The Bright Night of My Soul

[ 12 ] Comments

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?

About Ray DeGraw

I am the husband of my high school sweetheart and father of six children. I basically have no life outside of family, work and church - except blogging, which I have been doing actively, to put it mildly, for the past 5 years. I have lived in almost every section of the United States and currently reside in Carson City, NV. I have written at Things of My Soul, Mormon Matters, Times & Seasons and StayLDS.com - and commented more than occasionally at various sites in the Bloggernacle.

12 Responses to The Bright Night of My Soul

  1. Paul says:

    Ray, thanks for sharing this post.

    I especially liked this: ” 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.”

    I came to that realization later than age 7 (I wasn’t introduced to the church until I was nearly 8…), but it is a space where I feel quite comfortable.

  2. jendoop says:

    I like this. I like that it is charitable in thought, which is hard to come by in this modern world of defensiveness and politics. Even in the church we are sometimes so used to being attacked, even from within, that we are defensive in our faith, not charitable.

    In my younger days I was more defensive, because I was scared that my ‘night’ was a personal failing. In vocally defending certainty I was convincing myself too, and surrounding myself with surety. As I grow older I’m more comfortable with uncertainty. Uncertainty is faith, not to have a sure knowledge. I feel more comfortable now in my faith, like my spiritual skin fits and I don’t have to be ashamed of it. Which allows for the differences you talk about. It has opened my heart to love others more when I allow them uncertainty(faith) too.

  3. Ray says:

    Thanks, Paul.

    Jendoop, I believe is striving for more light and knowledge in all things, but I think we emphasize knowledge so much right now that we sometimes end up thinking we know enough and closing ourselves off to further light and knowledge – including many of the great and marvelous things God would reveal to us otherwise.

  4. Terry says:

    This absolutely explains how I have felt my whole life. I was raised Catholic, spent many years at a time investigating many other Christian churchs, & spent many years at a time discouraged from the searching process. I have always felt I was being led in my learning experiences, with the common denominator being that God indeed brings more light, knowledge & understanding of His ways as I “continued” to search & trust through the lens of “seeing darkly”. My journey paid off 100 fold when the missionaries showed up at my door. I’d been praying for over 18 months that I the right church would somehow find me as I was so discouraged from looking. I found in my first reading of the Book of Mormon answers that I’d received through personal revelation but had never seen in black & white anywhere else. It’s been hard being the only one in my family to convert, but I’ve never looked back. My dark night was thinking my search was in vain. Thank God he was in control the whole time. Thank you so much for your insight. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog.

  5. kevinf says:

    Ray, much of what you say here echoes some of the things I have felt throughout my life. I’ve often described myself as an incurable optimist, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. I also found out early in life that there really are two sides (or more) to an argument, and that just because you think you are right, doesn’t make everyone else wrong who disagrees with you. Four years of high school and college debate taught me how easy it is to argue either side of a question with equal conviction, and as a result, I am very aware of the sincerity of those who disagree with me, those who doubt, and those that have given up hope. I guess I would say that I “believe all things, I hope all things, I have endured many things, and hope to endure all things.” And I’m still smiling.

    Nice new gig you got here, too. Wish you well.

    • MSKeller says:

      Well said Kevin! That always irks me when I give a compliment and somehow it is turned into ‘oh, what about me, aren’t I good too?’ from someone nearby.

      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 loved that Ray. So poignant and true. I think we all have them. I used to really identify with Pink Floyd’s Final Cut.

      And if I show you my dark side
      Will you still hold me tonight?
      And if I open my heart to you
      And show you my weak side
      What would you do?

      I’ve been told (and even by my husband) that ‘there is nobody like you’. So I’ve always felt just a little outside of things. What do I do? Mostly, I just keep doing what feels right to me and figure that the Lord will be the best judge in the end.

  6. Ray says:

    Thank you, Terry,

    Kevin, you know how much I admire and respect you. I’m glad you found us – and I’d love to have you submit a guest post occasionally. Send me an e-mail if you are interested.

  7. Fatha John says:

    In writing the book- ‘The Bright dark Nights Of The Soul’ in the world of the mentally and Physically handicapped, the Author Fatha John Patrick couldn’t help reflecting on the dark side of societies treatment and attitudes towards persons with disabilities. The 2nd world war aside, including its mass annihilation of the handicapped among others in the “FINAL SOLUTION” the 6-Million+plus, one perceives today times when we practice not as much of physical violence but more of ‘violence of the spirit kind’. violence that reaches deep within the soul of the at times helpless person, mum and incapacitated and incapable of responding with like for like. The Bright side comes in when we see the few bright stars that continue to make positive difference by lighting an otherwise dark night of the soul, for only when it is dark enough can we see the stars. The bright distant stars during our dark nights in society are perhaps best essentially acknowledged if we are to appreciate the type of positivity that you reflect above. What’s your take on this?

  8. Ray DeGraw says:

    Fatha John, that is a great observation, and it means a lot to me – since my mother is schizophrenic. She functions now and has functioned well for decades (with a couple of episodic breaks) largely because me father has been a “bright star” for her. I also have other extended family who deal with various disabilities that make them easy targets for the “violence of the spirit kind”, as you phrased it.

    I believe one of the best measures of real Christian charity is how we treat those who are the generalized and outcast among us – and I think that is true of different people when it comes to different groups. It could be the disabled (often is, in fact); it could be the old and infirm; it could be the homosexual; it could be the racial minorities; it could be the immigrant; etc.

    Collectively, the LDS Church does a really good job accepting some of these people, a reasonably good job accepting others, and a bad job accepting others. Elder Cook recently said, for example, that, of all people, we ought to be the shining stars (not his phrase, but his meaning) in never excluding gay people from our families and our activities just because of their feelings for others of their own sex – but we fall SO short of that ideal so often.

    My oldest daughter said to me, after going through our temple for the first time, that we focus so much on building up the kingdom of God that we often forget to establish Zion – and I think she was referring specifically to what I outlined above and what you highlighted in your comment, as well.

    We simply must be bright stars more than we naturally are – for any group that, collectively, tends to struggle in darkness that is different than our own.

    • MSKeller says:

      Can I quote you Ray? “I believe one of the best measures of real Christian charity is how we treat those who are the generalized and outcast among us – and I think that is true of different people when it comes to different groups. It could be the disabled (often is, in fact); it could be the old and infirm; it could be the homosexual; it could be the racial minorities; it could be the immigrant; etc. ” – Excellent.

      • fatha John says:

        Dear MSKeller and Ray.Thanks.In THE BRIGHT DARK NIGHTS OF THE SOUL book, inference is made to our diversities, be they in lifestyle, cultural,spiritual,abilities or dis-abilities.One of the most impressive outreach ministries for the mentally and physically challenged based on personal observation and also based on an in house VHS video clip was in the Church of Jesus Christ of latter day Saints-LDS -aka Mormons where invited by a friend,in 2003, we were able to dine with parents who brought their children with intellectual disabilities, after service, in an environment that was super friendly to all present.Similarly an author , Catholic clergyman and distinguished scholar one Henri Nouwen in his reflection in the books -‘ADAM God’s beloved ‘ -“CAN YOU DRINK THE CUP” and “THE ROAD TO DAYBREAK” he found his challenges…* easier to cope with during the last ten years of his life as a Chaplain in the Larche disabilities community. From an Islamic-racial-spiritual cultural perspective one former world heavy weight champion Mohammed Ali in -“THE SOUL OF A BUTTERFLY”- asserts that- ‘…change is an inevitable part of life…life is easier when we accept these changes and recognize how every moment of our journey is an important part of the growth of our soul’. Each among us, the over 6-billion plus worldwide will face various seasons in our life before we EXIT- would it not perhaps be fair that, as we spread the word to other cultures and traditions on matters or issues that affect all of humanity, that we seek too, to appreciate our differences, our sensitivities and cultural diversity. WORDS we are told are spirit and have a way of affecting our or others souls, either darkly or brightly, we can choose such words as we utter or write wisely, at best if we do not have much choice-hold our peace and calm.Thanks for your comments Ray and MSkeller. Fatha John- Author of THE BRIGHT DARK NIGHTS OF THE SOUL

  9. Ray DeGraw says:

    Absolutely – and I’m glad you like it.

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