By: Sister Regina Marie, O.C.D.
When you come to the edge
of all the light you know,
and are about to step off
into the darkness of the unknown,
faith is knowing one of two things will happen: There will be something solid to stand on
or you will be taught how to fly.
It is foggy. The fog is so thick you could slice it. You step onto the plane and take your seat. The pilot taxis down the runway. It is time for the take-off. Why are you on that plane, with such thick fog when no one, not even the pilot can see? The answer must be that you have faith in the pilot and in the radar system directing the airplane confidently through the fog.
Faith is the ability to accept as true something that we can’t prove is true, but we accept it as true, on the basis of who said it. We base the entire weight of faith on the reliability of the one who gives us their word. If we have grown to trust a person and know the person is reliable – we take that person’s word – we have faith. As in the case of the airplane taking off in the dense fog, we have faith in both the pilot and the radar system. We have faith in the airline which provided both the pilot and the radar.
Revelation and Faith
We cannot speak of faith separately from revelation. God reveals Himself, unveils Himself as it were, and shows Himself to us. The Lord approaches each of us in a particular, unique and personal manner, evoking from each one of us a personal and unique response. The approach of God to us is called Revelation. Our response to that revelation is called Faith.
God first made Himself known to us by revealing Himself through the mediation of human persons in the Old Testament, and then perfectly through his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ in the New Testment. There is no God beyond “He Who reveals Himself” and now we have a way to Him. This way is Jesus (see Eph 2.18; 3.12).
Faith is the acceptance of this personal communication begun by God and accepted by us. It is the beginning of our intimacy with God; without it we cannot share in the fellowship of divine family life. The entire Bible makes it clear that faith in God is necessary. Nothing can replace it – neither human wisdom nor religious experience nor good works (see 1 Cor. 1 2; Gal. 3.1 9). Nothing.
Faith Penetrating the Veil of the Ordinary
It is never enough to just believe in the notional. There was nothing speculative about the newborn infant shivering in the cold of the night. There was nothing intangible about wine at a wedding feast or fish so numerous and large that the boat nearly sank. There was nothing abstract about the scourging, the spitting and the nails.
At the moment of the Incarnation, God truly entered into our everyday existence – our very human and ordinary routines. That is why our response must enter into our everyday existence – in the very fabric of our very human and ordinary routines.
St. Francis de Sales says what we need is “faith penetrating the veil of the ordinary.” He tells us that faith enables us to meet God in our ordinary, mundane, often pedestrian lives. He encourages us to develop and maintain a supernatural vision of the daily events in our lives.
Faith is Always Person-Centered
Faith is anchored always in relationship – a relationship with a person. Faith is my intellectual ascent to the word of another person. When faith falters, it is because the friendship has faltered. The relationship has been allowed to grow distant.
If faith is kept healthy – growing, vibrant, dynamic — the integrity of both persons must always be respected. Each of us must come before Him just as we are and allow Him to come to us just as He is.
There are almost 3,000 articles in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the very first one, the foundation supports all of the tenets of our faith. It tell us that God, infinitely perfect and blessed in Himself, in a plan of sheer goodness, freely created us so that we could share in His own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to us. He calls usto seek Him, to know Him, to love Him with all our strength. He calls together all people, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of His family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In and through Christ, God the Father invites us to become, in the Holy Spirit, His adopted children and thus heirs of His blessed life.
Faith alone gives an accurate view of the unfolding of providence in daily life. Without faith, it is so easy to get tangled in conflicting desires. Faith gives God permission to work out His plan of salvation in our lives, even when we don’t get it. As St. Therese said, “Everything is grace.”
Because each soul is unique, the workings of the Holy Spirit are unique in each one of us. However, there are general patterns of growth that we all experience.
From Selfishness to Generosity
Growth is always a move from a self-centered life (selfishness) to an authentically other-centered life (generosity). God inspires us to do the good and to avoid the evil. As we grow in our faith, He leads us to use all of our senses only for that which will bring us into deeper union with Him. At first, we take an active part in this growth. For example, we might choose not to watch movies that could be disruptive to the soul, or we could decide to clear off of the computer anything that has become addictive. We are actively moving toward God.
Our efforts at purification, however, are not sufficient by themselves. God, in His love, steps in and aids our efforts. Saint Catherine of Siena calls this the “Second Conversion.”St. John of the Cross calls it the Dark Night.
The Active Dark Night is when we, aided by God’s grace, try to purify ourselves.
The Passive Dark Night is when God steps in and helps us .
St. John of the Cross calls it a Dark Night because we can’t see with our limited human intellect what it is that God is doing, there is a sense of deprivation, and it is always moving us towards inner peace and stillness.
Principles of this Dark Night of Purification
The Dark Night is meant to be a part of every person’s faith journey. It consists of a prolonged series of profound aridities. In reality, our prayer is not dry; however, it feels dry because the senses, being inferior to the spirit, cannot grasp what the spirit is experiencing, and therefore feel deprived of their former consolation. Since love is in the will and not in the senses, God is leading the soul away from the senses. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that in the spiritual life there is no standing still. If you are standing still you are necessarily going backwards.
Why the Dark Night of the Soul is so Necessary
Humans, by nature, can’t comprehend the grandeur, the spectacular beauty and depth of the relationship with God to which all of us are called. We are short- sighted and tend to become myopic, seeing only immediate goods. We undersell ourselves. We settle for less. We settle for the immediate. Consequently, we must be purified from any spiritual luttony. This means that we could become in time inordinately attached to sense consolations and forget that consolation is not the end but only the means.
The soul must be cleansed also of spiritual sloth. This refers to a laziness or mediocrity concerning holy things. This is particularly a temptation to those who live and work closest to holy things. With sloth, comes impatience, sluggishness, even disgust for the works of sanctification. The slothful response is “It’s too hard.”
The soul needs to be strengthened in its battle against spiritual pride. During this phase, the person is tempted to pride because of their moderate progress in the spiritual life. This often leads them to critical judgment of others.
Other defects purified through this Dark Night are: curiosity, gossip, jealously, envy, sufficiency: an inappropriate independence, a subtle attitude of “I don’t need others as much as others need others.”
This is an unfailing principle –The bigger the ego, the bigger the Dark Night.
Trials During the Dark Night of the Senses
Some of the trials during the Night of the Senses include the temptation to return to former modes of prayer in search of consolation; the temptation to discouragement can lead some people to simply quit seeking the Lord at all. Often during the Dark Night, one experiences added temptations against patience and against chastity. These temptations are permitted by God to provoke a strong reaction of the corresponding virtues which should strengthen us.
Dark Night of the Spirit and Why it is Necessary
The defects of the proficients in prayer must be purified as well during the Dark Night. Some examples of these defects are involuntary distractions in prayer, and moments of impatience, to name a few. Some people may fall into a “bitter zeal” in which their desire to bring others to God is so strong that they lose the sense of mercy. At this stage, the very depths of the will are purified. Through the Dark Night of the Spirit, the soul learns to want what God wants. This Dark Night offsets an unconscious egoism. It is difficult for us to deal with the blind areas in our life – so God deals with them during this passive purgation
The Principal Fruit of the Purification
The Holy Spirit illumines the soul with an infused light. Knowledge of God and knowledge of self lead to the perfection of the virtue of faith. The soul passes from meditation to contemplation. Contemplation is not be confused with visions and ecstasies; it is not extraordinary. Rather, whereas in meditation we learned to know God from afar through the intellect, we now experience Him through love directly, in the privacy of our hearts. We have a “sense of God.” The soul begins to move from the level of sensibility of its exterior life to a greater freedom of spirit. God comes to meet us in these events, circumstances, and relationships that are a daily part of our lives and invites us through them to a greater union with Him. We need to look beyond – or through – the event, circumstance and person to Christ beckoning us to walk through it to the light which envelops Him.
How to Keep Faith Alive During the Dark Nights of Our Lives
• Take Care of Your Soul
One of the great themes in the works of St. Teresa of Avila is the beauty and the grandeur of the human soul in the state of grace. Sometimes faith becomes weak not so much because of the big burdens but because we allow the little frets and cares and burdens to accumulate. If anything agitates us, we should go ahead and deal with it. Get it righted with the Lord before speaking to or meeting anyone. Whatever it is, invite Him into it. Regret nothing, not even the sins and failures.
We are swimming in the graces of the present moment. We should breathe in the rich blessings of each new day and forget all that lies behind. We are made so that we can carry the weight of 24 hours, no more. The Lord has promised to help us with the burdens of today only. Small wonder so many in our world are heartsick and weary.
An honest cry for help cannot be ignored by the living God. “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” Scripture, especially the psalms, teaches us how to cry out to God. This cry from the heart doesn’t have to be refined. It may only be a groan in the depths of the heart, but He will understand. He promised that His Word is a shield in time of battle. Shields don’t help unless we use them. We should pray for – ask for – faith. That is how we grow in faith – by asking for it.
Faith must be exercised and strengthened. If the eye is always covered with a patch and not used, it will grow weaker and weaker. We cannot give faith to ourselves. Ask for it. He will not refuse. Frequent the sacraments. There is no healing, and there is no restoration of what is lost outside of Jesus Christ. Strength and healing are found in Holy Communion and Confession. Ask for the grace of repentance. Say, “Lord, I am rebelling. Forgive me.”
• Grow in Your Knowledge of the Faith
You cannot entrust yourself to someone whom you do not know. Get to know God better. This can be done through prayer, Bible Study groups, good spiritual reading, retreats and conferences as well as courses including distance education courses.
• Understand That Temptations Will Come
Temptations do not mean you have done something wrong. When temptations against the faith come, treat them just as that: temptations.
If the temptations regard either chastity or faith temptations — take flight. Make an act of faith and then later, when you are on firmer ground, then go spend some time in study.
• Choose Your Friends Well
“Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.” Read the lives of saints. Find a faith-based group that will support and help you. At the same time, stay away from anyone or anything that will be an obstacle to your relationship with God. As it says in the Act of Contrition, “I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and avoid the near occasions of sin.”
• Remember That We Are Body-Soul People
We need to create an environment that is supportive of our soul. As far as sight is concerned, we need to have helpful visuals – statues, pictures, maxims, books, dvds. In the auditory sphere, we should have on hand good, wholesome religious talks from conferences and we must always be vigilant of the music to which we listen.
• Remain Steady
Sometimes we do not remain steady during times of trial and we begin to doubt our faith because we do not see the long vision. We need to learn how to develop a positive attitude as well as a trusting attitude in the everyday events of our lives. Remember, delay is not denial. Remember also, that some denials are expressions of love.
• Practice Humility: (*paraphrased from Ruth Burrows)
– The proud cannot allow themselves to be led. They have no need to listen, to be taught.
– They cannot bring themselves to hold out empty hands to God; they insist on offering virtues, good works, self denials, anything in order not to have nothing. God cannot give Himself to us unless our hands are empty to receive Him.
– They want to be beautiful for him from their own resources, whereas we are beautiful only because God looks on us and makes us beautiful.
– The deepest reason why so few of us are saints is because we will not let God love us. To be loved means a naked, defenseless surrender to all God is.
– Jesus came to us precisely to break down the bars, something we could never have done of ourselves. Most fervent souls are prepared to give God any mortal thing, work themselves to death, anything except the one thing he wants, total trust: anything but surrender into his loving hands. ‘You must become as little children’, whose one virtue is that they know they are unimportant.”
• Know the Indications of the Dark Night
The following points describing the Dark Night are helpful in distinguishing the Dark Night from depression or backsliding.
– A Sensible Aridity. One does not find consolation in the things of God or in created things.
– The Gift of Knowledge. This gift of the Holy Spirit is often very operative here. The person is enabled to see the variety and emptiness of sin and things created as opposed to God Himself. This is similar to what Saint Faustina refers to as “the illumination” where God grants a supernatural light of self-knowledge.
– A Keen Desire to Serve God. The memory now thinks about God with a painful anxiety. The soul thinks it is not serving God. It thinks that it is going backwards spiritually. This is because it is no longer conscious of any spiritual sweetness. In spite of this the soul desires to persevere in God’s service.
– An Inability to Meditate or Make Reflections That Engage the Imagination. This is technically the commencement of contemplation which must be received passively. Contemplation starts in a dry, dim, secret manner. It is a secret even to the person experiencing it. God wants the soul to long for solitude and quiet. As the soul longs for this quiet, then God begins to communicate Himself to the soul.
– Signs That This Aridity Is From God: (1) Although the soul feels no consolation in the things of God, neither does it find it in creatures; (2) the soul is not indifferent – it fears it is not serving the Lord; (3) the person is unable to meditate or converse as before even though it makes efforts to do so.
• Stay Close to Our Blessed Mother
She understands, and she wants to help you to remain close to Jesus. St. Alphonsus Ligouri is a wonderful teacher of how someone might pray to Mary.
Let us pray: My Queen, you are the one who guides souls to God. Surely you cannot expect me to draw closer to God if you do not take me by the hand and lead the way. Take hold of me, my Mother. If I resist, use force. Show heaven your power. Show everyone the depth of your mercy. Lead a faithless lover like me back to close union with God. You can make me a saint, my Mother, and I depend on you to do it! St. Alphonsus Liguori
* Guidelines for Mystical Prayer, pages 83-84 by Ruth Burrows, published and copyright 1976 by Sheed and Ward.