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Dark night or depression?

Dear Carmelite Sisters, I am struggling with prayer – it is very dry and I feel very alone but I have not given up. I believe I am in the dark night but I am also melancholy by temperament. How can I discern what I am Dark night or depressionexperiencing? I don't have access to a spiritual director because of my remote location. Am I depressed or in the dark night or both? I know you can't know everything about my situation via this simple question – can you point me in the right direction?

Dear Friend, You are right in saying that I can’t know everything about your situation. Each of us is an unrepeatable individual unique among all persons living today, those who have lived before us and those yet to come. God has created us and in so doing has a plan for each of us. We want to live our lives in accordance with that plan and thus seek to discern how the Holy Spirit is leading us. A good spiritual director, if available, can be of invaluable help in this.

I can only give you the signposts that are general standards for growth in the spiritual life and there are many variations in these in the way that God chooses to work in the individual soul.

Before discussing dryness in prayer let us back up a little and summarize some of what has already been said. We have been dealing with the beginning mansions of the Interior Castle of which the first three Mansions form a special grouping. These three are a preparation for entrance into the Fourth Mansion in which one experiences the Prayer of Quiet. Teresa provides us with visual images to describe the work to be done either actively or passively as one journeys toward union with God. She applies a universal image in trying to express her thoughts, that of “water”. What she terms the First Water is applied to the first three Mansions. She compares the work done here to one who obtains water from the well by means of lowering and pulling up the bucket – hard work – but in Teresa’s day necessary if that was the only means at hand to obtain the precious water. How important was the water to the individual? Certainly a matter of life and death!

Thus in the spiritual life how important is our union with God to exercise the labor needed to reach our goal? The grace of God is there for us just as the water is in the depth of the well. Are we willing to use the means at hand to draw it up? Such means are: overcoming patterns of sin, practice of prayer, strengthening our sacramental life, practicing the Presence of God, cultivation of the virtues, bringing our wills into conformity with the will of Christ, detachment from worldly desires, practice of charity, etc. All of these are within the aid of ordinary grace. Much of the work here is “active work”, work we must do, with the help of God’s grace. And it is often slow work for growth takes time.

While all of us at one time or another may have experienced some form of consolation in prayer, however fleeting, the spiritual life is of too great a value to be an easy road. There is much hard work to be done especially in the first three mansions. It is here where we test the honesty and validity of our desire for a deeper relationship with God. Any relationship that is worthwhile takes profound commitment and arduous work on our part.

Now to get to the crux of your question! Why does wanting a deeper prayer life mean that often my prayer will be dry? And how do I determine whether this dryness is a result of spiritual growth or an effect of my melancholic temperament?

Can someone be going through the Dark Night and be experiencing melancholy at the same time? After all, many saints had a melancholic temperament. Regardless of our temperament each type has both strengths and weaknesses and of itself temperament does not stand in the way of spiritual growth. It is a part of what makes us the person we are. What we are referring to here is not our temperament but a form of melancholia or depression which can affect someone regardless of their temperament type. Yes, it is possible for someone to be going through both at the same time but it is not the usual case. Difficulties may be a source of suffering for us but not every suffering is the Dark Night.

If dryness is the result of one’s spiritual growth in prayer, the person will still have that strong desire to give him/her self totally to God through perseverance in prayer even when the senses feel no delight. Joy can also be experienced in suffering. On the other hand, melancholy closes the person in on self so that rather than seeking solitude to be alone with God in a loving relationship the person develops an unhealthy separation from others.

Generosity becomes a key word here. The one growing in prayer may not have a sense perception of the graces being received because the body is not perfectly conformed to the spirit and these graces are often very gentle and subtle, but the person is moved outwardly toward God and in service to others. Even if the person feels no delight in prayer the habitual attitude is to “give” rather than to “receive”, a characteristic quality of love. On the other hand, dryness which results from melancholy turns the person inward on self suffocating the spiritual life.

Consolations may seem more pleasurable and are sometimes given by God because of our weakness. We give a small reward to a child to help them persevere in reaching their goal. It takes humility to walk in dryness recognizing our human frailty. But the strength we gain in the practice of fortitude draws us into closer conformity with Christ. If our path were to be strewn with consolations, what might be the deceptions that would assail us? The example of St. Bernadette is helpful here. Although the apparent rejection of her Novice Mistress was painful to her, she recognized that had she been treated as a favored one, it might have stunted her spiritual growth. The lack of human consolation enabled her to identify more closely with Christ Crucified. If God leads us by the road of dryness it is because He knows what is best for us. We must have confidence that He seeks our happiness even more than we do ourselves.

In union of prayer,

Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles

PS: To learn more about the Carmelite Sisters visit our web site: and for more information please contact the sisters at, or 626-289-1353 Ext. 246, 920 East Alhambra Road, Alhambra, California 91801.

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PROMOTING A DEEPER SPIRITUAL LIFE THROUGH HEALTHCARE, EDUCATION AND RETREATS. The way of life of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles is rooted in the Gospel, the Church, and the spirituality of Carmel as lived out through the charism of our foundress, Venerable Mother Maria Luisa Josefa of the Most Blessed Sacrament. In His merciful goodness, God has graced our Institute with the Carmelite charism which has its foundation in a long history and living tradition. Our vocation is a grace by which contemplation and action are blended to become an apostolic service of the Church as we promote a deeper spiritual life among God's people through education, healthcare, and spiritual retreats. We are called by God to be a presence inflamed within our world, witnessing to God's love through prayer, joyful witness and loving service. Our mission flows from each sister's profound life of prayer as Mother Luisita, our foundress, wrote, "the soul of each Carmelite raises herself to Christ, Who is her heaven, while her shadow falls in charity upon earth doing good to all people."

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  • Theresa George

    This was an excellent post {and question}!  I am going through the same thing. I am a Secular Carmelite.  I do suffer depression as well as the dryness in prayer.  Many times, I do become self absorbed and want to separate from others.  I do my best to persevere in prayer and the practice of the Presence of God, but I know that I tend to focus on self when I feel depressed.  Looks like I have a long way to go…

    • $1650412

      Teresa! You and me, both- on the long way to go part!

  • judeen

    is not depression a spiritual attack.. like the spirit of anger , the spirit of worry, the spirit of anxiousness, or of lust… does not the guard of ones heart to keep it from entering the heart.. but 1st one must reconize it… and if we give into these , does it make us blind to selfishness and self centeredness? if one is good with God like going into the desert , seeking God , one must be ok being alone.. ok , being ones self.. then when one is with others 1 can love deeper … and care more for others… ?

  • Becky Ward

    Great advice Sr. Carmen!!

    As one who was mis-diagnosed with depression I can attest to the critical need for the soul to proceed cautiously in situations like this. In my heart I knew I wasn’t truly depressed, but I talked myself into accepting the doctors’ diagnosis thinking I was in denial. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a melancholy soul….and now I pray for all of those with mental illness or disorders.

    I echo what you say about each of us being unique, and thus needing personalized assistance on this journey.

    I do have ADD, and I had anxiety disorders that God has healed me of to the point that I rarely experience the anxiety anymore and, having learned about ADD, the Holy Spirit helps me with the negative aspects (challenges), and I can celebrate the creativeness, that is also part of ADD, as a gift.

    If something inside us tells us that the advice we are getting is not right…..we need to get a second opinion…….and if at all possible, talk with a priest or someone who understands the journey of the soul.

    We must keep talking to God, and trust in His Mercy and Love for us – He will protect us and keep us safe.

    • Thank you for being so open in your response Becky. Many of our readers have suffered in some way with the dark night and the associated difficulties… God is good.

      • Thank you, 
        Sr. Carmen for this wonderful advice….I sure needed it….and Becky, I now  know why we have an affinity. When I fell sick in October/November, 2007, the Doctor convinced my daughters that I was suffering from delayed and/or suppressed grief…. yet I knew I had no reason to grieve my husband’s death – 18 years ago yesterday – because he died a very holy death at home in my arms after three days without any pain which went away after the 1st Holy Mass and Holy Communion at home….this Doctor could not also understand my love for my solitude…..he kept on urging me to develop a social life…..yet I love my solitude because this way, I strive to stay in touch with Jesus for spiritual support……so, I did not believe this Doctor….Instead I abandoned him and went back to my initial Doctor who had been with me for about 8 years who confirmed that that Doctor’s diagnosis was totally wrong……he told me my condition was that my stress tolerance threshold was very low and whenever a little problem or a worrying situation arose, I quickly panicked, resulting in anxiety and fear of how to resolve the problems….like you, Beck, God did heal me of these anxiety disorders which had been with me for a long time…..and He did this by leading me to become an Eucharistic Apostle of the Divine Mercy…and His greatest Gift to me is my Spiritual Director who is also my Confessor – and my son…..he gladdens my heart when I hear him calling me “Mummy”

        • I think I can relate with the two of you. What you mention about loving solitude to spend more time with Him, and God helping me deal with anxiety issues, He has done the same for me. Most of my life I had no friends.
          When I finally did have friends, I grew further away from Him.
          But now that I am finally with Him again, I realize that when I am with my friends, I miss the solitude of just being with Him and doing my work with Him and for Him.

          • sue

            This reminds me of a favorite quote from the Imitation of Christ – “whenever I have been with others I have come away less a man”.  

        • Becky Ward

          Oh Mary!! I can only echo what Dan said, “God is good.” Isn’t it fascinating that we can ‘feel’ a certain connectedness even over the Internet??? (Big amused smile)

          • Yes, Becky, God is Good, He brings us together even – yes – over the Internet!!!!. And especially on this wonderful Website, we are taught, we are guided, we are encouraged, we are consoled.  In turn, after learning and strengthened with the encouragement we receive, we share how what we have been taught relates to our individual lives and experiences.  This way, we all walk together under the loving watchful eye of God towards our Eternal Home.

  • Dear Sr. Carmen thank you so much for this lovely piece, you are truly inspired…I cannot tell you how much insight I have received from this post of yours…This is a question I so needed an answer to but did’nt know whom to ask. Thank you once again to you, to God in the beautiful way he is using this website and for the precious time you all (yourself, Fr John and Dan Burke) devote here in feeding his lambs. May God bless you all infinitely for being a blessing to us his children….

    Thanks again!

  • I think I have a melancholy soul too. But I am not entirely sure what that means.

    Yet I know, I had many bouts of depressed self-absorption before my conversion. It is truly God’s grace that these have lessened them these past few months!

    What does it mean exactly to have a melancholy soul? Is it being pensive or when people tend to think you are sad even though you are not?Not that the Holy Spirit hasn’t blessed me with times I was close to bursting with joy! Just hoping to understand this better.

    • Theresa

      Yes…I am with Maria…can one have a melancholy soul but not have depression?  And what would be the difference?  Any advice would help.

    • Becky Ward

      Maria, I can only share my own experience, but Yes, it’s the pensiveness you mention. I’m a thinker…not by choice but by design…my brain is always, always working. I enjoy being with family and friends, but not for long periods of time. I am also a task-oriented person…give me a job to do, or let me go home. 🙂

      I am not a cheerleader, but as you mention I DO have times of great joy and happiness…it’s just not always evident from external appearances. I take things seriously….my formation is showing me how to laugh at myself more…and when God laughs with you….well you can’t help but join in!!

      I consider it a great blessing to more often feel, sincerely (not falsely), what Rusty said above: “So, to quote St. Teresa, “blessed be God Who has made me so incompetent!”

      When I look back over my life, rather than being self-absorbed, and thinking about myself, I am usually thinking about relationships. Sometimes I wasted weeks thinking about getting revenge…thankfully I never took action…but I have ‘practice’ conversations….mostly good ones today, and I really have to think about it to see that it’s not self-absorption.

      The devil will use every means possible to discourage us! That’s why it is important to frequent the sacraments. God can work through them to strengthen us even when we don’t know He’s there!!

      I apologize for the length of this post, but it occurs to me that this might be helpful. In hindsight this is fascinating!! When I was (wrongly) diagnosed with depression I followed the advice of my doctors and tried two different anti-depressants. Those were the worst days of my life!!

      I actually experienced depression by taking anti-depressants. This is probably NOT common, and I don’t share this lightly. Clinical depression is a condition that needs a professional’s attention.

      What this did for me though, was to show me the difference. When I was on the medication everything was black. The only emotions I could feel were rage and anger. I knew people loved me…but there was a disconnect between my head and my heart….and I couldn’t “feel” the truth of this any more.

      It was black and ugly and I had no hope…….and somewhere inside I knew that this was not a good thing….that I needed help. This I am normally….quiet…a loner maybe…….but I don’t feel anything inside that tells me this is dangerous. On the contrary….I find peace and consolation when I am alone.

      I understand why people consider ending their lives. I asked my psychiatrist about the ‘disconnect’, and he said, “Yes, many people report feeling a ‘numbness’ while taking anti-depressants.” To me, the cure was worse than the disease, so I weaned myself off the meds. Within 48 hours I could feel my heart again!!

      There are a lot of things we can experience in life….not all of them are understood – in fact most things of the supernatural realm are not understood. But if we keep our eyes on Jesus on the cross….keep striving to live for Him…….he will take care of us.

      • Theresa

        >>it’s the pensiveness you mention. I’m a thinker…not by choice but by design…my brain is always, always working. I enjoy being with family and friends, but not for long periods of time. I am also a task-oriented person…give me a job to do, or let me go home. I am not a cheerleader, but as you mention I DO have times of great joy and happiness…it’s just not always evident from external appearances. I take things seriously<<

        Your personality sounds so much like mine!  Unfortunately, I am on depression meds and everytime I try to wean off, insomnia kicks in. I appreciate you sharing your insights and hope though!

        • Becky Ward

          I am praying for you.

        • I will pray for you too.

      • Thank you so much for sharing your story. If that is what having a melancholy soul means then I suppose that I am one as welll.
        I also just wanted to say thank you for all the other times you replied to my comments. I find myself remembering what you’ve told when I need to hear them. Thank you. They have helped me so much! God Bless!

        • Becky Ward

          That remembering things at the right moment is the work of the Holy Spirit. 🙂

          I’m glad to be of help……..I’m just passing on what I have learned from others – to God goes all the glory!!

  • Tom Erskine

    Just stumbled on this site , I was just chasing down a desire. I asked myself how many people operate out of their spiritual being from birth, rather than their more concrete sensory being. I have often thought that the growth of spirituality through the process of practices, tradition, and meditation very wearisome and noisy. Internally I sympathise with Tof A in her castles, but I empathize with Jof C whose ladder was more a removal of the sensory then a gaining of the Spiritual. Read in the light of his being in a spiritual environment already but experiencing life through the senses it seems he found his peace in life and  with God only when he began to operate from his personal strenght, spirituality. I think that far from being merely intuitive people like John are Sprituality Intuitive rather than concretly intuitive. Leaving Psychologists and Psych’s of all kinds a whole new venue of practice.I understand this to be Spritual Dr.’s rather than Dr.’s of divinity. I belive John of C was a Spiritual Intuitive by nature and I believe Theresa was a more concrete Spiritualist. Led by John she could describe her growth in fairly concrete terms. , John never actually succeded in that since I seem to believe he operated from a Spiritual nature and served up convoluted and difficult explanations because words did not exist for such things. Do they today?
    If they do could such dryness and trouble people have in traditional prayer ,traditions and even in Mass be because they are using one language to come from possibly two different directions?

  • Sandy

    Thank you Sister Carmen for your insightful response regarding Dark Night or depression.  It is important to have a Spiritual Director or a regular Confessor who knows you personally so that he/she can help when in the Dark Night.  When we recognize that prayer is an opportunity to draw closer to God, it doesn’t matter where we are in our spiritual life.  One way or another we will survive the Dark Night if we trust in God’s love.  I know, because I am a survivor!  Thank you Jesus!!!  Also, thanks for the wonderful spiritual guides who have been placed in my life right when I have needed them the most.

  • Rustyrusticator

    Well, personally, I don’t think it’s possible to view this world as it is without some sadness if one is functioning with a grasp on reality!  That being said, I applaud you tremendously, Sister, to emphasize that because of individual differences in temperament, personality, history, and all the rest, it’s really imperative to “do” spirituality with an interested, yet objective, director.  I think St. Teresa of Avila summed it up best when she spoke of the “learned men” from whom she was receiving direction.  I had read her “interior Castle” many years ago, and recognized that I was in no wise competent to go it alone.  Years of living in loving but neurotic situations had colored my spirituality negatively, and for awhile I even thought I had abandoned God entirely.  Yet, He had never abandoned me!  After a brief period of time (less than a year,) I returned to the Church, contenting myself with being an average Jane Catholic.  I knew there was something more, but thought it out of my reach, wondering if I was merely trying to distinguish myself and feed my overinflated ego by delving into a deeper prayer life.  I plodded along, weekly Mass (and some weekdays, too,) the Rosary, some scripture reading, frequent confession, etc, etc, all the while wrestling with this question.

    Fast forward about fifteen years:  I was blessed to have blundered into a Jesuit parish downtown because I had forgotten that Ascension Thursday was a Holy Day of obligation, and I knew they had what I term “the last chance Mass” (5:15 PM.)  I felt an attraction to the place, and the people, and returned there through the late spring and summer.  I was delighted to find out that they were offering the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  Although I am well aware that Ignatian spirituality is not the same as Carmelite spirituality, I have learned much and have grown, I believe, much, much closer to the Lord due precisely to having a spiritual director who can help me tease out what is of God and what is of my own dysfunctions, and more important, teaching me to apply those “rules for discernment” myself.

    So, to quote St. Teresa, “blessed be God Who has made me so incompetent!”  By taking direction, I no longer have to reinvent the wheel!

  • Love

    Dear Sr.

    Thank you
    for your wonderful post. I tend to think we all have bouts of depression or meloncholiness,
    to some degree, even if it is contrary to our temperament. Trying to be
    faithful to ones prayer life during these times is a challenge, to say the
    least. I’m certain, however, that God uses these times even more than others to
    draw us closer to Him. Perseverance and Trust takes on a whole new
    meaning. If He allows it, we must stay
    the course. Something else I would add to the medical aspect of the challenges is
    symptoms Peri-Menapause. Depression, irritability, etc., can be some of them.
    Hormonal changes for women in their 40’s can mimic depression or lead to
    depression, if undiagnosed. I speak from experience. The right combination of hormone
    supplements can make all the difference. I’m not advocating hormonal treatments
    or medication of any sort; I’m simply offering other possibilities. We must
    trust in the Lord completely and also trust that He will provide us with great
    medical professionals who will help us grow and heal.
    Thank you Sister.  

  • zelmo

    A dark night is the suspension of time in a locution. Everything else is mood.


  • ThirstforTruth

    Blessings to all, most especially to the seeker and to Sr. Carmen
    for her enlightening response and also to those commenting, especially the first three, Rusty, Becky and Mary42 for sharing.I
    am printing this out to share with a friend who does not have a
    computer. Dan, would it be possible here to create a print version
    w/o all the material to the right of column thus saving on ink..and
    creating a better form for those who want to “file away” copies of
    posts for future reference and use?

    • Becky Ward

      The easiest way to do this really is to copy and paste the part you want. I’ve been looking into this and even if a PDF of the original article was available to print…….(and I’m not sure that they can do that from this blog)……it wouldn’t include the comments.

      It’s tedious…….as there are images and things that need to be deleted……..but worth it for those articles I want to have in hard copy.


  • C J Sebastian333

    Sister Carmen, that was a very generous response, the love you had for this individual came through loud and clear. Having experienced several dark nights so far, each have brought me to a deeper level of faith, but they can be frightening while going through this experience especially the first time one occurs. For what it is worth: in my expeirence, some feel as though they last for months or years, others hours or days… it’s almost as if God puts the artist of Himself on hold and becomes the Captain of your ship, correcting the course you has chosen as to avoid a wreck… and doing so with such great love, in truth. And speaking in terms of truth, I personally believe that God can’t be closer to you as with a dark night. It feels that He is distant, and sometimes, nonexistant, sometimes so extreme is this lonely experience that you feel as though you have absolutely no security in this life at all, including God. I have come to understand them in this way at this point in my journey: picture Jesus standing between you and God the Father. The intensity of the shadow cast upon you from Jesus, the darkness, can be tantamount to the brilliance of God Himself.
    What you pointed out, what you put into words, is so valuable. I’ll have to read about the castles again, it’s been a long time.
    Depression on the other hand is based upon Cognitive Distortions, it has much to do with our internal dialogue with self, and not so much that dialogue with the Spirit, i.e., that “conversation” of the soul with it’s Creator. Cognitive Therapy for instance is based upon the principle that in order to feel something you have to think something first (to yourself). With prayer it’s good to begin with, “Lord, your servant is listening.” As I just wrote this I pictured Jesus that night in garden, how alone, how dark it must have been for Him. When we suffer, we are participating in His Passion… and I can’t think of any better company to be with.
    Thank you Sister Carmen, you have also helped this one, and I’m sure many others. God Bless you.

  • Pat

    I really identified with this questioner; thanks for sharing and for your answer, Sr. Carmen.

  • Oatleyj316

    Thank you.

  • Elizabeth

    I’d like to chat with
    Fr. John Bartunek

    • Dear Friend, because of the duties of his religious life and current assignments, he is not able to do this. My apologies.

    • Dear Friend – I received your second posting. I am sorry for your suffering and will pray for you and pass your note along to Father Bartunek.

  • Donna

    I’ve noticed many people equate being depressed with being self-absorbed which couldn’t be further from the truth in many cases. I’ve suffered with severe depression on and off (mostly on) over the years and with a husband and 3 kids to tend to, my life is one of self-denial, not self-indulgence. I am physically and mentally drained.  I give out way more than I receive and am unable to build myself up enough to cover that deficit.  I have a deep faith and love for God and the Church, pray all the time, but my depression returns and remains. We don’t tell someone with a broken leg to “focus on others”, because we know their pain is very real and present. So, why do we hear depressed people being told to “stop looking at yourelf – focus on others – be thankful”? As if having a broken leg/depression implies that you are not thankful and that somehow the depressed is bringing the illness on themselves. To have “experts” write articles that state those things, a great disservice is done to those who suffer from depression.

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