Dread remains a mysterious and pervasive factor in all genuine spiritual growth, and one cannot “get rid” of it by any amount of impetuous action, no matter how generous. Dread is compounded with a certain helplessness and a dependence on grace, as well as with the after-effects of many other sins and errors. The experience of “dread,” “nothingness” and “night” in the heart of man [sic] is then the awareness of infidelity to the truth of our life.
….this will not liberate him from “dread” and “night” as long as he tends to cling to the empty illusion of a separate self, inclined to resist God. Nor will it effectively allay the sense of emptiness and nothingness which he will feel when left to himself without distraction (in the Pascalian sense) and without escape into routine or self-complacent rationalization.
It is in some ways a comfort to be able to assign one’s discontent to definite causes. Remorse is easier to bear than dread…
…man [sic] faces radical dread in his own being: the naked dread that is indefinite because it seems to be coextensive with his whole being and his whole life. Such a one sees that no virtue of his own, no good intentions, no ideals, no philosophy, no mystical elevation can rescue him from the futility, the apparent despair of his emptiness without God. At the same time, he seems to lose the conviction that God is or can be a refuge for him. It is as if God himself were hostile and implacable or, worse still, as if God himself had become emptiness, and as if all were emptiness, nothingness, dread and night.
It is natural for one in this case to dread the loss of his faith, indeed of his own integrity and religious identity, and to cling desperately to whatever will seem to preserve the last shreds of belief. So he struggles, sometimes frantically, to recover a sense of comfort and conviction in formulated truths or familiar religious practices. His meditation becomes the scene of this agonia, this wrestling with nothingness and doubt. But the more he struggles the less comfort and assurance he has, and the more powerless he sees himself to be. Finally he loses even the power to struggle. He feels himself ready to sink and drown in doubt and despair.
This is not the moment for arrogance or proud thrusts of will. The arrogant man [sic] will break in the agony of darkness. His meditation will be intolerable, and he will either revolt or despair.
The man [sic] of today is more and more vulnerable in this respect. His efforts to seek peace and light are carried on not in a realm of relative security, in a geography of certitude, but over the face of a thinly-veiled abyss of disoriented nothingness, into which he quickly falls when he finds himself without the total support of reassuring and familiar ideas of himself and of his world. Nevertheless, it is precisely this support that we must learn to sacrifice.
“Take heed,” said Jakob Boehme, “of putting on Christ’s purple mantle without a resigned will.”
This deep dread and night must then be seen for what it is: not as punishment, but as purification and as grace. Indeed it is a great gift of God, for it is the precise point of our encounter with his fullness. Dread is an expression of our insecurity in this earthly life, a realization that we are never and can never be completely “sure” in the sense of possessing a definitive and established spiritual status. It means that we cannot any longer hope in ourselves, in our wisdom, our virtues, our fidelity. We see too clearly that all that is “ours” is nothing, and can completely fail us. In other words we no longer rely on what we “have,” what has been given by our past, what has been required. We are open to God and to his mercy in the inscrutable future and our trust is entirely in his grace, which will support our liberty in the emptiness where we will confront unforeseen decisions. Only when we have descended in dread to the center of our own nothingness, by his grace and his guidance, can we be led by him, in his own time, to find him in losing ourselves.
—excerpts from Contemplative Prayer, by Thomas Merton
Joanna Macy, Despair – https://vimeo.com/294069610