by Andrew Gniadek
All translations are my own
The term “dark night of the soul” is an arbitrary term normally used to signify what St. John of the Cross calls the “passive night of the spirit” discussed in his work titled The Dark Night, which is commonly titled improperly as The Dark Night of the Soul. Furthermore, the term “dark night of the soul” is sometimes used for an emotional experience about God such as emotional despair and doubt that has nothing in common with what St. John of the Cross means by the “dark night.”
St. John of the Cross understands that the person as an integral unity experiences the dark night, not just the person’s soul. Furthermore, the term “dark night of the soul” makes the mystical experience seem contrary to a personal experience, such that Christian mysticism teaches that mystical union among Christian mystics is some kind of soul-searing where the body kind of sits idle. St. John of the Cross contradicts this understanding because he speaks of the center of the human person, which Saint Teresa of Avila calls a crystal, and St. John of the Cross uses the word “deep”, both of these 16th century Spanish mystics and Catholic saints mean that the inflow of God during the dark night comes at this contact point of God and the human person, this crystal, this deep part of the person or “substance of the soul,” and mysteriously flows into the person, and the bodily aspect of the human person experiences this inflow of God as best it can in its mode.
Another confusion with the term “dark night of the soul” comes from the contrary of darkness in the natural order which is light. The dark night as a metaphor involves divine light, not natural light; this divine light is in excess to what a human person can receive in our mode of being, therefore, the light of faith is the proximate means to apprehend what is going on, and a person experiences the dark night as an absence of light, which the person experiences as a perceived absence of God.
Saint John of the Cross’s understanding of this excess of light, this divine light, comes from Pseudo-Dionysius, the medieval tradition, and Saint Thomas Aquinas. Excess means beyond what the person as a receiver is able to receive some thing. For example, let’s say you are in a room and only have one lamp. The room will be dark, and maybe reading will be a painful experience because there is not enough light for your eyes. You turn on an overhead light to make more light in the room. Now, when you read, your eyes do not suffer pain from lack of light. Yet, what if you decided to stare at the sun at noon on a clear day? Your eyes will suffer pain because the sun’s light is in excess to your eyes power to receive light.
This natural analogy is a good way to understand a crucial point of Saint John of the Cross and the dark night. The person who departs on this journey up Mt. Carmel aims at a destination that is beyond our human powers to perceive, like we would perceive a tree, a rock, or even another person. The person’s destination is God and God is beyond being: God is He who makes beings be.
Listen to the podcast episode below as an introduction to St. John of the Cross and his use of the term “dark night.”
Why use the term “dark night” in the first place?
The term dark night in St. John of the Cross’s writings can have many meanings.
First, as stated above, God Himself is a dark night to us in this life due to the distance between him and us, which really is not a distance at all, but beyond distance, because God is infinite and we are limited. Our powers as human persons are not made to behold the infinite since we could not contain the infinite in our intellect with the current powers we possess. Therefore, an encounter with God would necessarily seem like a night since in natural night when the sun is down and there is no moon, our eyes cannot see what is right in front of us; in an analogous way, God could be right in our face and we would not be able to see him as we see text on a page, or any sort of thing in the world.
Second, our journey towards union to God with him happens through faith, which darkens the intellect. Note, this is not faith in the sense of blind-leap; this faith is seeing beyond, a sort of intuition about things according to what we know about God and grounded in our love for Him.
Third, privations and mortifications remove inordinate attachments and desires. For the person undergoing this change, the privations and mortifications of everyday life feel like a “night.” The orientation is no longer from a foundation of self-love but more towards God. This reorientation is often compared to a cleansing; a better analogy, in my opinion, is a medical procedure.
Consider the following example: a person goes to the doctor for treatment of an infected toe. The toe really hurts and throbs and the patient (notice the word used here “the one receiving treatment”) is in a lot of physical pain. The doctor tells the patient he or she will need to perform a short procedure that may be painful, but it will remove the infection. In an analogous way, God is the Divine Physician who is removing the infection of sin through cauterizing the wound of sin within us. While cauterization is a painful procedure, it will kill everything around it, especially the infection. In God’s case, he spiritually cauterizes away only sin and our self-love that surrounds our sin, and leaves you intact, changed, and free of the tyranny of sin.
Here is another podcast episode that provides more introductory information on the “why” of the dark night in Saint John of the Cross.
What does St. John of the Cross mean by “active” and “passive” night?
St. John of the Cross assumes that human persons are an integral unity of body and spiritual soul (as opposed to the sensitive soul of an animal). A human person experiences all things as an integral whole: a person hears a concert, not just the person’s ears; a person knows how to drive a car, not just the person’s feet, hands, and eyes; a person knows the science of medicine, not just his intellect. Therefore. St. John of the Cross understands the dark night as experienced by the whole person. He points to two real aspects of this experience: the active aspect and the passive aspect. Also, there is not a 1st night and a 2nd night and a 3rd night and a 4th night; the dark night is a real encounter between God and a person that operates under these aspects to varying degrees all at once. Remember, it is the person who goes through the dark night, not just the senses nor just the spirit. Union with God is a personal union: a union of a person with God who is a community of Three Persons.
First, the active aspect of the dark night consists in the principal activity of the person who wants to grow in the spiritual life. The person identifies faults through examination of conscience, spiritual direction, and spiritual reading, among other things, and starts working on rooting out vice and sin. For example, a person may have a predilection towards gluttony, so the person would engage in small fasts at the beginning to start developing the habit of temperance. At this stage, God is working with the person helping him or her remove self-love, self-based inclinations, and desires, and focus more on what God wants for the person. In this aspect, the person removes inordinate attachments and desires as he or she reorients his or her freedom towards God rather than self.
Second, the passive aspect of the dark night consists in the principal activity starting with God and the person actively receiving and cooperating with God in this endeavor. God removes self-confidence and self-love, especially spiritual consolation, because the person may be attached to these things. The person sees this happening and responds by acting in a way analogous to Mary at the Annunciation: may it come to pass according to your word, Lord.
Why is “dark night” used when he speaks about departing towards union with God?
Let’s say you have a friend who wants you to come visit. You have never been to your friend’s house and you do not know how to drive to your friends house. Your friend will need to give you three major pieces of information that must relate properly to each other: first, the origin or point of departure; second, the means you will use to get there; third, the destination, which in this case is the person’s home address.
While giving these directions, the person assumes your current home is the origin. From your house, the person will say something like, “when you arrive at the end of your road, take a left onto such-and-such street, drive until you see the gas station, take a right down the next road, drive 5 miles, and my house is number 765 on the right with the red door and blue shutters.” Here you see three parts: first, the origin, which is your house; second, the means, which are the roads connecting your house to his house; third, the destination, which is the house with the red door, blue shutters, and number 765 on such-and-such street.
The same happens with union with God. St. John of the Cross gives us the point of departure, that is, we love God enough that we want to unite with Him as close as possible; St. John of the Cross gives the means for the ascent of Mount Carmel such as mortifications, privations, prayer, theological virtues, etc.; finally, St. John of the Cross gives the destination, which is ultimately union with God.
As a person walks on this journey, the dark night goes from being an obscure night to a glad night because the person is becoming more in tune with God and God is disclosing Himself more and more to the person.
What does a person do who wants to follow St. John of the Cross up Mount Carmel?
Start with three main goals: examining your conscience for vices and for where you overindulge in pleasures, start actively removing as much of your activities and thoughts that come from self-love and are not in reference to God, and picking yourself back up when you fail to accomplish the previous two goals and keep moving forward (i.e., perseverance).
As you work on these three goals every day, a person must practice discursive meditation to gather up evidence of God’s love so that the person can work on loving awareness of God which is called by many names such as prayer of recollection or prayer of acquired contemplation, among others. This prayer comes from the person actively being in the presence of God and as St. Teresa famously said loving much, not thinking much.
How to learn more
I created the podcast Midnight Carmelite to dive deeper into detail about mortification, philosophy of the human person, union with God, Scripture in the original Greek, and so much more. Use the player below to listen to some episodes and hit subscribe to grow in your spiritual life and start your journey up Mt. Carmel!