Night thoughts

Existential and spiritual crises seem to appear in the middle of the night – at least, according to various Catholic saints, poets, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sparklehorse and Danger Mouse they do.

Caspar David Friedrich [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The 16th century poet/saint John of the Cross wrote a poem about the path to spiritual enlightenment passing through a period of darkness and loss. The poem, although untitled, is now known as the Dark Night of the Soul, and it seems to have struck a chord.

Catholicism has this concept of “spiritual dryness” – that moment of religious doubt that seems to hit around about 3 or 4 in the morning. It should dissolve by morning, but it sounds like for many people it lasts longer. John of the Cross supposedly had his dark night for forty-five years, and in her letters Mother Theresa describes her own dark night as lasting fifty years.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the following:

In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.

And then there’s the classic Sparklehorse / Danger Mouse album Dark Night of the Soul and a bunch of other contemporary media references. The Wikipedia article doesn’t connect it to the dark night of the soul, but Edward Young’s 1740s poem Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality follows the same theme of night-time introspection.

On the topic of spiritual doubt, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s description of Herman Melville illustrates the feeling exceptionally well:

Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated”; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists – and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before – in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.

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