Understanding "The Dark Night of the Soul"

A reader writes,

Carl, have you written any articles on the “dark night” or about the struggles we face on our paths? I’d be grateful if you could either link me to any articles you have written or to any books you think might be useful.  I have Dark Night of the Soul by St John of the Cross but find it quite dense.

Thanks for your question. Many people find John of the Cross challenging to read. He was a brilliant poet and an astute psychologist of the contemplative life, but not the most accessible writer when it comes to helping us with our day-to-day spiritual practice.

I think it’s helpful to bear in mind that John of the Cross uses phrases like “dark night of the senses” and “dark night of the soul” in a rather specific way. He uses these concepts to describe the process of how God calls anyone who is serious about the contemplative life into a state of letting go — of anything that threatens to come between us and God. For most people the “dark night of the senses” is easier to understand: we are asked to give up our tendency to want comfort, to seek pleasure, to prefer sensual delights that can make life joyful but can also easily become “substitute gods” — anything that we might find ourselves wanting to hold onto, even at the expense of our spiritual well-being.

Eventually it’s more than just material pleasures: we also can find that our attachment to pride, to the good esteem of others, to our desire for security or power or prestige — these qualities of life can also choke off our free response to God’s love and call in our lives.

So the dark night of the senses is the process by which we are stripped away of anything that comes between us and God.

From the Senses to the Soul

So what, then, is the dark night of the soul? This can be even more terrifying, for it represents a more radical and existential “stripping away.” Here even our religious or spiritual attachments may be taken from us, in the interest of being fully available for God, without any limitation or reservation. In the dark night of the soul, our image of God, our desire for spiritual consolation (experiences of God, or happy feelings that emerge during prayer), and even the sense of satisfaction that we might derive from prayer or meditation — it is all asked of us. Nothing is left except our pure vulnerability and desire for God to direct our lives, no matter the cost or the challenge.

Why are these processes called “dark nights”? For the simple reason that they are painful. It’s never a cakewalk to surrender a pleasure that we have previously enj0yed, whether it be sensual or spiritual in nature. No matter how motivated you are to lose weight, saying no the ice cream night after night is not always easy. No matter how motivated you might be to fully give yourself to God, being willing to surrender your precious experiences of God might be too bitter a pill to swallow, especially if it leaves you feeling lost — in a “dark night.”

Like I said, these are very specific, technical understandings of this concept, of the dark night of the soul. But the phrase also gets used in a more general sense, to describe any kind of interior crisis where we find ourselves called into a period of self-emptying, or loss, or darkness, in the interest of greater spiritual growth.

For Further Reading

So if John of the Cross is not the most accessible writer on this topic, what are some more gentle (and general) introductions to the notion of the dark night? Here are a few options.

Gerald May’s Dark Night of the Soul explores how darkness is an essential component of any maturing contemplative spirituality. May was a psychiatrist best known for writing about the spirituality of recovery from addiction, and in this book he takes aim at how so much contemporary spirituality emphasizes only the “light” — from the prosperity gospel to an obsession with feel-good experiences. Darkness matters for spiritual growth, and May explores why and how this is true.

Thomas Moore’s Dark Nights of the Soul (notice the plural) uses this language in its more general sense, arguing that life unavoidably includes times of crisis and upheaval, and so any serious spirituality must sooner or later grapple with the encounter with darkness. But when we accept the dark night it can become a time of renewal and transformation.

Carmelite Sister Constance Fitzgerald’s Essay “Impasse and the Dark Night” (available for free online, follow the link) explores the concept of the dark night in the light of contemporary spiritual growth, offering the concept of the “impasse” as a way of explaining the dark night process in a language that might be more meaningful for seekers today.

Finally, if you want something that is more faithful to John of the Cross, look at Ruth Burrows’ Ascent to Love: The Spiritual Teaching of St. John of the Cross. Burrows is a Carmelite nun and one of the most respected of living contemplative teachers (of any tradition); this book offers contemporary guidance for navigating the complexities and nuances of the saint’s teachings, including understanding the distinctions between not only the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the soul, but even seeing how the dark night of the spirit has both an “active” and a “passive” dimension.

I hope all of this is helpful. One last thought: given that dark night experiences are challenging, I would encourage anyone who is serious about maturing in their contemplative prayer practice to see a spiritual director regularly. Having someone to discuss your spirituality with can be an important safeguard against getting caught up in ego-trips (“I’m so advanced, look at my dark night!”), or even worse, confusing an authentic dark night process with the more ordinary — but equally painful — experience of deep grief or even depression. Having a friend or companion to help you discern your spiritual journey is, for most of us, a necessary blessing.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.

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