledges the flimsy inadequacy of any sort of image—physical or mental—to capture the reality of God. “Images, I suppose, have their use. . . . To me, however, their danger is more obvious. Images of the Holy easily become holy images—sacrosanct. My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast.” In the end, he says, “I must stretch out the arms and hands of love—its eyes cannot here be used—to the reality, through—across—all the changeful phantasmagoria of my thoughts, passions, and imaginings. I mustn’t sit down content with the phantasmagoria itself and worship that for Him, or love that for her.”

What about our own ideas of God? They must, like our incomplete, prejudiced, and generally inadequate ideas of others, be shattered in order for us to have any hope of contact with the real God: “Not my idea of God, but God. . . . And all this time I may, once more, be building with cards. And if I am He will [79] once more knock the building flat. He will knock it down as often as proves necessary.” This is as succinct a summary as I’ve seen of the apophatic theology toward which any dark night of the soul pushes us.

10 responses to “C S Lewis’s dark night of the soul

  1. It IS good to find gem article like this and spell the rubbish out there! 99.9% hijack such unique journey, where God carefully and lovingly picked that few and VERY FEW, and initiates the journey and ends the journey! Yet people equivalent to the so-called “Eli” spirit or yet of the story of the old prophet meeting that “Man of God from Judah” in 1 King 13, hijacking and made it into a medical pathology! “Oh my child is in hospital (says a Preacher), so I entered into God’s Dark Night of the Soul for the 4 days whilst child in hospital”. Rubbish! that’s just everyone’s dose of Trial and Tribulation in the refining our faith in God per refine gold vs the “adamant” forehead that God made of Ezekiel! Those christians MUST understand, a human “Dark Night” vs God’s “Dark Night”, the core of a soul crying will always have the ring of John 3:30 (He must increase and I must decrease) before, during and after the “Dark Night” journey of the soul! Shame to those misrepresenting God and well done to article like this and a few (very few) out there. My pray that the Lord continues to bless you and keep you; make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. And that the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace!

  2. Thanks, It is always good to be aware of modern discussion about valuable practices, understandings, and events, which the early church identified.

    I notice you mentioned The Cloud of Unknowing, the cloud, has always been one of my favorites. I think, Prive Counseling, thought to be by the same author, has jumped ahead.

  3. Thank you for the posts on Lewis, Martin Luther, and Mother Teresa. I’ve been through several dark nights in my relatively short life. My church background has been in Baptist circles. This topic is rarely tackled from the pulpit or acknowledged by most Christians in my acquaintance. In many (though certainly not all) Baptist churches, you are urged to present yourself on Sunday morning with a big grin on your face and just be happy because you’re saved. As a melancholy child and teenager prone to doubts and depression about my faith, I found all the grinning and pep talks to be very disconcerting. I found it difficult to plaster a smile on my face when my interior world was trembling and reeling. Clearly, there was something wrong with me as a Christian. There was, though perhaps not what the general consensus of modern church goers would imagine. God was taking care of it through the absence Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis, and Mother Teresa spoke about. I suspect He will continue to take care of it throughout my life. I need my perceptions of God and myself smashed on a regular basis.

    I would be interested to get direction on some of your sources for the article on Martin Luther. I am in the process of writing an article on this topic for a Sunday School publication and I think they would be useful if you’re willing to share them.

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