Friday, May 23, 2008

The dark night

It’s fitting that on the day of my last infusion that I reflect on what this ordeal has accomplished. As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s not as if interferon confers any special immunity. It “cures” nothing. That said, my body’s immune system is its best defense against the spread of cancer cells, so anything I do to boost that capacity is a good thing. It’s just too bad this has come at such a steep cost physically and mentally for such a marginal benefit. If interferon was a consumer product, its manufacturer would have gone bankrupt long ago.

Beyond the strictly medical, there is another, deeper and more meaningful dimension to what I’ve experienced in recent weeks. It’s easy to become absorbed in all the chemistry and physics of cancer treatment: how interferon works, what radiation does to cancer cells, etc. That’s really interesting stuff. I’m not enough of a scientist to have it figured out, but I strive to understand what it is that high-tech medicine is doing for me. I’ve been a medical editor long enough to want the facts. The technological resources that are being marshaled in an attempt to rid my body of cancer are remarkable by any standard. I’m awed by their power, but also appalled by their financial cost and their disruptive capacity. I ask rhetorically: Is it really worth it? Are chemistry and physics all that this is about?

Well, no. There is something else that’s been going on of which I’m beginning to gain a glimmer of understanding.

I’ve been puzzling over the distance that I’ve felt from God through this treatment process. I have not felt forsaken, and I have done a pretty good job of sustaining my routine of reading Scripture and praying for myself and others. I am not angry or disappointed by God. I am merely surprised by his silence and by what I sense as his absence. I thought this might have been a particularly sweet time of communion with him, given my circumstances and my need for his comfort. Let’s just say that I had expectations, and they haven’t been met.

I’m not quite sure if I’ve got this right, but there are experiences that some Christians have had that are called “the dark night of the soul.” It’s a term first used by St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish priest and mystic. The dark night is not understood to be bad or destructive. On the contrary, it may in fact be more necessary than any of the “chemistry or physics” to which I’ve submitted myself. The spiritual dryness that I’ve felt has stripped me of my overdependence on my emotional and intellectual life. St. John has written that the dark night is one of the ways God brings us to a hush, a stillness, so that he can work an inner transformation on our soul.

“… the darkness of the soul puts the sensory and spiritual appetites to sleep, deadens them, and deprives them of the ability to find pleasure in anything. It binds the imagination and impedes it from doing any good discursive work. It makes the memory cease, the intellect becomes dark and unable to understand anything, and hence it causes the will also to become arid and constrained…”

This description captures perfectly much of what I’ve been feeling. I won’t say much more, since I don’t understand this adequately. It may just be that interferon has stupefied me, and I’ll snap back when my dose goes down. But I’m beginning to suspect that there’s much more happening here. That God may be working on my soul in a profound way that I can’t fully sense or observe is an amazing thought. It’s possible he has tuned me out, so to speak, so that I can’t interfere with his purposes.

I take it as a grace that God is freeing me of myself and removed from me my own activities for a time. He has grasped my hand and is guiding me through the darkness. I believe he is taking me to a place that I could never have gotten to by my own power. If this sounds mystical, then I guess it needs to. I don’t have any other way of adequately expressing where I feel I am on my journey. I am not in control.


Wags said...

This is the great question of Christianity: why does God seem to be absent when we need Him the most? As you know, He really isn't. I'm sure that someday you'll learn why he was silent at this point in time, and you'll respond, "Ah, now I see!" Thanks for sharing this insight with us--unfortunately, some of us reading this may someday experience what you're experiencing now, and it's helpful to have a heads-up regarding this phenomenon. I hope today, your last with interferon, goes OK. I'm also glad He has given you good days when you needed them. Have a great Memorial Day weekend, and we'll talk soon.

Anonymous said...


You are absolutely right. You are not in control of your life or the circumstances you face. The reality is that neither you, nor I, nor anyone else for that matter is in control of their own destiny even though much of the time we have the illusion that we are. It is at those times when our blinders are removed that we see our lives as they truly are; fully dependent upon God and his mercy.

I am grateful that in the midst of your "dark night of the soul" you haven't lost sight of God's presence and in fact realize that he is at work molding and shaping you more into Christ's likeness. I am happy to read that he has grasped your hand and is leading you through the darkness, a darkness that at times can be all enveloping. I am also encouraged to read that you sense God at work in your life even though he has been distant.

I will continue to pray that God will be at work in your life and that you will sense his presence in powerful and profound ways as he leads you through your time of spiritual dryness.

I am on my knees,