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Faith, doubt, dark nights and maturity

November 19, 2015
Father Ron Rolheiser

In one of his books on contemplative prayer, Thomas Keating shares a line he occasionally uses in spiritual direction. People, sharing how they used to have a warm and solid sense of God, now complain that all that warmth and confidence have disappeared and they’re left struggling with belief and struggling to pray as they used to: “What’s wrong with me?” they ask. “God is wrong with you!” Keating answers.

His answer says this: Despite your pain, there is something very right with you. You have moved past being a religious neophyte and are now being led into a deeper faith and you have been brought you to a deeper maturity. You’re asking: I used to be quite sure of myself religiously and was probably somewhat arrogant and judgmental. I felt I understood God and religion and looked with some disdain at the world. Then the bottom fell out of my faith and certainty. I’m finding myself less sure of myself, more humble and empathetic, and less judgmental. What’s wrong with me?

Clearly that person is growing, not regressing.

Lost is a place too! To be saved, we have to first realize that we’re lost, and usually some kind of bottom has to fall out of our lives for us to come to that realization. Sometimes there’s no other cure for arrogance and presumption than a painful loss of certitude about our own ideas about God, faith, and religion. John of the Cross suggests that a deeper religious faith begins when we are forced to understand more by not understanding than by understanding.

A curious, paradoxical dynamic lies behind this: We tend to confuse faith with our capacity on any given day to conjure up a concept of God and imagine God’s existence. Moreover we think our faith is strongest at those times when we have affective and emotive feelings attached to our imaginations about God. Our faith feels strongest when bolstered by and inflamed by feelings of fervor. Great spiritual writers will tell us that this stage of fervor is a good stage in our faith but one more commonly experienced when we are neophytes.

In the earlier stages of a religious journey it is common to possess strong, affective images and feelings about God. At this stage, our relationship with God parallels the relationship between a couple on their honeymoon with strong emotions and certainty about your love, but it’s a place you come home from. A honeymoon is not a marriage, though often confused with one. It’s the same with faith; strong imaginative images of God are not faith, though they’re often confused with it.

Strong imaginative images and strong feelings about God are just that, images. An image is not the reality. An icon can be beautiful and helpful and point us in the right direction, but when mistaken for the reality it becomes an idol. For this reason, the great spiritual writers tell us that God at certain moments of our spiritual journey “takes away” our certainty and deprives us of all warm, felt feelings in faith. God does this precisely so that we cannot turn our icons into idols, so that we cannot let the experience of faith get in the way of the end of faith itself, namely, an encounter the reality and person of God.

Mystics call this “a dark night of the soul.” This describes the experience where we used to feel God’s presence with a certain warmth and solidity, but now we feel like God is nonexistent and we are left in doubt. This is what Jesus experienced on the cross and this is what Mother Teresa wrote about in her journals.

And while that darkness can be confusing, it can also be maturing: It can help move us from being arrogant, judgmental, religious neophytes to being humble, empathic men and women, living inside a cloud of unknowing, understanding more by not understanding than by understanding, helpfully lost in a darkness we cannot manipulate or control, so as to finally be pushed into genuine faith, hope and charity.

Oblate Father Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology, San Antonio, Texas.

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