Dark night of the soul

Dark night of the soul

Written on 01/07/2021
Josh Tiessen

Art can serve as a lighthouse of hope to a suffering world

Written by Josh Tiessen

This year has been one of the most challenging of my life, and I know I’m not alone. Throughout 2020, I have struggled with bouts of depression, loneliness, and relationships that have withered on the vine.

In times like these, I ask myself, does art even matter?

My painting Dark Night of the Soul was a musing on doubt and mystery, but during this pandemic its meaning for me has expanded to the suffering of loneliness.

I am a contemplative type, always seeking to better understand the meaning of life, yet the constancy of this pursuit is at times wearisome. As Nietzsche described it, when we are philosophizing, we sometimes feel like we have cut our moorings and are drifting into the cold abyss.

The lone soul becomes like an unanchored wanderer on a dark night, who has known the light but in its temporary absence looks to the abyss.

Weathered by the environment, the soul’s vessel is like an empty abandoned boat.

In this experience, the soul can only comprehend reality in part, like a wanderer searching for the horizon in a veil of fog or seeing “through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

“Dark Night of the Soul” by Josh Tiessen, 2016.

As a visual artist looking through the lens of a Christian worldview, I can see how doubt, suffering, and feelings of loneliness play a role in Christian creativity.

The 19th century German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich (whose epic masterpiece “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” was the catalyst for my painting) experienced compounded loss and grief with the deaths of his mother, father, and multiple siblings before he turned 25.

He painted abandoned abbeys, shipwrecks, and lost souls searching for the presence of God amid isolation and despair.

This seems like a stark contrast to the cheesy Christian movies that proliferate in our day, which jump to the happy ending way too quickly. Everyone and their dog gets saved, falls in love, gets married, has kids, and lives happily ever after.

But in reality life is messy and often remains unresolved, kind of like this pandemic dragging on.

The Hebrew people had a tradition of lamenting evil and suffering through poetry and song. In fact, 67 of the 150 psalms are words of lament!

When Jesus cries out from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” He is quoting from one of these, Psalm 22.

Yes, Jesus’ atoning sacrifice and victory over death grant us the promise of eternal life on a restored earth!

And while we wait, often experiencing suffering, loss, and isolation, we know Jesus understands because in His earthly life He experienced these to the fullest extent.

The Holy Spirit, too, groans on our behalf (Romans 8:26), and we can take comfort in the fact that the Father is close to the brokenhearted and those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18). I find these passages incredibly helpful right now.

Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky stated, “The artist exists because the world is not perfect. Art would be useless if the world were perfect, as man wouldn’t look for harmony but would simply live in it.”

The role of the artist can be prophetic—depicting the fallenness of the world but also visualizing its redemption through hopeful imagination.

While art is not an “essential” in a pandemic, I have been heartened to hear from my art collectors and those who admire my work online how they have been uplifted by my paintings, especially in these times.

While art won’t cure you from COVID-19, there’s actually science to support the idea that viewing art on a regular basis (especially nature art) yields positive psychological benefits such as reducing stress and anxiety.

Art-making itself is also very therapeutic, so I encourage you to draw on your creativity, even in the wake of job losses and the reality of financial stress.

I believe art is a God-given gift to humanity—art makes bleak times like these more bearable because we have a way to process grief and suffering.

Art is not merely an escape from reality—simply “amusing ourselves to death” with endless entertainment, to quote the American thinker Neil Postman. For me, art-making is a healthy way to lament the broken world we live in, but also a way to dwell on what is true, good, and beautiful.

While medieval monks and nuns often got a bad rap for secluding themselves from the outside world (not unlike artists), if it weren’t for these saints meticulously copying out Scripture in beautiful script to pass on to future generations we might not have the Bible today.

Instead of escape, creativity can replenish our souls so that we can better deal with reality. Art can serve as a lighthouse of hope to a suffering world.

Art has the effect of drawing me to something beyond myself, to God, our ultimate telos (purpose and meaning). As St. Ignatius articulated in his First Principle, “everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God.” This includes art.

Sometimes God allows us to experience a dark night of the soul, such as a pandemic and civil unrest, in order to perform a transformational work on our souls that moves our aimless wanderings away from darkness and self-introspection and toward the light.

Josh Tiessen is a professional fine artist and published writer based in Stoney Creek, Ont. He has had solo exhibitions in galleries from New York to LA. His new book, Streams in the Wasteland, is set to release in 2021.