When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him? 
A wrenching, nameless sorrow fed by seemingly countless tragedies heaped upon my mind. The despondency was palpable as it crawled through my chest — a blackness punctuated with bits of resignation. My mindset wasn’t so much a giving up, but a giving in. The past four years had been marked by transition. One change at a time is manageable, but in that span of time, my parents died, I sold my childhood home with everything in it, and our kids moved from our homeschooling life of twenty-seven years and into their colleges. Add to this the craziness of the pandemic, selling our own house, then moving to another state. Everything that I had known was changed or gone and I felt shredded into a million bits that would never be put back together. Memory was a vapor — intangible, fading and returning, but never vanishing. I never lost hope, but sometimes that hope was pared gauze-thin.
How could I describe this state of my soul and make any sense of it? Was it depression? Moving from crisis to crisis forced me into an autopilot mindset. Efficiently as possible, I would solve what needed to be solved without emotion because my mind was too drained to feel anything and it was always preparing for the next crashing wave. Reflecting back through those years, there were moments of joy in the darkness; for instance, when my granddaughter was born.
But even when I was deep in despondency, depression didn’t win. I knew that I knew that I knew there was a purpose in the pain.
But piece by piece, all I had known in life was falling away. Somehow, I recognized that I couldn’t gather them back, so I released them to memory and the life that was.
O Lord God of hosts,
who is mighty as you are, O Lord,
with your faithfulness all around you?
You rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, you still them. 
I would struggle, rage, cry, and sigh a “God, WHY?” Yet, I clung to hope, even if it was only the tiniest glimmering light in the storm. That light remained the lighthouse named Truth in the distance, reminding myself that God is always there. I could turn from that light, or fix my eyes upon it and stay the course. Now I know that this passage in life has a name and that God uses this difficult time for good; to draw me to Him is a mercy.
The words came to me one pre-dawn morning. St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Carmelite friar, gave this time of spiritual difficulty a name: The dark night of the soul. This eight-stanza poem of the same name, written with a beautiful brevity of words, describes finding the light, meeting God in the deep darkness when so much had been taken away.
Dark Night of the Soul
(Upon a Gloomy Night)
by St. John of the Cross
Upon a gloomy night,
With all my cares to loving ardors flushed.
(O venture of delight!)
With nobody in sight
I went abroad when all my house was hushed.
In safety, in disguise,
In darkness up the secret stair I crept,
(O happy enterprise!)
Concealed from other eyes
When all my house at length in silence slept.
Upon that lucky night
In secrecy, inscrutable to sight,
I went without discerning
And with no other light
Except for that which in my heart was burning.
It lit and led me through,
More certain than the light of noonday clear
To where One waited near
Whose presence well I knew,
There where no other presence might appear.
Oh night that was my guide!
Oh darkness dearer than the morning’s pride
Oh night that joined the lover
To the beloved bride
Transfiguring them each into the other.
Within my flowering breast
Which only for himself entire I save
He sank into his rest
And all my gifts I gave
Lulled by the airs with which the cedars wave.
Over the ramparts fanned
While the fresh wind was fluttering his tresses,
With his serenest hand
My neck he wounded, and
Suspended every sense with its caresses.
Lost to myself I stayed
My face upon my lover having laid
From all endeavor ceasing;
And all my cares releasing
Threw them amongst the lilies there to fade. 
St. John’s own life was marked by mistreatment, humiliation in his own monastic order, and chronic sickness; in fact, he wrote Dark Night of the Soul and other poetry during his harsh imprisonment and tortures at the hands of his detractors. St. John’s core belief was that we come to love God above all when the things of this world that we rely on or take our identity from are stripped away, leaving us to focus and fall in love with the true Lover of our Souls. This can look like words rendered impossible for a writer; for an artist, the imagination become clouded. Anything we love and cling to as an identity is taken away for a time.
As God gently pulls our worldly consolations from us, we grasp the unshakable Hope as the true light in the darkest of times.
You, me, and the things of this world are “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”  God is eternal, this world is a shadow, and my trust must be rooted and cultivated in that simple fact. The dark night reorients us from this world back to the source of joy. When I get to the edge of myself, when I have no words, just crushing weight, I leave to walk on the edge of the transcendent sea.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide,
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying. 
I live by a beach on the Atlantic now, and the steady surf calls on me to wade into the sea foam and fill my pockets with caramel-colored shells and keep company with the Infinite. It is enough to hear him speak through the steady roll of the waves, to sit on the cool sand, or walk in the quiet presence of the Lord. Oftentimes, I’ll return to my beach just to clear the fog created by a chaotic world. As I step onto the damp sand, see the green-blue waves roll and taste the salt air, the earthly struggles and temporary consolations fall into the tide. The distractions peel away and only sky, sea, and horizon remain – the threshold of the unnamed mystery. Science has yet to solve even a fraction of the enigmas of waves and creatures that live beneath them, but I find comfort lingering in the unexplainable and simply bear witness to the secrets. My mind disentangles and my soul-ache settles while the cold tide washes over my feet — the same tides that steadfastly rose and receded since the beginning of creation.
This is life and bad things happen. On an intellectual level, I know that God is near, and that nobody is immune to tragedy and loss. But in the scope of my life, where I stand now at the edge of the sea, I think of the events that happened 20 years ago and frame them in the span of time to this day. In the moment, the tragedy can seem without purpose — a pointless, cosmic mishap. How can this thing make sense? Weeks, or maybe years later, I consider the event through the lens of time and I understand that there was a plan, always a plan.
This time of my life has a name, my own Dark Night of my Soul, and it has a purpose. To draw me out of the clutter and chaos of a busy life to the only One who gives me life. I fix my eyes on the better thing, the greater answer, the Lover of my soul. When my focus turns from fractured view to clarity, I see my truer purpose. To rest and abide with the Eternal, whom I find at the chapel of the sea.
I recently penned this sonnet on a visit to the beach. Cobbling words together to define my holy encounters with God at the seaside is difficult. The overwhelming, ever-changing splendour evades easy description!
The Sea Calls My Name
by Annie Nardone
The numinous beauty of waves and sky.
Wildness of water, essence of mystery.
Timeless, unchanging, the sea answers why.
The edge of unfathomable, speaks to me.
You created the vastness of the seas,
The shore and the waves, and I come to Thee
With my tiny issues and agonies.
Who am I “that You are mindful” of me?
I am dust, yet you know me by my name,
From the beyond and beginning of time.
Yours is a love that cannot be explained,
Simply indwelt from the first breath Divine.
The One who stills the roaring of the seas,
Brings peace and light through solitude with me.
 Psalm 8:3-4 ESV
 Psalm 89:8-9 ESV
 St. John of the Cross, Poems, translated by Roy Campbell (Providence, R.I.: Cluny, 2021), 4-7. The poem was written circa 1578. In 1584-5, St. John, a Carmelite monk, also wrote a lengthy treatise concerning his poem. I encourage the reader to further research this godly man and “Dark Night of the Soul.” The essence of the Dark Night is experiencing a time of arid and difficult spiritual darkness. I deeply researched this poem in order to find the translation that was closest to the primary source and I was pleased to find that the poem is included in this anthology of St. John’s poetry. It is quite different than what you will find online. Interesting note, St. John of the Cross was one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s favorite poets. This is a deeply spiritual poem, so if a gloss would help, a good reference can be found at: https://www.poetseers.org/spiritual-and-devotional-poets/christian/the-works-of-st-john-of-the-cross/a-gloss-with-spiritual-meaning/
 James 4:14 ESV
 John Masefield, stanza from his poem “Sea-Fever,” 1902
Featured image is courtesy of Annie Nardone and is used with her kind permission for Cultivating.
Annie Nardone is a lifelong bibliophile with a special devotion to the Inklings and medieval authors. She is a Fellow with the C.S. Lewis Institute and holds an M.A. in Cultural Apologetics from Houston Christian University. Annie is the Director of Visual Artists for The Cultivating Project and columnist for Cultivating Magazine. She is founding board member, managing editor, and author for the apologetics quarterly, An Unexpected Journal. Her writing can also be found as travel blogger for Clarendon Press U.K., with published poems at Calla Press and Poetica.
She holds a MA in Cultural Apologetics from Houston Christian University, and is a Fellow with the C.S. Lewis Institute. Annie writes for Cultivating, Literary Life, and Clarendon House Books, and is a managing editor and writer for An Unexpected Journal. Annie collaborated on three books in 2022, published by Square Halo Books and The Rabbit Room. She recently designed a curriculum detailing the intersection of theology, the arts, and history and is a Master Teacher for HSLDA. She resides in Florida with her Middle Earth/Narnia/Hogwarts-loving family, and an assemblage of sphynx cats and feline foundlings.
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