The Dark Night by St. John of the Cross

John of the Cross wrote “The Dark Night” in 1578 or 1579 as a guide for spiritual development and mystical prayer.

 


 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

An introduction to John of the Cross

A summary of his teaching

The Poem

Three Stages in the life of prayer

The Dark Night of the Senses

Pausing between the two Dark Nights

When Contemplative Prayer is no longer enough

Endnotes

Terminology

Bibliography

 


 

AN INTRODUCTION TO JOHN OF THE CROSS

 

Juan de Yepes was born in 1542 in a small town called Fontiveros, Spain. His family was Catholic. Juan was the last of three sons. But when Juan was two, his dad passed away after a long illness. His mom was reduced to begging. Shortly afterwards, probably as a result of malnutrition, his middle brother died.

John was sent to a school for poor children near Castille. He helped in the school’s church as a sacristan, setting up things for the Mass. It was at this school that he discovered he was gifted with compassion for the sick.

The administrator of the school enrolled John in a Jesuit school at age 17, where he re­ceived a classical education. At age 21, John surprised everyone and entered the Carmelite monastery at Medina. This was probably motivated by his contemplative gifting and by his devotion to Mary.

There, John was renamed Brother John of St. Mathias. After his novitiate, he studied philosophy and theology. He had outstanding talent and was even named prefect, or head, of studies.

In the midst of all this academia, however, a vocational crisis emerged. John found that the life of contemplative prayer was calling for first place. Hence his interests turned away from the Carmelites toward the Carthusians, with their more solidly contemplative leanings.

However, John stayed with the Carmelites. He was ordained a priest in 1567. Shortly afterwards, Mother Teresa of Jesus arranged to meet him. In our day, we know her as Teresa of Avila.

Teresa was 52; John was 25. She convinced him to remain a Carmelite and to help her found a reformed order of Carmelites. After finishing his studies, John joined Teresa to begin founding small houses for contemplative Carmelites.

After being convinced of this new reform, he changed his name to John of the Cross. In 1572 he was sent to Avila to be a confessor for the 180 nuns there. His ministry of spiritual direc­tion extended beyond the monastery to many people in the area.

However, many Carmelites were hostile to the reform movement that John was building. In 1577, they kidnapped him. He was handcuffed and blindfolded and led to the monastery prison in Toledo. They locked him in a room that was six feet wide by ten feet long. There was no heat in the long winter months, and no ventilation in the suffocating heat of summer.

Each week, all the monks gathered. They drug John out of his cell. They flogged and tortured him.

The monks withheld all sustenance from John except bread and water. He was required to wear the same robe month after month, with­out washing. And his cell was infested with lice.

After six months, the guard was changed. The new guard gave him paper and pen, and he was finally able to write. What he wrote were his poems. They crystallize the spiritual life and mystical prayer.

One hot night in August, after being held prisoner for nine months, emaciated and close to death, John somehow loosened the screws that held his door locked. Then while the friars were asleep, he escaped through a narrow window.

Later, John was found innocent of wrongdoing.

John of the Cross was later named a rector of the Carmelite college. He resumed giving spiritual direction. Over the years, he wrote several spiritual books and founded seven more mon­asteries.

Late in his life, one of the Carmelite friars became John’s enemy and made considerable difficulty for him. He lost health and was not welcomed at the monastery where he was sent. At Midnight, December 13, 1591, John repeated the words from Psalm 31: “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit,” and he died.

John of the Cross was canonized a saint of the Catholic church in 1726. Then in 1926, he was declared a Doctor of the Church. That title means he is one of the 30-some greatest teachers of the faith ever.

Among the Doctors of the Church, John is referred to as the Mystical Doctor, the Prince of Mystics.

If you’ve ever felt stuck in the life of prayer, if you’ve ever longed to go further in the spiritual life, if you long to know Christ more, John can probably help you out. He is best known for three works:

  • The Ascent of Mt. Carmel
  • The Dark Night of the Soul
  • The Living Flame of Love

 

A SUMMARY OF HIS TEACHING

 

Broadly speaking, there are two Dark Nights. The first is called The Dark Night of the SENSES. It is for those who practice meditative prayer but meditation is no longer fruitful in their lives.

The Dark Night of the Senses purifies their senses and transforms their motives. It weans them from their feelings of sweetness or delight during meditation. By letting go of their desire for those feelings, the soul will be ready to receive the far greater joys that are in store. They are gradually weaned from meditative prayer and into contemplative prayer.

The second Dark Night is called The Dark Night of the SOUL. It is for those who practice contemplative prayer.

The Dark Night of the Soul purifies their spirit and transforms their freedom. It weans them from their own sense of spiritual light. By letting go of that, the soul will become ready to receive the far greater light that is in store. They are gradually weaned from contemplative prayer into unitive prayer.

 

THE POEM

 

John of the Cross had many mystical experiences. To describe them, he wrote poetry. Much later, he explained his poetry by writing books.

To understand The Dark Night, it is important to start with his poem about it. It is entitled, “Stanzas of the Soul.”

John wrote this masterpiece in his native Spanish language. There are many translations into English. Here is a translation by David Lewis in 1909. (Note 1)

1. On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings
— oh, happy chance! —
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

2. In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised
— oh, happy chance! —
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.

3. In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide,
save that which burned in my heart.

4. This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me—
A place where none appeared.

5. Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

6. Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping,
and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

7. The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand
he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

8. I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.

 

THREE STAGES IN THE LIFE OF PRAYER

(Reference: The Dark Night, Book One, Chapter 1)

 

In The Dark Night, John of the Cross discusses three major stages in the life of prayer:

  1. Meditative prayer
  2. Contemplative prayer
  3. Unitive prayer

The Dark Night is framed within these three stages. Understanding them is key to understanding the teachings of The Dark Night.

Here is our summary of them:

 

1. MEDITATIVE PRAYER

The first stage in the life of prayer is meditative prayer. Meditative prayer is thinking about God.

In the classic writings of the great Christian teachers, those who meditate are called beginners.

In our day, most people consider prayer to consist of talking. They say words to God. It is rare to encounter a Christian who meditates. We might see a meditator as very advanced in the ways of prayer. However, in classical language, meditators are called beginners.

If your prayer-life is based on meditation, you are blessed. You have a substantial head-start in the life of prayer. You are well on your way. Know that much more is in store for you.

The Dark Night of the Senses gradually weans people from meditative prayer and into contemplative prayer. Think of meditative prayer as the home where you live. God calls people to move out of that home and into a new home called unitive prayer. The road you travel to get there is called contemplative prayer and The Dark Night.

How about you? Is your prayer-life based on meditative prayer?

 

2. CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER

The second stage in the life of prayer is contemplative prayer. Contemplative prayer is resting in God.

In the classic writings of the great Christian teachers of prayer, contemplatives are called proficients.

In our day, it is very rare to encounter somebody who practices contemplative prayer. However, God has called many people to contemplative prayer. The great Christian teachers of prayer would say that it is more accurate to assume that you are called to contemplative prayer than to assume that you are not.

If your prayer-life is based on contemplative prayer, rejoice. But know that much more is in store for you.

The Dark Night of the Soul gradually weans people from contemplative prayer and into unitive prayer.

How about you? Is your prayer-life based on contemplative prayer?

 

3. UNITIVE PRAYER

The third stage in the life of prayer is unitive prayer. God is a living flame of love that burns within us. In unitive prayer, people simply enjoy the warmth of that fire within.

The soul is finally free from the rigors of meditative prayer, and the aridity of contemplative prayer. It no longer needs the incredible disciplines that had been so important until now. Unitive prayer is effortless.

Times of prayer simply consist of enjoying the fire within. Think: “The Living Flame of Love” by John of the Cross and “The Practice of the Presence of God” by Brother Lawrence. Yet the fire is also experienced often throughout the day.

In the classic writings of the great Christian teachers of prayer, those who practice unitive prayer are called by a very odd name: perfect. This does not imply moral superiority or actual perfection. Rather, it refers to the understanding that it is not possible to grow closer to God while still alive on this earth. To grow in closeness to God, one must pass away.

St. Paul was probably at this point when he wrote: For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)

If God has called you to unitive prayer, rejoice.

How about you? Do you practice unitive prayer?

 

SUMMARY

 

In his love for us, God is at work to advance us. He wishes to draw us further in the life of prayer. He wishes to draw meditators into the contemplative life. He wishes to draw contemplatives into the realm of unitive prayer.

To the individual, these motions feel like great losses and hardships. They are Dark Nights. But their purpose is total transformation and far greater blessings.

 

THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SENSES

(Reference: The Dark Night, Book One, Chapter 1)

 

The Dark Night is made up of two books:

  1. Book One: The Dark Night of the Senses
  2. Book Two: The Dark Night of the Spirit

In Book One, John of the Cross discusses the The Dark Night of the Senses. It is for those who practice meditative prayer but no longer fruitfully. This Dark Night of the Senses purifies their senses and transforms their motives. It weans them from sweet feelings of delight during meditation. By letting go of those feelings, the soul will be ready to receive the far greater joys that are in store. The individual is gradually weaned from meditative prayer and into contemplative prayer.

In this Dark Night of the Senses, the soul departs from its love of self and things. It does so in order to reach a fuller life in God. This is like an escape, an escape made possible by the warm love of the Bridegroom.

In hindsight, the soul counts it a great fortune to have gone though the Dark Night of the Senses.

John of the Cross bases Book One on the first verse of his poem:

On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings
— oh, happy chance! —
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

 

MEDITATING BUT NOT GROWING

(Reference: The Dark Night, Book One, Chapters 2-7)

 

Sometimes people can be very faithful to their meditative prayer practices. And yet they do not grow further in their spiritual life. John of the Cross discusses the most common traits that hold back meditators:

  1. Spiritual pride
  2. Spiritual avarice
  3. Spiritual lust
  4. Spiritual anger
  5. Spiritual gluttony
  6. Spiritual envy
  7. Spiritual sloth

Here is our study of each:

 

1. PRIDE

Look at me! I’m a meditator!

To be a meditator is an awesome gift. However, some people are way too impressed with it, as if meditation was their own lofty achievement. A secret pride lives within them.

They talk about spiritual things as if wanting to impress people about how spiritual they are. They look down on people who are not yet at their lofty state. They love being praised. They want their spiritual director to congratulate them. They see themself as a saint that will soon be canonized.

Since they are so impressed with being a meditator, they are not open to anyone or any teaching that calls them to advance beyond meditation. For that reason, their growth will stall at meditation.

But those who are capable of growing beyond meditation have a different outlook. They are not overly impressed with themselves or their achievements. They are aware of their shortcomings. They look up to other people. They long to be taught the way forward, and they are willing to make whatever changes that are necessary.

 

2. AVARICE

God won’t give me enough!

Some meditators are not content with what God has given them. They want more satisfaction, and they want it right now. But they don’t get what they want, and so they are chronically unhappy.

To find happiness, they are constantly searching. But instead of searching for their answers in prayer, they read and study. They adorn themselves with fancy Rosaries and medals and relics and crosses. They are always on the hunt for “better” ones. At the core, they are covetous and possessive.

True devotion comes from the heart, and not from possessions. For this person to grow in prayer, they must root out their appetite for these distractions.

John of the Cross made one such man give up a cross he had treasured for more than ten years. John made another give up a special Rosary. Each had to give up the burden of their attachments to those visible instruments.

Yet until God draws an individual into The Dark Night of the Senses, they will not be able to root out such attachments completely. That is when God takes over and purge them in the fire of the Dark Night.

 

3. LUST

Whenever I meditate, I am flooded with sexual desire!

While they are at prayer, some meditators fall into a state of lust. They burn with desire. Others fall into a sexual desire for their spiritual friend or spiritual director.

There are three main triggers for these situations:

  1. Spiritual exercises can feel pleasurable. When some people feel that pleasure, they become sexually aroused. This can happen to them during any spiritual exercise, even Holy Communion. This is cured through the purgation of the Dark Night.
  2. The devil. When the individual is at prayer, the devil tries to get them to burn with sexual desire. The devil’s goal is simply to get them to stop praying. These people have a sad life. They exert heroic efforts to try to overcome this. But the real cure takes place during the Dark Night.
  3. The individual’s fear of remembering sexual experiences. Their efforts at avoidance make things even worse.

When the soul enters The Dark Night of the Senses, all these disordered loves are gradually set in proper order.

 

4. ANGER

I’m so angry!

Many meditators struggle with anger.

Some meditators feel delight during their times of meditation. But then as soon as their prayer time is over, the delight vanishes, and they fall back into anger. Over the course of time, they become more and more irritable. They become so unbearable that people can hardly tolerate them.

Other meditators become livid over the imperfections of other people.

Still other meditators want to be perfect. But they glimpse their own imperfections and become angry with themselves.

The Dark Night of the Senses is the antidote to these situations.

 

5. GLUTTONY

Religious sweetness is so great! I need more!

Almost all meditators fall into this trap. They find great delight in their meditative practice, and they come to want more and more of it. They go to an extreme in their practice that is not wise. They kill themselves with penances or fasting. They strain themselves to feel exquisite sweetness from Holy Communion.

They come to gauge the level of their love for God by the severity of their practices. They conceal their practices from anyone who might tell them they are overdoing it.

After a while, the person has come to believe that the purpose of prayer is to feel sensory pleasure. When the pleasure does not arrive, they become disconsolate. They might even give up prayer altogether.

The aridities and trials of The Dark Night of the Senses will cure them of their gluttony.

 

6. ENVY

Some meditators feel sad about the good they see in others. They grieve that other people are ahead of them in the spiritual path. They cannot stand it when other people are spoken of highly.

The The Dark Night of the Senses will eradicate their own sense of achievement.

 

7. SLOTH

Some meditators are very accustomed to feeling pleasure when they meditate. If that pleasure dries up, they become bored and simply stop meditating. Really, they are praying for what they can get out of prayer instead of for God.

Others equate their own will with God’s will. They measure God by the yardstick of themselves. When their own will is not granted, they assume that God has let them down.

The slothful person will avoid spiritual practices that do not produce pleasure. If it becomes boring, they will give it up.

The interior dryness of the The Dark Night of the Senses will wean them from their sources of spiritual pleasure, their trivialities and childishness.

 

LEAVING MEDITATIVE PRAYER

(Reference: The Dark Night, Book One, Chapters 8-10)

 

When they begin to practice meditative prayer, most people experience sweetness and delight. These wonderful feelings are of great benefit. They inspire the person to keep advancing in their discipleship and prayer-life.

However, their meditative practices can only take them so far, and no further. When they have gone as far as meditation will take them, many people will experience The Dark Night of the Senses.

In many cases, it does not take long until that happens.

This Dark Night of the Senses is a great gift from God. He gives this to meditators because he wishes to liberate them. He has much greater things in store for them, but they cannot find their way to them by means of meditative prayer.

 

WHY MEDITATION NO LONGER WORKS

To advance, meditators must be weaned from meditative prayer. To do that, God severs them from the sweetness and delight the used to feel during meditation.

Some meditators had become almost addicted to those feelings. They meditated in order to feel that sweetness and delight. In essence, they meditated in order to receive. They came to base their relationship with God on their own feelings. For them to advance further, this must end.

Other meditators had become very committed to their meditative practice. In previous years, they saw it deliver great benefits in their spiritual life. So they refuse to give it up, even after it is no longer beneficial to them, even when it is drudgery. They had become rather legalistic about meditating. For them to advance further, they must give it up.

In both cases, the need is for the person to transition from meditative prayer into contemplative prayer. God gets this going by taking away the sweetness and delight they had been feeling during meditation.

 

THREE SYMPTOMS

There are three main symptoms that a meditator is in The Dark Night of the Senses.

Symptom #1. No more sweetness or delight. The primary symptom is that the meditator no longer experience sweetness or delight from their meditation practices. Instead, meditation might feel like drudgery. It might even feel distasteful.

However, that lack of delight could have been caused by something other than The Dark Night of the Senses. It might be due to depression or some other illness, for example. So another symptom is necessary.

Symptom #2. Fright. The second symptom is fright. That lack of sweetness and delight can feel very frightening to the meditator. They feel that they are loosing ground in the spiritual life. They are afraid that they are becoming lukewarm.

The person who is truly in The Dark Night of the Senses is not lukewarm. They desperately want their feelings of sweetness or delight back, and they are trying everything they can think of.

Symptom #3. Powerless. The third symptom is that the meditator feels powerless. They are powerless to bring those feelings of sweetness and delight back. They are powerless to make their darkness go away. They are powerless to make their meditations be fruitful.

 

A NEW WAY OF PRAYING

This Dark Night of the Senses begins to set in motion a new way of praying. The individual begins to be alone more often. Instead of meditating, they gradually begin to simply sit still and be quiet. They let their mind be unconcerned and idle.

When they stop meditating and pray like that, they find new spiritual nourishment. It will be altogether unlike anything they have known previously. It does not involve their own efforts. It does not involve their intellect, or their memory, or their will.

Their own efforts to meditate become an instant obstacle to the delicate work God is doing in them.

They are no longer meditators. They are now becoming contemplatives.

That is an extraordinary blessing.

 

WHAT TO DO

For prayer time, the main thing is not meditate. Do not fill your mind with ideas. Don’t wish for feelings of sweetness or delight. Simply rest and be quiet. Be at ease.

It may feel that this new way of praying is a waste of time. You may think of a hundred better things to do. However, a great deal is being done. But it is achieved with no effort on your part.

Your mind will probably have a torrent of ideas bouncing about. Endure them peacefully. Don’t fight them. Don’t tromp them down. If you try, they will only get stronger. Instead, let them flow across the screen of your mind like tumbleweeds going across the screen in a movie.

You might feel frantic. Perhaps you feel that meditation is absolutely necessary. Yet you find it absolutely counter-productive. You want to grow cloer to God, yet you are very hesitant to try this new thing.

All that is needed is a loving and peaceful attentiveness to God. During your quiet, there is a secret flow of love from God. It is building within you a fire of love.

 

STARTING CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER

(Reference: The Dark Night, Book One, Chapters 11-14)

 

John of the Cross bases this section on the first stanza of his poem:

On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings
— oh, happy chance! —
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

 

ON A DARK NIGHT

Once an individual sets out from their life of meditation, they might not feel the fire within. At least not right away.

The person is in a Dark Night.

 

KINDLED IN LOVE WITH YEARNINGS

But then again, from time to time, people in The Dark Night of the Senses will actually feel enkindled with the fire of God’s love within. The person feels enamored, but does not know why.

John of the Cross calls this contemplative love. It is very different from the sweetness and delight people used to experience during meditation. From time to time, the person’s longing for God will become so intense that it is a thirst.

However, this is not constant. It isnt even regular. For the majority of the time, what the person feels is dryness or emptiness or aridity. In the midst of all that suffering, what they offer to God is secret contemplation. And through that, divine love is being enkindled.

God’s purpose is to stop meditators from meditating. To do this, he puts them in The Dark Night of the Senses. When the person finally glimpses the extraordinary blessings that are taking place, they say:

 

OH, HAPPY CHANCE!

They are overjoyed at what The Dark Night of the Senses is doing for them.

The benefits are synopsized in the next line:

 

I WENT FORTH WITHOUT BEING OBSERVED,

The person used to be enslaved to their senses. They were held captive by their need for spiritual feelings of sweetness and delight. They were hostage to the the seven common traits that hold back meditators. But now the person is being set free from their appetite for sweetness and delight.

However, that freedom comes at a price. The Dark Night of the Senses is not pleasant. Few will endure it very long.

The Dark Night of the Senses is a a narrow gate, and Jesus calls us to enter through the narrow gate.

Matthew 7:14. How narrow is the gate, and restricted is the way that leads to life! Few are those who find it.

The Dark Night of the Senses is a narrow gate. Few are those who enter through it, for it is narrow and dark and terrible.

The Dark Night of the Senses is a glad night. Those in heaven rejoice that God has taken the person out of the swaddling clothes of meditation. The person is being weaned from the sweet delightful food of infants. Now he or she is learning to walk on their own, and learning to eat solid food.

Here are some benefits of The Dark Night of the Senses . . .

1. People learn the extent of their own misery. Previously they were deluded about this. Their halcyon days of meditation had filled them with sweetneess and delight. That artificially propped them up beyond the reality of their spiritual lives. Now they know that they are nothing. They are no longer impressed with themselves.

2. People are more respectful of God. During their heady days of meditation, they were more daring with God than was appropriate.

3. The more that people behold their own darkness, the more capable they are of glimpsing God’s grandeur and majesty. The more their appetites for pleasure are quieted, the more their intellect is made clean and free. Being empty and unhindered is a requirement for divine inpouring. That is when god supernaturally instructs us.

The preparation for divine inpouring is not the milk of sweetness and delight, but rather being weaned from those things, as Isaiah indicated:

Isaiah 28:9. Whom will he teach knowledge? To whom will he explain the message? Those who are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts.

Our own ideas and meditations are a very limited way for us to experience God. The Dark Night of the Senses takes us to a whole new level.

4. Spiritual humility. In The Dark Night of the Senses, we become aware of our wretchedness. We realize that we have nothing to be proud of. This is the antidote to spiritual pride.

5. Spiritual avarice reduces. Previously the person wanted every possible spiritual feeling, and so they went about doing every possible spiritual practice. Now that those spiritual feelings are gone, the person stops doing so many practices.

6. Spiritual lust is healed. This is through the dryness and distate of The Dark Night of the Senses.

7. Spiritual gluttony is alleviated. Through the aridity of The Dark Night of the Senses, God cures the person of concupiscence and appetite. The soul has no feelings of sweetness or delight to feast on any more. Their passions loose their strength and become sterile. Without concupiscence and appetite, the person can finally dwell in spiritual peace and tranquility.

8. The mind is continually occupied with God. John of the Cross refers to this as habitual remembrance.

9. The person practices all the virtues simultaneously. They are becoming natural.

10. Anger and envy and sloth are cured. The aridities and hardships of The Dark Night of the Senses soften the person. They become meek toward God and toward people.

11. The envying of others is replaced by charity toward them.

12. Sloth tends to go away. Previously, feelings of sweetness and delight were always available, and so the person could become slothful in their spiritual practices. But now, those feelings are no longer available.

13. When God communicates to the individual now, his divine communication is much greater than before. It might be in the form of spiritual sweetness or pure love or delicate knowledge.

14. As their sensory appetites are cured, people come to experience the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit.

15. People’s love for God is purified. No longer do they commune with him in order to receive sweetness and delight. Now they simply wish to please God.

Indeed, The Dark Night of the Senses has worked wonders for the person:

  • Calmed the four passions: joy, sorrow, hope, fear
  • Lulled the sensory appetite to sleep
  • Bestowed inner harmony by ceasing of meditation

Now the person says this:

 

MY HOUSE BEING NOW AT REST

In classical terminology, the person is now a proficient. He or she walks the illuminative way. This new spiritual practice is called infused contemplation.

To have transitioned from meditative prayer to contemplative prayer is an extraordinary blessing.

Yet this new contemplative still faces trials. Some contemplatives are tempted with fornication; others with blasphemy or scrupulosity. Through the buffeting of these trials, they are prepared for the next Dark Night.

There is no way to predict how long these trials will persist.

Nonetheless, even though there are trials, the blessings are way more than the person could ever have imagined. It is totally worth it.

 

A PARABLE OF THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SENSES

 

You had been with your company for years and years. It was a great company when you first started with them. But then they went into decline. They lost some key contracts. Profit turned into loss. There was no chance for you to advance. Then they went out of business.

You felt lost. Your own identity had been tied up with your job at the company.

After lots of searching, and after sending out lots of resumes, you finally got a new job. That was the good news.

That bad news is that your new job is in New York.

Your old job was in Los Angeles. You live in Los Angeles. Your house is in Los Angeles. Everything you own is in Los Angeles. You’ve lived there for years. Your friends are there. You love that great city. You know where all the cool stores are. How can you let go of it all?

You talk about it with your psychologist. When she says you need to let go of Los Angeles and move on, you feel angry.

But your first day at the new job is approaching. You have to move. You put your house up for sale, pack your belongings into a U-Haul, and start driving.

As you head out, you glimpse your favorite movie theater. You recall all the great movies you saw there with your friends, and your eyes become misty. Then you see the Menards. What great fun you had there, figuring out which yard shed to buy.

As you drive, you need to stop for gas. You come to savor the snacks that are sold at gas stations. Their snacks are so delicious that you could stay at the gas stations for hours, feasting on sodas and rotisserie hot-dogs and donuts and simulated beef jerky. But you know that you need to get back on the road.

By the time you make it to Denver, you have adjusted. As you dine at the big truck stop, you feel in your guts that you no longer live in Los Angeles. You recall happy memories of Los Angeles, yet you know you are not going back. You are at peace with leaving Los Angeles.

Letting go of Los Angeles was painful. But that pain is behind you. You have become fully accustomed to your life as a traveler. You are good at it. It has become your lifestyle. You have fallen in love with the highway. You love the adventure of talking to new people while you pump gas at the gas stations. You have become really good at driving your U-Haul.

You could do this for the rest of your life.

 

PAUSING BETWEEN THE TWO DARK NIGHTS

(Reference: The Dark Night, Book Two, Chapter 1)

 

In the Dark Night of the Senses, God had freed the person from the limitations of meditative prayer. Now the person is a contemplative. This is a fantastic gift of God.

During contemplative prayer, the person is no longer handcuffed to the confining effects of meditative prayer. Now he or she experiences more freedom and satisfaction. There is serenity and inner delight.

God will probably let the soul stay in this realm of contemplative prayer for some time. It might be for years or even decades.

Yet this contemplative has not yet arrived at the fullness that is possible. Their senses have been purged, but not their spirit.

Due to that, the person still experiences, from time to time, things they do not like. There are unmet needs and aridities. There is darkness and conflict.

John has a word for those unpleasant experiences during contemplative prayer. He calls them Dark Contemplation. It means that their contemplative experience seems devoid of light.

In his mercy, God puts a glass ceiling on those difficulties. He limits how long they last. Or he limits their intensity. He makes them like eating a morsel instead of a full meal.

As soon as the experience of Dark Contemplation is lifted, joy returns. That joy might even overflow into the senses, now that the senses have been purified by the Dark Night of the Senses.

These difficult experiences can accumulate within the person, possibly leading to physical illnesses:

  • Weakness of stomach
  • Dislocation of bones (yikes!)
  • Clouding of senses
  • Transport of senses

These experiences of Dark Contemplation will return, from time to time, until the person has finally journeyed through the next dark night: the Dark Night of the Spirit.

 

WHEN CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER IS NO LONGER ENOUGH

(Reference: The Dark Night, Book Two, Chapters 2-3)

 

The individual has come a long way. They started out in Meditatative Prayer. But then, the Dark Night of the Senses began. It weaned them of their addiction to sweet feelings and delight during meditation. It bridled their biggest appetites, and brought about a wonderful sense of calm.

This first Dark Night transitioned them to Contemplative Prayer. Contemplative Prayer turned out to be a realm of unimagineable growth and blessings.

God probably let the individual continue along in Contemplative Prayer for a long time. But now, Contemplative Prayer is no longer enough.

God is about to advance the individual to union with himself. The means to get there is a second Dark Night. The first one was called the Dark Night of the Senses. This second one is called the Dark Night of the Spirit. It will overcome the many obstacles that still remain within the person.

Despite the individual’s best intentions, many obstacles still remain within them:

  • Their relationship with God is still rather childish (not “childlike”)
  • They still have bad habits. These are things they do almost automatically, without conscious deliberation. These hold them back.
  • They are too attached to certain things in their life, things that hold them back
  • They are still somewhat dull and inattentive to God
  • They try to duplicate their most wondrous experiences during prayer
  • In some people, these obstacles are more. In other people, they are less. In either case, the obstacles must be dealt with.

The Dark Night of the Spirit is likely to touch all aspects of their personality: intellect, memory, will, and emotions.

In our Parable of the Dark Night of the Senses, we described a person moving from Los Angeles to New York. To get there, the person drives a U-Haul across the nation.

That is an analogy of the Dark Night. Los Angeles is the starting point. It stands for Meditative Prayer. New York is the goal. It stands for Unitive Prayer. The road is how to get from Los Angeles to New York. The road stands for Contemplative Prayer.

Begin Path End
Los Angeles Road New York
Meditative Prayer Contemplative Prayer Unitive Prayer

Few people would become addicted to driving their U-Haul across the nation. However, is is easy for a Contemplative to become very accustomed to Contemplative Prayer. They probably envision being a Contemplative for the rest of their lives. That misapprehension is being eliminated.

If the person does not cooperate with what God is doing, and move on from Contemplative Prayer to Unitive Prayer, there is a danger that they can become deluded about their spiritual life:

  • They feel their spiritual experiences are more wondrous than they really are
  • Vanity
  • Pride
  • Pretending to have raptures and ecstacies, so as to impress people

The prayer “methodology,” if you will, for the journey through the Dark Night of the Spirit, is something we touched on previously. John of the Cross calls it Dark Contemplation. It means that the prayer experience might seem devoid of light. It means the prayer experience might be laden with unmet needs or aridities, darkness or conflict.

The need is to persist, even during times of Dark Contemplation. John of the Cross calls that Dark Faith. The term Dark Faith is not a bad thing. It simply means that you are proceeding by faith, not by sight.

2 Corinthians 5:7. for we walk by faith, not by sight.

What is God doing? He is getting us to our destination. The destination is union with himself.

God will espouse us to himself forever:

Hosea 2:20. I will even betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD.

 

THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL IS A GREAT BLESSING

(Reference: The Dark Night, Book Two, Chapter 4)

 

The individual is on a path. The first segment of the path was the Dark Night of the Senses. It had transformed them from meditative prayer to Contemplative Prayer.

Now the individual is in the second segment of the path. John of the Cross calls it the Dark Night of the Soul. It will transform them from Contemplative Prayer to Unitive Prayer, which is actual union with God. This is an unimaginably great gift of God, and it is now underway.

To explain this Dark Night of the Soul, John of the Cross goes back to stanza one of his poem. As a review, here it is:

On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings
— oh, happy chance! —
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

In the fourth line, John of the Cross writes this: I went forth without being observed. What does that mean?

John says the individual is going out from self. That is, the person is setting aside its previous ways of understanding God and loving God and seeking God. Those previous ways were limiting and immature.

Now the individual is no longer hindered. It is no longer hindered by itself, and it is no longer hindered by Satan.

This is a great freedom. This freedom is so far beyond our comprehension that people cannot even imagine it until they have begun to experience it firsthand.

In the third line of his poem, John of the Cross writes this: oh, happy chance!

That means the Dark Night of the Soul is a great gift from God.

Many people have a great misunderstanding of the Dark Night of the Soul. They have heard that it is a dreadful experience of loss and deprivation. That is partly true. However, those negative aspects are a tiny portion of an infinitely larger positive movement.

In a similar way, we could describe the weaning an infant as the pointless misery and crying and tears and trauma. That is true, to a limited extent. However, it misses the whole point of weaning. Weaning is the path that leads to a far greater freedom. It is essential for us to grow and live life.

Similarly, the Dark Night is not primarily about loss and deprivation. Loss and deprivation are but a tiny percent of the totality of what is actually happening in The Dark Night of the Soul. it transforms our intellect, our love, and our memory.

The Dark Night of the Soul transforms our intellect. It does this by weaning us from our infantile ways of thinking about God. It liberates us from the narrow confines of natural human rationality. Now the individual is united to divine wisdom, and thinks more along the lines of divine wisdom.

The Dark Night transforms our love. It liberates us from a lowly, self-centered manner of human loving. Now the individual is united to divine love, and loves more along the ways of divine love.

The Dark Night transforms our memory. Now our memory is taken up by eternal apprehensions of glory.

The Dark Night does not do away with who we are. It does not overwrite our personality. Rather, it renews us with divine qualities and delights.

 

THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL IS AN INFLOW OF GOD’S GRACE

(Reference: The Dark Night, Book Two, Chapter 5)

 

Many people think of The Dark Night of the Soul as an era of suffering and deprivation and emptying. But it is also an inflow. Through a mystical process called infused contemplation, God is flowing his light and truth into us.

As our limitations flow out of us, God flows in. We are purged as well as illuminated. Divine light shines in the darkness.

We tend to notice the negative things, and tend to be oblivious to the positive things that God is doing for us:

Negative things people notice Positive things God is doing
Emptying of self Inflow of grace
Our own limitations Fullness of God
Purged Illuminated
Human darkness Divine Light

The precise name for what is happening in The Dark Night of the Soul is infused contemplation. It means that God is teaching us, but in a way that is secret. We do not do anything to achieve it, and we do not understand how it happens.

Positive things are happening. Yet to the individual, it feels like night and darkness. It feels like affliction and torment. There are two reasons for this.

 

REAS0N #1

The first reason The Dark Night of the Soul feels so dark and painful to us is that the inflow from God temporarily exceeds our capacity to receive.

Think of a person who has been in darkness for a long time. Their eyes have adjusted to the darkness. If they are exposed to a bright light, the bright light will temporarily feel painful to them.

That is why this infused contemplation of The Dark Night of the Soul is sometimes referred to as a “ray of darkness.” For the person who is not yet illumined and purged, infused contemplation feels like darkness and pain.

King David wrote about this apparent darkness:

Psalm 18:11. He made darkness his hiding place, his pavilion around him, darkness of waters, thick clouds of the skies.

King David wrote that because that’s the way it feels. Yet God does not consist of darkness but rather of light, as David wrote in the next verse:

Psalm 18:12. At the brightness before him his thick clouds passed, hailstones and coals of fire.

The presence of God is actually brightness.

 

REASON #2

The second reason The Dark Night of the Soul feels so dark and painful to us is that we are so lowly. We are spiritually and morally weak.

We are so weak that this influx of light and truth from God feels agonizing. Our senses tell us it is an immense and dark burden.

 

SUMMARY

The feeling of darkness in The Dark Night of the Soul can be so strong that individuals feel they have lost all favor with God. They fear there is no one who will take pity on them.

Job feared that nobody would take pity on him:

Job 19:21. Have pity on me, have pity on me, you my friends; for the hand of God has touched me.

Yet the hand of God is light and gentle. He does not oppress us or weigh us down or chastize us. Rather, his goal is to grant us great favors.

 

ENDNOTES

 

1. This translation of the Stanzas of the Soul can be found at WikiQuotes, and at Christian Classics Ethereal Library. [Back to the text]

 

TERMINOLOGY

 

The world of contemplative prayer uses some very specialized terminology. Not all the authors use those terms to mean the same thing. Even an individual author uses them differently, in different contexts. Teresa is like that.

Here are some definitions we’ve synthesized:

Contemplation: A deep love communion with the Triune God. We cannot produce this; we can only receive it. It is a wordless awareness and a love that we cannot initiate or produce ourselves. It can be described by its effects: deep peace; a new love of God; delight; emptiness; a new, dark knowing; a loving knowing; humility; an inflowing of God; delicacy; transformation. It cannot be figured out; it cannot be understood fully.

Infused Recollection: A passive experience of recollection. A drawing of the faculties gently inward. The recollection achieved at the cost of human effort is different than this.

Prayer of Quiet / Initial Contemplation: A deeper form of infused recollection, in which the will finds rest but the intellect continues to move. The heart is held, but the mind and the imagination are free to wander. There is a quiet, deep and peaceful happiness in the will.

Prayer of Union. Like the Prayer of Quiet, but the faculties become completely silent (“suspended”). The soul has a certitude that it was in God and God was in it.

Spiritual Betrothal. Also called ecstatic union or absorption. God gives the soul raptures that draw it out of itself. During this experience, the soul is without outward consciousness and can no longer communicate with the outside world.

Spiritual Marriage. An increase of the betrothal that culminates in an intellectual vision of the Most Holy Trinity.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Borst, James, M.H.M., Contemplative Prayer. Liguori, Missouri: Liguori Publi­cations, 1979

Ewert Cousins, trans. Bonaventure, The Soul’s Journey to God. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1978

Doohan, Leonard. The Contemporary Challenge of John of the Cross. Washington, D.C., Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1995

Dubay, Thomas, S.M. Fire Within. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1989

Hart Clifford, Patricia. Sitting Still. New York: Paulist Press, 1994

John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel. In The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross. Washington, D.C., Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1991

John of the Cross, The Dark Night. In The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross. Washington, D.C., Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1991

John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love. In The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross. Washington, D.C., Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1991

Griffin, Emilie, editor, and Farrington, Tim, translator. The Cloud of Unknowing. HarperOne, 1981

Merton, Thomas. Contemplative Prayer

Teresa of Avila. The Interior Castle. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriquez, O.C.D.. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1979

Teresa of Avila. Way

Thérèse of Lisieux. The Story of a Soul, Translated by John Beevers. New York: Image Books Doubleday, 2001

 

SELECT BIBLE VERSES

 

Exodus 14:20. It came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel. There was the cloud and the darkness, yet it gave light by night. One didn’t come near the other all night.

Exodus 20:21. The people stayed at a distance, and Moses came near to the thick darkness where God was.

Psalm 139:12. even the darkness doesn’t hide from you, but the night shines as the day. The darkness is like light to you.

 


Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations on this page are from the World English Bible and the World Messianic Edition. These translations have no copyright restrictions. They are in the Public Domain.