Desert spirituality at two o’clock in the morning
Look at pretty much any culture that existed before the use of electricity, and you’ll see that they had deep superstitions about night. Throughout the ages, it’s been a nearly universal human belief that evil forces gained potency after the sun went down. Age-old evening prayers reflect fears of death:
Now I lay me down to sleep / I pray the Lord my soul to keep / and if I die before I wake / I pray the Lord my soul to take.
…And an awareness of evil:
May the Lord bless us, protect us from all evil, and bring us to everlasting life.
I always assumed that these ideas were baseless. When I was an atheist studying anthropology in college, I noticed that all the peoples we studied had a fear of the night in common, but I chalked it up to a purely natural explanation — darkness makes it easier for accidents to happen, for enemies to attack, etc., so people have learned to have a certain discomfort with it. Even after my conversion, I never seriously considered that there were any inherent differences between night and day, spiritually speaking.
But then I began to notice that the moments in which I felt closest to despair tended to be when I was lying awake in the middle of the night. I’ve dealt with insomnia on and off for pretty much my whole life, and I was all too familiar with the kind of feelings that can overtake you when you’re lying in a dark, silent room and doing too much thinking. If I was struggling with some problem, during the day I might feel kind of bummed about it, maybe even a little depressed; at night, thoughts about that same problem would leave me filled with doom — all-encompassing, despair-filled, break-out-the-Jaws-soundtrack DOOM.
I had been reading up on the reality of spiritual warfare (which I know makes me sound like a crazy church lady, but, hey, the devil is real and actively works in this world, whether we’re comfortable talking about it or not), and when that knowledge collided with my experiences in the middle of the night, something occurred to me. I recognized the feelings of despair, the temptation to stop trusting in God, the sense of angry hopelessness, and I realized:
This is spiritual attack.
And it tends to happen at night.
That’s not to say that spiritual attack only happens at night, or that all dark feelings are spiritual and not psychological or biochemical in nature. But I have come to believe — and believe strongly — that there is something to the timeless human belief that great spiritual trials can happen at night, and that they’re of a different nature than the kinds of trials we typically face during the day. And, lately, I’ve been thinking about how to combat it.
I think I have some mild post-traumatic stress disorder from my health crisis and the baby’s health crisis earlier this year. In general, I’m fine. Even on the nights that I don’t sleep well, I’m usually fine. But every now and then, when I find myself awake in the middle of the night, I’ll find myself once again fighting waves of irrational despair. Part of it is undoubtedly psychological, and I may check in with my therapist at some point. But there is a very clear element of spiritual attack at work too, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to combat it.
I don’t have all the answers yet, but I think that many of them are to be found in looking at the spirituality of the desert. Judeo-Christian tradition has long been aware that there’s no spiritual battlefield like the one you’ll find in the middle of a barren land. With no technology, no animal life, no comforts, not even changing weather patterns to distract you, you’ll be stripped of any artifice that had worked its way into your spiritual life. Without any source of material comfort, you’ll be forced to rely on God alone. And, for those of us who don’t really rely on God as much as we say we do, it might get pretty uncomfortable.
I think that lying awake in darkness is a microcosm of the desert experience. Those moments of utter aloneness that occur in the middle of the night give us a small taste of what the Desert Fathers experienced in their years in the Scetes. In an odd way, it’s comforting to know that this is the kind of spiritual test that challenged even the great saints (see this documentary about an Anglican vicar who tried being a desert hermit for three weeks — things get pretty tough starting at the 40:00 mark).
The desert is a painful spiritual proving ground, especially if we’ve gotten too used to dealing with spiritual attack by running off to bury ourselves in distractions. We feel exposed and vulnerable when there’s nowhere to run.
But it’s for this same reason that the desert is also a place of powerful encounters with God. Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his book Journey to Easter:
Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the desert…What does this surprising guide intend? Let us reflect a little on what is meant by “the desert.”
The desert is a place of silence, of solitude. It is the absence of the exchanges of daily life, its noise and its superficiality. The desert is the place of the absolute, the place of freedom, which sets man before the ultimate demands. Not by chance is the desert the place where monotheism began. In that sense it is a place of grace. In putting aside all preoccupations we encounter our Creator.
Great things have their beginnings in the desert, in silence, in poverty. It is not possible to share in the mission of Jesus, in the mission of the Gospel, without sharing in the desert experience, its poverty, its hunger. That beautiful hunger for justice of which the Lord speaks in the Sermon on the Mount cannot be born in the fullness of satiety.
For those of us who have lives filled with luxury and ease here in the modern West, those stark midnight moments allow us to experience that kind of hunger that Pope Benedict talks about here. When all our devices and possessions are tucked away in darkness, and there is no one else awake for miles around, we taste the kind of spiritual poverty that is both startling and freeing.
I realize that not everyone goes through this. Lots of people are probably reading this and wondering what the crazy woman is talking about. But for those of us who do occasionally find ourselves in bleak places in the middle of the night, I think there’s much strength to be found in seeing it as an opportunity to walk in the desert.
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