Into This Dark Night: One Way Contemplation Can Look

A rainy night.

When I first experienced the kind of contemplation John of the Cross talks about, I didn’t know that’s what it was. In fact, it was only in hindsight — much, much later — that I realized what I’d endured was a night of the senses in the dark night of the soul. 

All I knew at the time was that completely new revelations about myself were opening up all over the place, and all of those self-revelations caused me to shut down completely. 

I was 19. And I didn’t know which way was up anymore.

I’d grown up in the church and had a relationship with God the whole of my life. It was a meaningful relationship, too — one that guided my life. As I matured in age, I got in involved in the usual things: youth group, youth choir, discipleship groups, Bible studies, and eventually I sang on the youth worship team and discipled girls who were younger than me. I read my Bible frequently and kept a faithful prayer journal. I went to a Christian college. I dated — and then married — a Christian boy.

But then two things happened.

I read a book that, for whatever reason, made me connect with a truth in my heart that I’d never fully acknowledged before: I didn’t understand grace or my need for Jesus. And second, I enrolled myself in therapy.

Through therapy, I began to see how much of my whole existence was spent doing, doing, doing, and how at the root of all that doing was a life-arresting belief that I needed to live that way in order to survive and find love and acceptance.

It was a freefall moment for me, looking around at my entire reality and finding it all suspect. What I thought were my motivations were not my motivations at all. I didn’t know myself. I didn’t know my relation to the world around me. And I didn’t know where God fit into all of it, either.

And so I stopped. 

No leadership or discipleship activities. Very rare church attendance. My prayer journal languished, unattended, by my bedside. 

I did nothing. I just sat in the dark.

For two long years.

Those two years weren’t spent in what you’d call a “loving attentiveness toward God,” by any means. It felt more like a challenge. I was sitting down on the floor of my life, challenging God to prove that he loved me in a way that had nothing to do with all those things I’d been doing, doing, doing to earn that love. Somehow, he loved me beyond all that, but that didn’t make sense to me. And so I sat down and asked him to teach me. And I refused to get up until he did.

This was certainly more rebellious in spirit than the “loving attentiveness” St. John of the Cross encourages during such a season. And it seemed, at least from my vantage point, triggered completely by me. I’d had the self-revelations. I’d enrolled in therapy. I’d decided to sit down on the floor of my life and do nothing. 

But looking back, I eventually came to see that it was, indeed, a night of the senses initiated by God.

And it was, indeed, contemplation — albeit a very rudimentary version of it.

Because while I was sitting there doing nothing for those two long years, the root of my whole being was intently trained on God. I just kept beating against him while I sat there, asking him to give me the truth, knowledge, awareness, belief I needed to learn.

I knew I couldn’t learn it for myself. I had no idea what the learning even was or meant. I was in the dark, but I was willing to sit there and let him work whatever needed to be worked in my soul for as long as it needed to take.

And even though I thought at the time that it was happening because I’d initiated all that “doing nothing-ness,” I know now it was initiated by God. The timing for those self-revelations was ripe. My heart was ready for true awareness and honesty. It was time for me to grow up in love and truth and God.

And so God clicked it all in motion.

And I responded, and said yes.