DNOTS: What is the “Dark Night of the Soul”?
“The concept of the “Dark Night of the Soul” comes from the writings of St. John of the Cross. It refers to the purification of the sensual and spiritual appetites through which one becomes more open to God.
John writes of it in his famous poem The Dark Night as well as in a lengthy prose commentary. He speaks of the dark night of the senses and of the spirit, but he does not want the reader to associate these with depression (or as he calls it, melancholy). He thinks of the night as it gently comes on at dusk, as it becomes darker in its middle hours, and how this night then slowly gives way to the dawn.
What, in particular, does John mean by the “dark night”? John’s desire is to help people come to a profound experience of the reality of God through love. To do this, John teaches that we must pass through a purification of our sensual and spiritual appetites to become open to God alone in love. As he writes, a bird can be kept from flight by a thread or an anchor chain. If we wish to come close to God, we need to break those bonds. In John’s Sayings of Light and Love, he describes the Particular Judgement, saying “at the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love” (p. 64).
St. Paul says, “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live” (Rom. 8:13). According to St. John of the Cross, however, purification of the senses is not sufficient; a purification of the spirit is also necessary. We need to let go of our desire for satisfying spiritual experiences, as well as our cozy ideas of what God is like. This purification is a purification of faith. John understands faith to be obscure in the sense that anything we believe about God is always inadequate. We must come to a state in the life of prayer where our ideas, concepts, and formulas are emptied out and erased, not for the sake of emptiness, but to be filled with the power of God, which John calls the “living flame of love.”
Readers of The Dark Night can easily see that John uses a rather forbidding vocabulary, with words such as “nothingness,” and “annihilation” or spiritual “nakedness” and “forgetfulness.” What is often overlooked, though, is that, for John, nothingness brings with it plenitude; nakedness, new garments; and forgetfulness, an awakening. When John speaks of the night, he has in mind both the darkness and the immensity of its giving way to the dawn.
For the person of prayer, St. John’s doctrine is consoling. At the dark moment when we feel spiritually dry or when our faith is tested to the point where God may seem absent, God may be drawing us closer to Him. Jesus Himself was probably never closer to the Father in His humanity as when He cried out “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Mt. 27:46).
It may be necessary for us to give up warm and fuzzy religious feelings, or have them taken from us by God so we can draw closer to Him. The Dark Night, together with his other book, the Ascent of Mount Carmel, were so valuable in teaching Catholic spirituality that St. John of the Cross was eventually declared a doctor of the Church.”