Dark night lite?

“The dark night of the soul” has taken on a broad and vague application in our time, and, vague as it is, this application gets us somewhere. Taken alone, the phrase “dark night of the soul” suggests that we have some purpose to our suffering. It introduces us to the idea of a mystery in suffering, and it gives us access to an old understanding of suffering that defies our pat answers.

Such an understanding of the soul’s dark night may move us toward the specific conception of it held by John of the Cross, the sixteenth-century Carmelite friar who coined the phrase. We’re close to the mark if we reserve “dark night” to describe some sort of special suffering, since John never intends his explanation of the dark night to comprehend all suffering. Instead, John sees the dark night as a kind of suffering in our relationship with God. All of the suffering John describes is in the context of a loving, painful relationship with God. The specific sufferings correspond to stages in the relationship, and the entire dark night describes how the relationship matures from some point after first love to something like perfection, or, as John puts it, “loving union with God.”

John seems uninterested in how the suffering may originate or how it may be experienced outside of a relationship with God. In other words, John’s writing about the dark night of the soul is not exactly the mystical version of When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The outward circumstances – a death of a loved one, a trauma to the body, the loss of a job, etc. – seem not to interest him at all. (Ironically, John’s personal dark night contains a strong situational aspect. The imagery of escape pervading the poem that introduces John’s treatises mirrors his own escape from a literal prison after many beatings at the hands of fellow Christians. However, it is the specific experiences in prayer and, more broadly, in the relationship between the lover and his or her God that provides John with the context he needs.) John’s dark night writings have a great deal to do with stages of spiritual growth, and perhaps they amount to a mystical Pilgrim’s Progress.

My Pilgrim’s Progress comparison fails, though, by suggesting that John’s two treatises on the dark night are simplistic or wholly allegorical. They are neither. Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul chiefly read like manuals for spiritual directors, kind of an early DSM IV, full of specific symptoms and diagnoses. The Catholic Church declared John a doctor in 1926, and John, in describing the course of a dark night, often sounds like a doctor describing the typical course of a disease. Here is an example from Dark Night:

But, if [the dark night of the spirit] is to be really effectual, it will last for some years, however severe it be; since the purgative process allows intervals of relief, wherein, by the dispensation of God, this dark contemplation ceases to assail the soul in the form and manner of purgation, and assails it after an illuminative and a loving manner, wherein the soul, like one that has gone forth from this dungeon and imprisonment, and is brought into the recreation of spaciousness and liberty, feels and experiences great sweetness of peace and loving friendship with God, together with a ready abundance of spiritual communication. (55)

John speaks with a modern doctor’s voice also where he distinguishes symptoms of the dark night from symptoms of more common experiences, such as “some indisposition or melancholy humor” (Dark Night 22). John’s descriptions of the experiences and struggles of beginners in the faith are equally specific and match my experiences with a level of detail that makes me feel uncomfortable at times. For me, reading John’s treatises can be like overhearing my trusted therapist discuss my case confidentially with his colleague in the easy but clinical manner of shop talk.

My Pilgrim’s Progress comparison is inadequate for another reason: the central metaphor in John’s works is not that of a pilgrim on a journey, spiritual or otherwise. Instead, John frames his work around a poem he wrote about a red-hot love affair, thereby creating a nice balance to the clinical tone his work often exhibits. Like the Song of Songs that he admires, John’s poem is devoid of religious imagery. John wrote his two treatises in part as an explanation of this allegorical poem that introduces both treatises, though his treatises go considerably beyond this framework in their description of the soul’s movements in darkness. This beautifully written poem serves not only as a loose framework for his work but also, perhaps, as an advertisement for it. In his book The Dark Night of the Soul: a Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth, Gerald G. May suggests that John circulated his racy poem among the discalced Carmelites (a reformed sect of the Carmelite order that John helped found), and then he circulated his treatises by way of explanation.

[book cover]As his poem suggests, John sees spirituality as a mysterious love affair. In this love affair, growth is possible but unpredictable, feelings and experiences come and go in order to encourage or aid the lover, and reason has a large role but is often overshadowed by faith and darkness. While John makes clear that the dark night is essential to purify us, holiness is no end in itself for John. Instead, purification seems desirable only to enlarge our capacity to experience and express love.

While, like many Christian mystics, John writes of a deeply personal relationship with his God, he warns fellow lovers of traps that such a personal relationship may involve. It may surprise those of us unfamiliar with the writings of more established mystics to read John’s frequent warnings about visions, revelations, and other supernatural experiences – experiences commonly understood as the stuff of a mystic’s life. John acknowledges that many such experiences come from God, but he feels that these experiences tend to be miscomprehended by the recipients and also tend to distract them from God himself. He concludes one of many sections on supernatural experiences with this warning: “. . . many souls who have known nothing of such things have made incomparably greater progress than others who have received many of them” (Ascent 76).

For John, as well as for most Christian mystics, the mystical experience is more personal, more settled, and more mysterious than the ecstatic experiences with which mystics seem to be associated. These ecstatic experiences disturb us and sometimes mislead us, John warns. In his book The Ascent to Truth, which is largely an explication of John’s two treatises, Thomas Merton writes, “The lights of prayer that make us imagine we are beginning to be angels are sometimes only signs that we are finally beginning to be men” (199). Christian mysticism involves the difficult work of self-discovery, and it has little to do with ecstatic experience.

John’s writing comprehends not one but two distinct dark nights, and the self-discovery Merton alludes to may be said to be the most painful part of the first night. The first night, the “night of sense,” purifies the soul of attachments to things that may be said to gratify the senses. We discover that we are attached to many desires, and that, in fact, we have fashioned our identity in terms of these desires. This earlier night is characterized by a disorienting spiritual darkness that eventually leads to a more apophatic understanding of God. This first night also introduces the lover to an effortless contemplation beyond meditation. John compares those who go through this night with toddlers who no longer require breastfeeding (Dark Night 30). He emphasizes that these “proficients” still have imperfections – bad roots “to which the purgation of sense has been unable to penetrate” (Dark Night 43). Because of the limited work done during the night of sense, John sees this night as “a kind of correction and restraint of the desire rather than purgation” (Dark Night 45).

Many lovers go through the night of sense, but few move into the more terrible night of faith (or “night of the spirit”). During the night of the spirit, the spirit itself is purged of impurity. During this night, most lovers feel as if God is angry and has forsaken them forever. Most lovers here also feel forsaken by mankind and, indeed, by all creation. Lovers experience a sense of their “deep poverty and wretchedness.” The wretchedness is felt in every area of the lover’s life. “For the sensual part is purified in aridity, the faculties are purified in the emptiness of their perceptions and the spirit is purified in thick darkness” (Dark Night 51). It is during the night of the spirit, however, that lovers are drawn to union with God, which is the goal of the night of the spirit.

John further divides each of these two nights into “active” and “passive” nights. The active nights involve our spiritual practices such as meditation, confession, good works, and the like. These active practices purify us to some extent, but they chiefly prepare us for a purification that God alone accomplishes in the passive nights. John’s first treatise on the dark night, Ascent of Mount Carmel, points out many of the sensual straightjackets and spiritual attachments and prejudices of neophyte Christians, and he describes how the active nights help to release Christians from these elements. Because it focuses on the active nights, Ascent of Mount Carmel comes across as more ascetic and less experiential than the second treatise, Dark Night of the Soul. Yet the active nights are essential; John makes clear that one may not skip the steady disciplines of the spiritual life and expect to experience either version of the more famous passive dark nights.

Ascent of Mount Carmel Beginners move to progressives Purgation of exterior senses Active night of sense and spirit
Dark Night of the Soul Progressives move to perfection (union with God) Purgation of interior senses Passive night of sense and spirit

Readers of Dark Night of the Soul may not realize that the book is a continuation, though not the completion, of a single work John begins with Ascent of Mount Carmel. This earlier book touches on both the night of sense and the night of the spirit, but, because it centers on the active portions of both nights, it is less apophatic and more cataphatic in tone. Ascent of Mount Carmel may remind one of Kierkegaard’s Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, which involves the soul in a reason-dominated and active putting away of the desires of the flesh and spirit. Dark Night, then, does not stand alone. Instead, it represents something like the middle book in what may be seen as a trilogy of treatises. Dark Night is actually a fragment, ending abruptly just as John begins his explanation of the third stanza of his eight-stanza poem. Based on the last five stanzas of the poem itself and on the broken promises contained in the extant portion of the book, we may surmise that the missing portion of the book describes in some detail the relationship of a lover nearing union with God on this earth.

We have contradictory evidence as to why Dark Night of the Soul comes to us in a fragment. One contemporary writer says that John’s death interrupted his writing of the book. The greater evidence, however, suggests that John lived for quite a while after he completed what we have of Dark Night of the Soul. I wonder if the unfinished nature of the treatise had something to do with the progressively intimate nature of its subject matter. I am reminded of Paul’s passing reference in 2 Corinthians to his being caught up into paradise where he hears words that are “unlawful to speak.” Also, the more intimate sayings of monastic leaders of the ancient church were often carefully worded when they were collected towards the backs of “books of chapters” for fear that their experiences would be misunderstood by beginners and by many church leaders (McGuckin 8 – 10). Perhaps John discovered that the more intimate material he intended to cover was difficult to express in the same objective and clinical manner as he does in the portions of the treatise we have. Or perhaps, after circulating what he had written of the second treatise, John concluded, like the writer of Hebrews, that he could not share the “meat” he had hoped to share, because his readers still “have need of milk.” While the book’s abrupt end is a great disappointment, I console myself with the thought that I would do well to spend a lifetime putting into practice the portions of the work to which we do have access.

While we may fret over the modern devaluation of the term “dark night of the soul,” John wrote his two treatises about the dark night with the opposite concern, a concern that people going through what he termed a dark night experience may have no adequate roadmap for their spiritual journey. “…[T]he important part of my task, and the part which chiefly led me to undertake it, was the explanation of this night to many souls who pass through [the dark night] and yet know nothing about it…” (Dark Night 102-03). Describing any prolonged suffering as a “dark night of the soul” may help point a present-day sufferer to a fresh and more mysterious understanding of her suffering. It also may serve as an introduction to John’s writings and to his more specific treatment of suffering in the context of the spiritual life.

Works Cited

John of the Cross. Ascent of Mount Carmel. Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2002.

John of the Cross. Dark Night of the Soul. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2003.

McGuckin, John A. The Book of Mystical Chapters. Boston: Shambhala, 2003.

May, Gerald G. The Dark Night of the Soul: a Psychatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth. San Francisco: Harper, 2003.

Merton, Thomas. The Ascent to Truth. San Deigo: Harvest, 1981.