The Bright Night of My Soul
by Ray DeGraw
I wrote the following on Mormon Matters a while ago, but I felt like I should post it here (edited slightly) as a personal introduction. It constitutes the framework within which I tend to see things – the foundation of why I am so comfortable “in my own skin” as someone who sees lots of things differently than many of those around me but who has a deep and abiding testimony of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ and loves the LDS Church. If anything in it resonates with you as you read, or if your own faith-orientation is different than mine, I would love to hear about it.
I have not experienced a “dark night of the soul”. I have never awakened one morning feeling lost and abandoned, questioning everything of which I once was sure. I have wondered occasionally about that – about why it seemed to have “clicked” so completely for me at such a young age.
1) I read the Book of Mormon for the first time in First Grade as part of a reading project at school. (I chose to read it; everyone else was reading Dr. Seuss, The Berenstain Bears, etc.) By the age of seven, I had read the Book of Mormon and fallen in love with the way it made me feel – not primarily the doctrine in it, per se, but the way it opened my mind and heart to some incredible feelings and impressions. I am not a “visual learner”, and I don’t “see” what I read in the classic sense of being able to envision it in colorful detail. I “got” the words, but more importantly I “got” the “speaking from the dust” aspect – and that was more important than the words for me. (Not long thereafter, I read the New Testament and had the same type of experience.)
Most importantly, I recognized places where I thought it didn’t say what others believed it said. Even at that age, I was an analytical reader – and I remember thinking that lots of people in my life, including many adults and leaders (and even former prophets and apostles) whom I respected and admired greatly, didn’t really understand some of the things I was reading in the way that they actually were written. I read passages and thought, “I can understand why people think it says ________________, but it just doesn’t say that.”
That was a foundational recognition for me – that faithful people at all levels in the Church could read the same words and understand them differently.
2) Growing up, I remember distinctly the words and example of my father. He taught me so many lessons, but the ones that came back to me as I contemplated why I had never had my faith shaken in a major way were the ones that dealt with certainty – the ones that taught me what I could and couldn’t know. My dad is not a philosopher; he hated school and struggled there; in many ways, he is average Joe Mormon; he was and is, however, incredibly insightful and brilliant in his own way. Many of my strongest “understandings” of the Gospel were shaped by what he said and how he lived, particularly when it comes to the issue of certainty and doubt.
I have no idea how many times I heard him say, “I don’t know if I believe that”, or, “That sounds good, but we just don’t know for sure,” or, “I’m not sure that’s how I see it,” etc.
This gave me a foundation that allowed me to accept and love others, even when I disagreed with how they saw many things – even very important things.
3) As early as I can remember, I have understood the Gospel to be the core, fundamental principles of God. (“faith” – hope in the unseen; “repentance” – change; “baptism” – symbolic cleansing; “the gift of the Holy Ghost” – being tied into spiritual guidance outside ourselves; “enduring to the end” – never giving up; all founded on love) I also have understood that everything else is just details we strive to understand. I have understood that there can be certainty in the ideal – in the ultimate end – in the foundation principles, but I also have understood that everything we see, believe, extrapolate, conjecture and assume is subject to “further light and knowledge” – that even with more light and knowledge, we still will see through our glasses, darkly.
My epiphany is that I am comfortable living in my own “dark night” that is similar in practical result as others’ (one that is not cut off from God but simply cut off from certainty about the details), but that came about quite differently than it does for many. I have lived there for as long as I can remember. I have never believed in the certainty that many describe prior to their own dark nights, so I have never felt abandoned by its loss. My “dark night” appears “light” to me, because I don’t remember a time when I believed I saw things clearly and completely. I just see them as clearly as I am capable of seeing them – which I understand and accept as “darkly”. I have never been shaken by doubt of detail or radical change in doctrine or policy, because my testimony has never been founded on certainty of detail or doctrine or policy. There are things I feel completely comfortable saying I “know” for myself, but I have never felt like anyone else had to “know” anything with certainty to enjoy the fruits of the Restoration.
I see my own understanding in 1 Corinthians 13:9-13. In full text, it reads:
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
I believe I know in part, and I believe our prophets prophesy in part. I believe that will change someday, but I have no idea when that will be. There was a time, prior to my first reading of the Book of Mormon, when I thought as a child – that everything was black and white and I could know it all; I put away that belief at a very early age. I believe I see through my own glass, darkly, and, therefore, only in part; I believe someday I will know fully.
Verse 8 is the bridge between the characteristics of charity and the outlook charity provides. It says:
Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
Given this perspective, I live with faith and hope that I will understand and know more fully on an on-going basis as my future unfolds. The greatest thing I can do in the here and now, however, is to be charitable – to obtain the characteristics in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 and allow them to grow within me and change me into the type of person who can accept wherever I and others are in our own individual spiritual maturation processes.
I believe firmly and deeply in the principles of ongoing-revelation and charity exercised in how I must view others – that what I believe now differs from what I believed as a youth and young adult – that what I believe now differs from what I will believe in the future – that what I believe now differs from what others believe now - that all of that is just fine and acceptable to God. I believe that this charity God gave me as a youth will not fail me, even as prophecies and tongues and knowledge fail all around and within me.
In my youth, this was an unconsciously proactive embrace of the core concept embedded in overcoming the dark night; in my adulthood, it is a light shining in darkness. I like to think of it as the long-extended bright night of my soul.
Have you experienced anything like a “dark night of the soul”?
If so, how did you handle it? What helped pull you out of it?
How do you deal with being different than others around you?