Two images or themes seem to affirm the role of doubt in the journey of faith: the dark night of the soul and the desert.
“The dark night of the soul” concept was introduced by the mystic St. John of the Cross. Saint John articulated a series of spiritual experiences that, to use modern terminology, result in a suspension of ego. The contemplative process at the spiritual stage can include the desire to return to earlier, more blissful stages. Interestingly, what St. John suggests can impede this desire are what he calls “scruples”: “And although further scruples may come to them—that they are wasting their time, and that it would be well for them to do something else, because they can neither do nor think anything in prayer—let them suffer these scruples and remain in peace…” (Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross, translated by E. Allison Peers, Image Books, 1959). Feeling as if my prayer life might be a waste of time certainly would seem to qualify as a doubt. Saint John seems to be saying that, rather than resist the doubt, it should be accepted as a necessary step of the journey.
Various writers have borrowed the term “dark night of the soul” to refer to more commonly experienced “hard times” such as depression. Thomas More uses the term to describe a critical spiritual disruption in one’s life: “A true dark night of the soul is not a surface challenge but a development that takes you away from the joy of your ordinary life. An external event or an internal mood strikes you at the core of your existence. This is not just a feeling but a rupture in your very being…” (Dark Nights of the Soul, Gotham Books, 2004). Such events can sweep away our moorings. That which we thought to be true now seems uncertain. This loss of certainty can be terrifying.
Another metaphor for a time of serious doubting is the desert. As Terry Tempest Williams observed, there is no place to hide. “Every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self” (Refuge, Vintage, 1991). Perhaps that is why the desert is so important an image that comes to mind in the journey of faith. Out there with nothing to distract us, we can’t avoid our questions and our doubts.
To use an image, we really only fully understand and appreciate light when we also have a concept of darkness. So it may be with faith. We can only truly embrace and appreciate faith if we also taste the fruit of doubt. There is first of all the psychological reality that what we fear only becomes more powerful if we avoid it. But beyond that is the reality that questions and doubts can enrich our faith, can help it to mature.