Hope for Getting Through the Dark Night of the Soul

The darkness of life confronts some more than others and for what, perhaps is a majority, this darkness seems inescapable.  This was brought home to me in the following three vignettes, a Mafia wife, a despairing novelist, and a poverty stricken young girl. The three stories converged upon me this week as a problem for which there is no justification or answer.  In place of an answer I offer counter stories accompanied by poetry and song (weak even in the description); the stories of two men who faced soul crushing despair in a wilderness of hatred, bigotry, and racism, and yet who, like Moses, caught a glimpse of the promised land.  At their lowest point both see beyond the immediate despair and prospect of death and their vision is captured in a moment of transcendent artistry.  The vision of their art is the singular balm, of which I am aware, for the dark night of the soul. 

This week’s New Yorker: Lea Garofalo’s disappearance required no explanation.  The local Mafia had a term for such killings, lupara bianca or “white shotgun,” a killing that left no corpse. Her father, uncle, and brother, were among the dozens in the local community which had suffered the same fate. “You don’t live,” she had once said, of her existence as a Mafia wife.  “You just survive and dream about something, anything – because nothing’s worse than that life.”  The presumption is that after being shot her body was dissolved in a barrel of acid in the manner of lupara bianca killings.

This week’s podcast: Kimitake Hiraoka was born to wealth and privilege in the Yotsuya distict of Tokyo.  Through his grandmother, Natsuko, the family traced their lineage to Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. Natusko’s violent attacks and his father Azusa’s militaristic discipline permanently marked Kimitake.  He remembered his father holding him out in front of a speeding train to toughen him up. He would be plagued by Azusa’s ripping up any of his efforts at writing as his father was determined to drive Kimitake away from the “feminine” world of literature. His father’s condemning voice became the voice of his own conscience and after a successful literary career he turned to the physical world of kendo, body building, and longed to escape the turmoil of his own inner suffering.  Kimitake intended to restore “something worth dying for” as he felt he had missed out by not dying with his contemporaries in the war.  Mostly he wanted to stop the voices in his head “eating away at his flesh.” His would be the definitive suicide of 20th century Japan, marking the futility of an entire generation which had laid down their lives for the “living god.”  Kimitake determined that his own sacrifice would somehow reverse this futility.

This week’s newsletter: Sarah fled her village in Katakwi Uganda because of severe famine.  Her friends convinced her that life would be easier in Kampala but when she got there she was forced into a life of begging.  Rotten food in the garbage dump of the Kisenyi slum was all she could find.  She had tried picking up a sprinkling of grain from a passing truck but a passer-by had kicked her in the ribs. Now she is constantly under threat of rape as she cannot scavenge and beg enough to purchase a place on the dirt floor where the other girls sleep for protection.[1]

Conclusion: Life is subjection to futility.  This futility is the cause and substance of human suffering.  For some this futility is overwhelming and definitive and even the slightest relief seems impossible.  Grinding poverty, racism, prejudice, violence, addiction, disease, the suffering of a child, the slow demise of a parent, mental affliction, or abusive treatment, consume the majority of lives without remainder.  The minority, through the privilege of wealth, the manipulation of power, or the perverseness of personality, are able to momentarily ward off this reality but the very wealth, power, and perverseness, which buys momentary relief is too often purchased at the expense of others.  The wealth and privilege of one nation is purchased through the back-breaking labor and impoverishment of another.  The power of the master is purchased by those he enslaves.  The logic of this purchase is the allowance for evil on the left so as to multiply the “good” on the right.  The mafioso is enriched, the suffocating voices are silenced, and the life of a young girl is spent, as part of the universal economy in which death is the coin of the realm.

The above stories and conclusion are incontrovertible.

There are other stories, which in the detailing of despair are the same but which set forth a counter logic and alternative vision.

It was a rainy night in Memphis and Martin Luther King Jr. had not wanted to speak.  He assumed the lightning and hard rain would keep the crowds away and he was exhausted.  His plane to Memphis had been delayed by a bomb threat and the threats and violence were taking their toll.  When his friends arrived at Mason Temple, the church was packed, so they called and said he better come.  It would be his final sermon and this premonition pervades his talk.  At this point, he felt it inevitable that “one of the sick white brothers” would kill him. (James Earl Ray had already staked out the Lorraine Motel from an adjacent boarding house.)

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

The circumstance is one of seemingly complete futility.  King’s work on the Poor People’s March had been delayed by the Memphis garbage strike which had included rioting and bloodshed. The racists had crowed when King had left Memphis – Senator Robert Byrd had called King a coward who had fled – “showing his true color is yellow.”  He had returned over the protest of the consensus of his friends. He had come up to the city to die and in this moment of darkness he soared.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from Tegel Prison, also pictures himself in the place of Moses on Mt. Nebo looking toward the promised land.  He harbored the same certainty as King of imminent death.  Even prior to his imprisonment martyrdom seemed a real possibility: “The blood of martyrs might once again be demanded,” he had warned.  At the same time, he was well aware that “this blood will not be innocent, shining like that of the first witnesses for the faith.” The church was complicit in its own destruction  through supporting Hitler.  Bonhoeffer would suffer for abandoning his own principles – relinquishing nonviolence in his participation in the plot against Hitler. His faith and his church appeared to have failed. “On our blood lies heavy guilt, the guilt of the unprofitable servant who is cast into outer darkness.”  Like the Apostle Paul, he was willing to count himself accursed.  Yet in this thickest darkness his artistry glimmers with hope:

Grant me to witness through the veil of death

my people at their high triumphant feast.

I fail, and sink in thine eternity,

but see my people marching forward, free.

God quick to punish sin or to forgive,

thou knowest how this people has my love.

Enough that I have borne its shame and sin

and seen salvation—now I need not live.

Stay, hold my nerveless hands, let fall my staff;

thou faithful God, prepare me for my grave.

It is against the darkest night that hope shines brightest.  Hope does not avert the gaze but squarely faces bigotry, oppression, and death.  Hope is the perspective of the mountain top which lifts one out of the wasteland so as to glimpse a future already arriving.  A dreary night in Memphis in which death is certain and the bigots seem to have won, calls forth the most profound vision of an alternative possibility.  The view from Tegel, Buchenwald, and Flossenbürg, wear on Bonhoeffer but do not constrain his vision.  Bonhoeffer cites the power of the cross as providing a transcending point of view: “The peculiar feature of Christian life is precisely this cross, a cross enabling Christians to go beyond the world, as it were, thereby granting them victory over the world.”  Bonhoeffer maintained that Christians, “had to share in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world” if they were to be true followers of the Master.

King and Bonhoeffer pass through the dark night of the soul – each questioning the efficacy of their life. Bonhoeffer asks, after recounting the German Christian experience, if Christians are “still of any use?” From this darkness is forged a faith which can stare unblinking at a cruel death.  As he faces the gallows Bonhoeffer says, “This is the end. For me the beginning of life.”

This is not an explanation of suffering but a prescription for getting through the night. The dark night of the soul haunts from fears within and dangers without and the immediate need is for a little light. The very darkness of the immanent frame should turn our eyes to the mountain-top

for without such a vision we perish. Yet, it is only in full confrontation with the darkness that the source of an impossible light is apprehended.

King’s last words on the hotel balcony before his assassination were spoken to musician Ben Branch, who was scheduled to perform that night at a service King was attending: “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”  The lyrics of King’s favorite hymn must have passed through his mind as Ray’s bullet penetrated his right cheek, smashing his jaw, and traveled down his spinal cord:

Precious Lord, take my hand

Lead me on, let me stand

I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m lone

Through the storm, through the night

Lead me on to the light

Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When my way grows drear, precious Lord linger near

When my light is almost gone

Hear my cry, hear my call

Hold my hand lest I fall

Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When the darkness appears and the night draws near

And the day is past and gone

At the river I stand

Guide my feet, hold my hand

Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.

[1] The first story is from the Jan. 22nd New Yorker. The second concerns the life of the novelist who wrote under the name of Yukio Mishima, whom I have had a long interest in and concerning whom I have been doing a series of podcasts. The third story is a composite of things Matt Welch has described and from a card his organization 91/Four sent out. Due to Matt and his Sister many girls like Sarah (a name I chose) have been rescued.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.