Spiritual darkness and ‘keeping a low profile’

a brakelSpiritual darkness is something that affects – or at least can affect – all Christian believers. It may develop as a result of a particular affliction (Lord, why this?), or it may be difficult to link to any one issue in life. It comes in the form of seemingly inexplicable feelings of doubt, loss of joy, loss of clarity about spiritual matters and so on. It is likely running its course in the lives of quite a few in our own churches.

Thankfully, this is something addressed with specificity and pastoral insight by the Dutch Reformed minister Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711) in his excellent work The Christian’s Reasonable Service (4 vols with Reformation Heritage Books). After serving churches for forty years, à Brakel published this gem that not only covers topics commonly found in systematic theologies but also addresses many of the Christian’s immediately practical concerns.

He defines ‘spiritual darkness’ in this way: it is a ‘spiritual disease of a person who has made some progress in the Christian life’ in which that person faces ‘the absence of the normal illuminating influences of the Holy Spirit’ and is ‘without joy, warmth, and direction’. Such a person ‘lives in fear and anxiety, causing him to wander about aimlessly, as in a desert’ (4:260). It’s difficult to provide more precision in defining this phenomenon, but I think, as they say, we’ll know it when we see it. According to à Brakel, spiritual darkness is manifested in sorrow, even in ‘fleeting atheistic thoughts’ and temptations to err in doctrine and practice. In another respect, it is like being cold: ‘During the winters and beneath the pole-caps everything becomes immobile due to the frost’ (4:261-2).

What are the causes for this darkness? Whether because he is dealing more narrowly with strictly spiritual darkness and/or because it simply wasn’t on his radar, à Brakel doesn’t deal here with depression influenced by bodily issues. Suffice it to say, for my part, I believe spiritual darkness, physiology and even what we often call ‘personality’ (or personality type) can be intertwined. In any event, à Brakel names several potential causes for spiritual darkness:

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Dostoyevsky & Pastoral Care – The Joy of Ministry (pt. 2)

In chapter 2 of The Joy of Ministry, Thomas Currie offers us the fruit of his tutelage in the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  In contrast to the contemporary church culture and its offerings of success strategies and management helps, we find in the writings of Dostoyevsky a vision for God’s mysterious grace that embraces life’s painful and oftentimes tragic messiness. Currie profiles the character of Father Zossima from The Brothers Karamazov and draws lessons for pastoral care from Zossima’s interaction with three different peasant women. In each case,

The joy that is offered by Father Zossima perceives and addresses great suffering, revealing itself to be no stranger to human misery but refusing to let such misery define the terms of a life that belongs to God (p. 22).

Currie’s study of Father Zossima and the insights he offers here for pastoral care are rich indeed. I was particularly struck by his interaction with the third vignette. A peasant woman comes to Father Zossima and without saying word falls prostrate before him with her face to the ground. She confesses that when her alcoholic, abusive husband was deathly ill, she wished not for healing but for his death. Having already confessed this to her priest, she comes to Father Zossima continuing to fear for her soul. In Zossima’s response Currie finds the heart of God’s extravagant mercy:

Father Zossima’s words to the woman voice the deepest convictions of Dostoyevsky’s own novelistic vision and summarize his understanding of redemptive love, Continue reading