In contemplative circles, whether spiritual formation, spiritual direction, or contemporary spirituality, one often comes across the phrase The Dark Night of the Soul. The phrase calls to mind a certain image and is fairly accessible to a modern mind on the surface.
But all too often it seems interchangeably used with terms like depression or suffering. We hear the phrase and automatically call to mind the worst time in our lives. Maybe we had to face a harsh reality, suffered deep and prolonged depression, or lost a loved one. But is that what this phrase refers to?
Properly understood, the Dark Night of the Soul is a fairly specific stage of development toward spiritual maturity as outlined by mystics and contemplatives. It’s a spiritual crisis that prepares the soul for divine union.
Sooner or later, we all go through deep difficulty of one kind or another. A divorce, the death of a parent, a spouse, or even a child. We lose a job or get an unexpected cancer diagnosis. Our world is turned upside down. There’s a crisis.
For some of us, suffering feeds our ego identity and we wrap ourselves in victimhood, hoping it will help us get the attention and affection we deeply crave. Some of us come out altogether unchanged.
For others, this suffering can bring about a refinement process and whittle away at our ego that keeps us separated from other people and from maturity.
But it’s entirely possible that neither, however difficult, constitutes what St. John of the Cross (or more precisely San Juan de la Cruz) referred to as the Dark Night of the Soul. This is a spiritual crisis.
In his 15th century classic spiritual text The Ascent of Mount Carmel, John describes contemplation as “nothing else than a secret and peaceful and loving inflow of God, which, if not hampered, fires the soul in the spirit of love.” This is experienced a successive stages of darkness, as we experience the necessary purging of our self-love in all its forms as a painful stripping away.
The section of the writing called the Dark Night of the Soul begins as an extended piece of literary criticism in a way: it explicates St. John’s own poem called The Dark Night. In the Night of Sense, the person no longer experiences the sensory benefits from spiritual practices. They’re not feeling reassured, or happy, or excited, or getting a high off of the experience. They’re no longer feeling it. They’re led beyond the temporary pleasure of spiritual life and practice and begin to realize the point isn’t me getting something out of it.
Growing out of the next stage involves the Night of Spirit. Old certainties and mental images, old worldviews fall away. We don’t cling to doctrines or theologies or our way of doing things as absolute. The experience of God transcends our conditioned concepts and reason. The divine is beyond thought and feeling, beyond our capacity to conceptualize and articulate. We are called into open encounter and our controlling formulas for God or the spiritual life dissolve.
This involves a period of disconnection from God, or what we thought God to be. Spiritual experiences and consolations stop. Practitioners tend to feel confused or out of their depth or even abandoned and drowning. The old answers have dissolved and nothing yet has taken their place. It is the wilderness experience. It is a deep sense of inner emptiness. It’s a spiritual crisis that occasions profound doubt. It’s a time of questioning any and everything we believed in and wonder if we simply made it up.
This is The Dark Night of the Soul. It is Christ’s cry “My God, why have you abandoned me?” from the cross itself. In this process we give up a sense of self-righteousness, or sense of spiritual achievement, of maintaining image and status. We lose a sense of being a charismatic leader, or an enlightened teacher. It is a process of purification and humility.
We give up the need for ego satisfaction and control altogether. In becoming hollowed out, we cultivate the space for divine union, the next stage of the journey.
It is not just suffering, but part of a greater process, a greater movement. Sometimes we only recognize this after the fact. But there also seems to be a need to accept the invitation of grace, to open oneself to this kind of growth and encounter, to become receptive. Part of growth is the intention to consent to the divine presence and action in our lives, in our very being.
We can go through the most harrowing suffering and still not open ourselves to the divine reality. Some of us have different points of entry into this process, depending on our experience and temperament. The consent allows us to be welcomed into a greater space of being, to let go of and die to old ways of being.
This is the process touched by Christ’s image of a grain of wheat in John’s gospel: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”