“In order to raise the soul from imperfection,” said the Voice of God to St. Catherine in her Dialogue, “I withdraw Myself from her sentiment, depriving her of former consolations . . . Though she perceives that I have withdrawn Myself, she does not, on that account, look back; but perseveres with humility in her exercises, remaining barred in the house of self-knowledge, and, continuing to dwell therein, awaits with lively faith the coming of the Holy Spirit, that is of Me, who am the Fire of Love.
– St. Catherine in her Dialogue, quoted in the Dark Night of the Soul in Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill
St. Catherine writes about finding a sense of stability or trust through potentially shaky or tumultuous experiences, what English speaking Buddhists like to call equanimity. I rarely use that word myself, although I often write about what it refers to.
In this case, St. Catherine experienced a removal of the presence of God, as I did some years back. When we tell ourselves we have lost something important to us, whatever it is, it shows us what’s left. It tends to trigger thoughts, with an invitation to question if these are true.
In the case of the dark night of the soul, following a period of illumination, some very specific thoughts are brought to the surface. These may be…. God’s presence was here, and now is gone. What’s here is not God / God’s will / God’s love / God’s presence. What happened wasn’t God’s will / God’s love. Something went wrong. I did something wrong. God has abandoned me. This is not God’s presence.
It seems that St. Catherine has enough trust or clarity to find a sense of stability through the apparent loss of God’s presence. She may have trusted what happened as God’s will or as God’s love. She may have recognized God’s presence even in it’s apparent absence, or even recognized what’s here – including what thoughts would label an absence of God’s presence – as God itself.
She may have trusted that even if she – at a psychological and human level – would prefer something else, what’s here doesn’t need to change. It’s already God’s will. It’s already God’s love. It’s already God’s presence. It’s already God.
Even if I (thought I) clearly saw all of this before my own “dark night of the soul”, when it happened, it was far more challenging than I could have imagined. All the very human parts of me that didn’t trust that all is God’s will came to the surface. Remaining wounds, all the thoughts about very specific things still taken as true – often at an emotional or physical level, surfaced and came up, often quite strongly. My capacity for equanimity seemed to go out the window, and challenging states and situations piled up, which made for a thoroughly humbling mix. And that’s one of the ways this process cleans out what’s left.
What are some of the ways I can find equanimity through this? I am very grateful for nurturing and honest connections with friends, even if it’s just one person. I find long walks in nature nurturing as well. Personal guidance from the few who have gone through it themselves has been invaluable, such as Barry and Adyashanti. As is listening to or reading what people with experience and insights in this or a similar process has said or written, such as Adyashanti, Byron Katie, and Barry & Karen. I am also very grateful for Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill since it helped me make an initial sense of what’s been happening in my own process. Prayer for guidance and support has also been central for me.
Some active explorations have also helped me find a measure of equanimity. One is recognizing what’s here, for instance through sense field explorations or the Big Mind process, as awareness (aka Big Mind/Heart, God, love). Simply shifting into relating to experience as a friend, with kindness and love, provides a deep sense of stability. Another is knowing, through experience and at a felt level, that stress comes from taking a thought it true, and it’s possible to investigate that thought and find peace. Yet another comes from training a more stable attention, allowing for a calm eye in the center of the storm. Even TRE gives a sense of equanimity over time, knowing from experience and at a felt level that whatever is here is OK because the tension or trauma created can be released through neurogenic tremors.
I am also reminded of this poem by Mary Stevenson:
One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.
Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.
Sometimes there were two sets of footprints,
other times there were one set of footprints.
This bothered me because I noticed
that during the low periods of my life,
when I was suffering from
anguish, sorrow or defeat,
I could see only one set of footprints.
So I said to the Lord,
“You promised me Lord,
that if I followed you,
you would walk with me always.
But I have noticed that during
the most trying periods of my life
there have only been one
set of footprints in the sand.
Why, when I needed you most,
you have not been there for me?”
The Lord replied,
“The times when you have
seen only one set of footprints,
is when I carried you.”
This stagnation of the emotions has its counterpart in the stagnation of the will and intelligence, which has been experienced by some contemplatives as a part of their negative state. As regards the will, there is a sort of moral dereliction: the self cannot control its inclinations and thoughts. In the general psychic turmoil, all the unpurified part of man’s inheritance, the lower impulses and unworthy ideas which have long been imprisoned below the threshold, force their way into the field of consciousness. “Every vice was re-awakened within me,” says Angela of Foligno, “I would have chosen rather to be roasted than to endure such pains.” 806 Where visual and auditory automatism is established, these irruptions from the subliminal region often take the form of evil visions, or of voices making coarse or sinful suggestions to the self. Thus St. Catherine of Siena, in the interval between her period of joyous illumination and her “spiritual marriage,” was tormented by visions of fiends, who filled her cell and “with obscene words and gestures invited her to lust.” She fled from her cell to the church to escape them, but they pursued her there: and she obtained no relief from this obsession until she ceased to oppose it. She cried, “I have chosen suffering for my consolation, and will gladly bear these and all other torments in the name of the Saviour, for as long as it shall please His Majesty.” With this act of surrender, the evil vision fled: Catherine swung back to a state of affirmation, and was comforted by a vision of the Cross.
“In order to raise the soul from imperfection,” said the Voice of God to St. Catherine in her Dialogue, “I withdraw Myself from her sentiment, depriving her of former consolations . . . which I do in order to humiliate her, and cause her to seek Me in truth, and to prove her in the light of faith, so that she come to prudence. Then, if she love Me without thought of self, and with lively faith and with hatred of her own sensuality, she rejoices in the time of trouble, deeming herself unworthy of peace and quietness of mind. Now comes the second of the three things of which I told thee, that is to say: how the soul arrives at perfection, and what she does when she is perfect. That is what she does. Though she perceives that I have withdrawn Myself, she does not, on that account, look back; but perseveres with humility in her exercises, remaining barred in the house of self-knowledge, and, continuing to dwell therein, awaits with lively faith the coming of the Holy Spirit, that is of Me, who am the Fire of Love. . . . This is what the soul does in order to rise from imperfection and arrive at perfection, and it is to this end, namely, that she may arrive at perfection, that I withdraw from her, not by grace, but by sentiment. Once more do I leave her so that she may see and know her defects, so that feeling herself deprived of consolation and afflicted by pain, she may recognize her own weakness, and learn how incapable she is of stability or perseverance, thus cutting down to the very root of spiritual self-love: for this should be the end and purpose of all her self-knowledge, to rise above herself, mounting the throne of conscience, and not permitting the sentiment of imperfect love to turn again in its death-struggle, but with correction and reproof digging up the root of self-love with the knife of self-hatred and the love of virtue.”