Many of us wrestle with a lack of wholeness and joy in life. We are pulled by the tension that our joy should reflect our faith, yet we struggle with feelings of spiritual emptiness. If you have experienced dark nights of the soul (or anything similar), you are in good company.
St. Jane de Chantal, the deeply devout French noblewoman who founded the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary along with St. Francis de Sales in the early 1600s, once expressed these feelings in a letter to St. Francis. She described a deep spiritual anguish, a darkness that she could not illuminate.
In the chat conversation below, our participants come face-to-face with these sobering realities. What wisdom can we gain from St. Jane de Chantal, St. Francis de Sales, and others who have walked this path before us? Is it proper to tremble before God? Should we not desire joy? Join us as we explore these questions and more. By wrestling together, may we find hope and light to carry us through the darkness.
If you would like to chat with Catholics like yourself, why not check out our Living Jesus Chat Room of the Visitation Sisters. Join us at 7:30 p.m. ET each Sunday! We read a passage of St. Francis de Sales and then gather great insights and sharing!
"Overwhelmed By An Abyss of Misery"
Gaby: The letter from St. Jane was so deeply honest.
Visitation Sister: Yes, and one does not always expect that kind of openness.
Sherry: Oh, maybe it was the other monastery. It was about depression and holiness in St. Jane’s life.
Visitation Sister: It’s the newsletter on how she felt, her misery, etc. “Assuredly, my good Father, I am almost overwhelmed by this abyss of misery. The presence of God, which was formerly such a delight to me, now makes me tremble all over and shudder with fear. I bethink myself that the divine eye of Him whom I adore, with entire submission, pierces right through my soul looking with indignation upon all my thoughts, words and works.” These references above for example?
Losing All Hope
Question: What can we do when we feel like all is lost and we’re just breaking at the seams?
Sherry: Oh my, this seems like my week. I was so surprised and overwhelmed with an onset of deep depression – “breaking at the seams” – really describes it well.
Visitation Sister: St. Jane knew this kind of suffering.
Sherry: I contacted two good friends – who sincerely pray for me – I went to see my Spiritual Director – and I listened to a lot of spiritual writers – too tired to read – and too sad – but was listening to a lot. And then both of our cars broke down within 24 hours. How strange is that?
Visitation Sister: I have experienced too.
Sherry: Oh my – this last week too?
Visitation Sister: Not deeply this week but in the past.
Sherry: Sorry, Sister. But I think somehow that those who have experienced this just know a part of life others will never know. The post I referred to earlier – had this part in it.
Her friend St. Vincent de Paul wrote, “She was full of faith, and yet all her life long she had been tormented by thoughts against it. Nor did she once relax in the fidelity God asked of her. And so, I regard her as one of the holiest souls I have ever met on this earth.”
This is so important: Jane Frances de Chantal was a Saint not *in spite of* her struggles and temptations and doubts and fears, but BECAUSE OF THEM. Your struggles do not disqualify you. You are being called to be a saint in your doubts, fears, anxieties, and darkness, in this time of sorrow, confusion, turmoil, and anger. This is your path to holiness, and when (by God’s grace) you persevere, you will become a far greater saint because of these struggles than you ever would have been without them.
That was my biggest consolation last week.
St. Jane Frances de Chantal, pray that our suffering would make us saints!
Visitation Sister: I think being with people can help if they understand us.
Sherry: Yes, if they understand us – and do not need us to be “normal” right away. But give us space for what we are going through.
Gaby: My husband and I are caregivers for our 40-year-old son. I am a nurse for Cistercian monks, but I have been unable to work for about six weeks because of my husband, health concerns and care for our son who has had an uptick in his active seizure disorder due to the heat. I feel at a loss for being part of the community and then I think of the holy family and here I am.
Visitation Sister: You have a huge responsibility there, Gaby.
Sherry: Oh, Gaby, how beautiful that you can go so close to suffering. By that I mean that you are willing, that you can handle suffering so close to you. So sorry to hear about your husband’s health concern, Gaby. And for your son too. I do not have seizures, but my histamine intolerance is through the roof in the heat too.
Gaby: I am now age 71. My mother died when I was four years old in 1956 so I’ve known a number of significant losses of life.
Sherry: I am sorry, Gaby – it seems that God has allowed a lot in your life –.
Caroline: Yes, it is hard not to know the why of it all.
Tremble in the Presence of God?
Question: How can the presence of God make us tremble and shutter with fear?
Maria: Wonderful subject tonight.
Sherry: I agree, Maria
Caroline: He is so holy and so Immense.
Sherry: How can the presence of God NOT make us tremble? When God decides to reveal His presence, only awe is the possible answer to this revelation.
Caroline: And to prostrate ourselves.
Sherry: I agree, Caroline, there is something that just does not make us stand upright when God’s presence is here. Since only God can initiate this. though, I often read Genesis, or other passages in the Bible that draw out the awe in me.
Gaby: Sometimes a glance, a pause,
Sherry: I like that, Gaby: a glance, a pause. Like in the OT reading today about Elijah and the “still small voice.”
Gaby: Brings me quickly into The Presence. I just need to remember to do it!
Sherry: He is always here, we have to turn our head to him, like Moses when he saw the burning bush. The Lord started speaking after Moses had decided to pay attention.
Was it Scrupulosity?
Question: Do you think St. Jane is being scrupulous in this letter?
Visitation Sister: If you had a chance to read it!
Sherry: I do not see any sign of scrupulosity.
Gaby: I did not think so. Just terribly painfully honest and wanting to have assistance to rise above it all.
Sherry: She is just describing how she feels, but not hating herself for it, I do not hear guilt and shame. More a deep longing to be back into the harmonious relationship with her God, as she had experienced.
Visitation Sister: Is there something deeper going on?
Gaby: A longing to, once and for all, give herself to God totally.
Maria: Believe so. However, I need interpretation of her statement, “God has shown me He does not make much account of faith that comes from sentiment or emotions” …and…” she never wished for (felt) devotion – God is enough” …Doesn’t devotion draw you closer to God?
Sherry: Well, there is definitely inner turmoil. She does not write about any outside trigger for this deep despair. So, the turmoil seems to start inside. And, Maria, Jane seems to have reached a place of holy indifference to consolation.
Visitation Sister: It might be a purification of her soul.
Sherry: Interesting, Sister.
Caroline: I think we are supposed to be detached from consolations.
Sherry: I agree, Caroline.
Maria: I believe she was in great distress without the presence of her God.
Visitation Sister: And it develops humility ever more deeply in her.
Sherry: I think so too, Maria, but as she describes that her other faculties of the soul were still in darkness, it seems that there might have been something psychological also going on.
Maria: Yes, in our weakness God will work through it & humble us.
Gaby: Ah, yes, but pruning and humbling can be so difficult.
A Dark Night? Depression?
Visitation Sister: Do you think St. Jane was going through a dark night of the soul, or do you think it was possible she was suffering from depression, or both?
Sherry: To be honest, it reads to me more like a depressive mode, the overall anguish seems to be so big. People in the dark night of the soul are not necessarily in emotional distress.
Maria: It seems the same pattern as St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, which we learned only after her passing the dark night of the soul that she experienced for years; yet she kept her eyes on her Jesus and continued the miraculous work in India through God’s graces.
Visitation Sister: That’s a good comparison.
Caroline: It takes strength and courage to carry on as she did.
Sherry: But Mother Teresa was not in such overall anguish, she could laugh and be with others, it just affected her prayer times. But here Jane seems to be as a whole person drawn into this experience. I wonder if it was in this phase that St. Jane burnt the name of Jesus on her chest.
Visitation Sister: No, she did that much earlier when she still had the opportunity to be married, I think. But outwardly I do not think St Jane showed her inner distress.
Maria: Nor Mother Teresa.
Embrace the Darkness?
Question: How in the midst of such utter darkness can we exhibit the faith that St. Jane showed by still praying to accept whatever it is that God wants us to endure?
Visitation Sister: It takes a lot of trust, I think.
Sherry: Trust that God will use everything in our lives.
Sherry: And the virtue of hope, too, that this all will make sense one day.
Maria: The Good God knows our weakness or strength on that utter darkness state & all I can do is call out & pray for a deeper, more profound faith like the saints had so I would abandon totally my mind, spirit, soul to the Will of my Father daily…that’s the start for me.
Should We Not Desire Joy?
Question: Is it wrong in our faith to expect/desire consolation and joy?
Gaby: No because we are told that in God lies consolation and our hope.
Sherry: Maybe expecting is wrong – but not desiring. Although in the full definition of holy indifference -I guess our desires should also be reeled in. But who does not desire to be “with the one whom my soul loves?”
Caroline: I agree, Sherry.
Visitation Sister: Joy is essential.
Sherry: Essential for what, Sister?
Visitation Sister: For our souls. But that does not mean we are never sad.
Gaby: Jesus wept.
Visitation Sister: I think joy comes from the Holy Spirit.
Sherry: I once experienced (3rd of May 1998). How the Holy Spirit washed over me in a time of deep anguish. And restored a brokenness in my soul. It was beautiful.
Maria: The holy saints wanted no consolation in their physical sufferings. Only God’s presence they asked. I ask on Fridays to suffer for Jesus & enjoin my pain to His on Calvary. It is part of the fast day; however, I pray at other times for consolation in emotional stress. The Lord knows our hearts & intentions.
Visitation Sister: It is hard to think of it when we are sad.
Maria: At Fatima, Our Lady told Jacinta her consolation would not be in this life, but in the next…We are each called for a different purpose.
Witness Through Struggles
Question: How can we be a witness to Christ going through immense struggles?
Sherry: Struggle itself is not a bad witness. How we approach struggle is the witness.
Gaby: If we are able by praying for others. Lifting them up. Begging for grace. Resting and not to keep forging ahead when we need to acknowledge needs.
Sherry: By keeping hope higher than despair. Knowing that our GOD can turn our struggle into something beautiful down the road – again … hope. Not stopping to praise.
Maria: The Rosary is a great prayer for these times, said Padre Pio. Many disasters have taken place…Maui..Haiti..even in our country…let’s keep focused not on the darkness but on the eyes of Jesus and His Sacred Heart who loves up. And our Heavenly father, Creator of us all and who loves us as prodigal children will show us the way to the Kingdom. Spiritual guidance and prayers.
Question: Why do you think St. Jane was writing this letter to her spiritual director? Just to complain? What was she asking from him?
Sherry: Well – that’s exactly what a spiritual director should know from his directee. The inner life – the ups and downs – she was NOT complaining, she was sharing – trying to make sense of all of this – and asking if her Director would know anything to help. I think we are often “wrestling,” like Jacob did with God, we wrestle with our faith – and probably with God too.
Maria: Sr Susan, this is a very profound topic, and perhaps we could continue again.
Visitation Sister: Yes, I agree.
Maria: Thank you, thank you.
Sherry: Can I please ask for prayer?
Visitation Sister: Yes.
Maria: Have you on the rosary prayer line, Sherry…Any specific update intention?
Sherry: As you know – my consecration to become a Daughter of St. Francis de Sales is set for the 27th of August. I learned yesterday that the church is now not available. Can you please pray that it will happen at the right place? It means a lot to me – this ceremony.
Visitation Sister: Oh yes! That is so soon.
Sherry: An update on my daughter — she is doing a little bit better – still nocturnal – (that means sleeping during the day and up at night) – but the emotional turmoil is lightened. PRAISE BE TO GOD!
Visitation Sister: Thank you, Lord!
Gaby: Yes, Sherry, I am happy to pray for this blessing for you.
Maria: Will do…St Francis de Sales will work it out for you.
Sherry: Aww. That’s sweet, Maria. He might.
Visitation Sister: Who is your companion, Sherry, can she help too?
Sherry: My companion is from the States. She and another daughter have booked flights to be here for the weekend for the ceremony, so I cannot postpone it.
Visitation Sister: Too far away to help.
Maria: What happened to HOPE??? It will happen.
Visitation Sister: Agree!
Gaby: Lourdes Live 24/7, it can be a great consolation.
Sherry: LOL, you are right, Maria. Fortunately, I am not desperate. I just want to give honor to this occasion, by having the right place. I am surprised that I do not have more anguish, but I sense it needs prayer to really make this all happen now.
Maria: Let’s all say a rosary this week for Sherry’s needs.
Visitation Sister: Yes!
Sherry: I am humbled. I cannot promise a rosary for all of you, but I tuck your names into my night prayers.
Maria: I will even pray to St Francis of Assisi to whom I am professed.
Gaby: God bless you all while you sleep. My grandma used to say that when I would be falling asleep, now I say it to everyone that I can.
If you enjoyed this chat, why not join us at our Living Jesus Chat Room of the Visitation Sisters. Join us at 7:30 p.m. ET each Sunday! We read a passage of St. Francis de Sales and then gather great insights and sharing!