Dark Night of the Soul

Fall 2009.

Darkness cloaked my soul. It had been that way for some time, but nothing like this. It was as if an impenetrable wall was separating me from the land of the living: the land of happiness, impending college graduation, and apple picking on crisp fall days.

An aura of despondence haunted my every footstep. I was descending deep into anorexia, spiraling faster and faster and out of control.

It is hard to put such depression and pain into words. I couldn’t feel God’s presence, even when I opened my Bible or prayed late at night. Church was repetitious. Prayers were mindless. There was nothing but a painful, vacant void of what had been.

Maybe I wasn’t spending enough time with God. Not enough devotionals. Not enough prayer. Not enough something, certainly, because why else would God be so silent?

I was convinced that my school’s annual silent retreat would change things. Like a good fireside chat with a friend, a weekend on Lake Michigan with Jesus would restore my relationship with the Almighty and lift the heavy cloud that was weighing me down, so I hoped.

30 hours of silence does wonders to people. Sometimes Jesus comes at hour 5. Sometimes Jesus comes after a period of prayer and fasting.

Sometimes Jesus does not come at all.

I marked the hours by sleeping and pacing up and down the Lake Michigan beach. That fall weekend was so cold, I remember that. My emaciated arms were shivering at the temperature of the current.

God.

Silence.

GOD.

Silence.

God, where are you?

Silence.

The lake water crashed against the shore.

I felt nothing.

I shivered my way back to the cabin, still expectant, waiting. But no Bible verses popped into my mind. No signs magically appeared. I was empty and spent. My body was weak, but I had enough strength to feel betrayed and abandoned by God.

For the first (and only) time in my life, I felt cosmically alone.

It is a horrible feeling, to feel utterly isolated, abandoned not only by your friends and family who are oblivious to your struggle, but abandoned by God; to feel his deafening silence; to feel so dark and tired that nothing matters anymore.

I realized, fully, at that moment: I need help. 

Five years later, I still remember that silent retreat on Lake Michigan. I remember the emptiness, the terror, and the aching thoughts:

Maybe God is not with me anymore. Maybe he has left. Maybe… he was never with me at all.

My heart still aches at times, left with whisper of ghosts that are still unaddressed. However, that dark night of the soul has long passed. God answered my repetitious prayers that meant nothing in my heart. God felt my tears and answered my cries. In time, I once again felt his presence.

I expected that God would have me memorize psalms or strike me with an insightful theological revelation. Penance or Bible memorization, perhaps. But that’s not how things happened.

God came to me in the things I feared– warmth, love, nourishment, and food. The things that terrified me were what stitched me up into a living, breathing human being once again. God could not penetrate my hardened, cold, aching heart as it was. It wasn’t until it was warmed and breathed into with love that Jesus could enter.

In my depression and darkness at the silent retreat years ago, I was convinced that God had left me. It is so ironic that while I was praying so fervently for God to come, the answer had been there all along, in the dining room.

God had been there, asking me to eat breakfast. God was as close as a muffin and peanut butter, or granola and yogurt. He was there the whole time, in my time of anguish, and I missed him.

Of course, I wouldn’t conceive of eating those things at the time. The log in my own eye was causing me to stumble into everything in my path, but I was blind to anorexia’s death grip over my life.

I did not know what I know now: I cannot experience anything– including love– if I am not nourished. I cannot be empty and pure, as much as my eating disorder tells me to be, because cutting myself off to life cuts me off to God, and that is a terrifying fate.

I do not experience God’s love all the time. In fact, it is still a daily struggle.

However, I have found that I can feel God’s presence much more if I have eaten breakfast.

Soon after this, God intervened in my beautiful, chaotic mess of a story and showed me:

No, you cannot subsist on coffee and vegetables alone and expect to have your body function normally.

No, I will not let you shrivel up and disappear.

No, you cannot worship anorexia over me. 

Yes, you must accept love.

Yes, you must eat cake. 

Yes, you must laugh.

Yes, I love you. 

It is so much easier to see things in retrospect. In my story, my period of darkness was followed by an experience of tremendous growth, hope, and love.

When I was going through deep depression, I did not know what was to come. All I saw was hopelessness and despair.

The answers did not come to me right away.

Sometimes they never do, not in this life.

God did not give up on me.

God has not given up on our world.

Dark nights of the soul pass away. I cling onto the promise that darkness will never be the final word.

Perhaps things don’t make sense now, but I believe with all my heart that someday they will.