“Many Catholics and other Christians who are familiar with the Church’s tradition of prayer and mysticism have heard of the spiritual state known as the “dark night,” described by the Carmelite mystic St. John of the Cross. Actually, John of the Cross divides the “dark night” into two stages, the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the spirit, and assigns them to different stages of progress in the spiritual life. Speaking somewhat loosely and without awareness of these more technical meanings of the term, Christians will sometimes refer to any spiritual trial — dryness in prayer, doubts or difficulties with faith, or strong temptations — as “dark nights of the soul.”
I have evaluated some devout Christian patients who interpret their depressive symptoms as a “dark night.” Believing that they are enduring a spiritual trial rather than a medical or mental illness, they are often reluctant to seek treatment with medications or psychotherapy. When they fail to find relief from their suffering from spiritual direction or prayer, they can be tempted to despair or may feel as though God has abandoned them.
What St. John of the Cross describes when writing about the dark nights of the senses and of the spirit is not, in fact, the same thing as clinical depression. It is necessary to distinguish between these two states.29 Distinguishing them properly will help in identifying the right treatment modality, so that a person will not continue to suffer needlessly if he is depressed.
Let’s begin with a brief sketch of the two dark nights as St. John describes them. The dark night of the senses is characterized by dryness in prayer, an inability to apply imagination to the mysteries of Christ, a lack of emotional satisfaction from the spiritual life, and a lack of felt enthusiasm in prayer. Nonetheless, the person in this state retains a deep commitment to seeking union with God and following Christ and does not consider abandoning the spiritual life. This feature helps to distinguish the dark night of the senses from other spiritual or moral problems, such as acedia or lukewarmness. The dark night of the senses is a positive and normal development indicating progress in the spiritual life. The previous spiritual or affective consolations that God granted are withdrawn, in order to advance one’s faith, hope, and love by purifying one’s sensory attachment to pleasure and self-will. This helps the soul to become more selfless and attuned to God and to practice loving abandonment to Him.
The dark night of the spirit occurs in more advanced stages of the spiritual life and is characterized by profound interior pain and a sense of emptiness. In this state, God allows the person to perceive his own interior disorder and depravity, the infinite gap between the sinful creature and the all-holy God. The person in this state has no awareness of God other than pure faith, and even his faith seems to him to be inadequate. As a result, the person may wonder if God can accept and forgive him. St. John of the Cross maintains that the cause of this pain is, as the theologian Kevin Culligan describes it, “the light of God’s self-communication to the person, the contemplative knowledge that allows persons to see both God and themselves as they actually are, not as they had formerly imagined God or themselves to be.” Culligan continues, “[T]he loss of these images [of self and God] is for the person an experience of death, with all the consequent feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, and grief.”30
St. John teaches that both dark nights are the result of God’s increasing self-communication to the person, which purifies the soul first of sensory and then of spiritual attachments. Such a state may feel like darkness to the person, but objectively it is an intensification of divine light in the soul. The individual is actually moving closer to God, not farther away. Like a person who emerges from a cave into the bright sun, the initial experience is blinding and disorienting.
The description of the two dark nights implies at least one intermediate stage. To further clarify these movements in the spiritual life and how they might relate to depression, it can be helpful to view the dark nights within the larger context of what Christian spiritual writers call the three “ways,” or stages, of the spiritual life: the purgative way, the illuminative way, and the unitive way.31 The first stage, the purgative way, follows upon the initial conversion (sacramentally accomplished in Baptism) that launches the life of Christian discipleship. Every baptized Christian embarks upon a spiritual life whose goal, on this side of death, is nothing less than infused contemplation of the mysteries of the faith. To enjoy such fullness of intimate union with the Trinity re-quires a purging, a burning away, of unreasonable attachments to the goods of this world, so that one might be free enough to enjoy the infinite good that is God Himself. If one allows this healing work, the Lord, in His goodness and mercy, purifies the soul of selfishness and sinful attachments, helping the person to grow in the virtues of faith, hope, and love.
A decisive moment comes with the first dark night, that of the senses, which leads on to the second stage of the spiritual life, the illuminative way. The illuminative way is a time when the soul feels consoled and uplifted by God. In this stage, one often has an enthusiasm to pray, to do spiritual reading, to receive the sacraments, and to serve others; the soul experiences a certain ease in following God’s will, desiring holy things, and turning away from sin and worldly attachments.
From this period of illumination, the soul is led, by way of the dark night of the spirit, into a third phase, the unitive way. The unitive way is the consummate stage of Christian life on earth. Spiritual growth continues at this point, but it occurs within a stable life of perfect unity with the Trinitarian life of love. Infused contemplation of the mysteries of the faith gives rise to a love without deficiency — perfect unitive life with God. This is a life of holiness, of sanctity. Every Christian is called to attain this perfection of love, even before death. Entry into this unitive way is made possible by successfully undergoing the dark night of the spirit. In this transition, the soul may experience a sense of desolation, but a “desolation” that is actually uniting the soul to God. It is imperative for properly understanding the dark nights to attend to the period of consolation — the illuminative way — in between the two dark nights. The point for our purposes is that one is not led directly from the beginning stages of the spiritual life into the dark night of the spirit. Before being led into this type of purification, the soul enjoys deep and abiding consolation in God and the things of God.
In the dark night of the spirit, it is true that the soul senses the loss of God’s presence, and this causes great pain. Between the dark night of the senses and that of the spirit, however, there is spiritual consolation. (More will be said about this in the following section.) This period of spiritual consolation is key for differentiating depression from the dark night of the spirit. A depressed person is not likely experiencing the abiding consolation of the illuminative way. In this way, the basic pattern of progress in the spiritual life can help us distinguish depression from the dark nights. Both dark nights belong to the dynamism of grace, by which God brings about perfect union of the soul with Himself. Love burns through the whole process, and that marks even the darkness of the senses and the darkness of the spirit that occur as God draws the Christian to the fullness of life.
Although a sense of loss is common to both depression and the dark nights, it is manifested differently. Depression involves the loss of ordinary abilities to function mentally and physically, and it can also be triggered by interpersonal loss, loss of a job, and so forth. The interior dryness of the dark night of the senses involves a loss of pleasure in the things of God and in some created things. However, it does not involve disturbed mood, loss of energy (with cognitive or motor slowing), or diminished sexual appetite — all of which are seen commonly in depression. Those in the dark night of the senses have trouble applying their mental faculties to the practice of prayer and meditation, but do not typically have difficulty concentrating or making decisions in other areas of life.32
With the dark night of the spirit, as described above, there is an acute awareness of one’s own unworthiness before God, of one’s personal defects and moral imperfections, and of the great abyss between oneself and God. However, a person in this state does not experience morbid thoughts of excessive guilt, self-loathing, feelings of utter worthlessness, or suicidal thoughts — all of which are commonly experienced during a depressive episode. Furthermore, neither of the two darks nights involves changes in appetite, sleep disturbances, weight changes, or other physical symptoms (e.g., gastrointestinal problems, chronic pain) that sometimes accompany depression.
In his helpful article on the subject of distinguishing depression from the dark nights, Kevin Culligan writes from his own experience as a spiritual director: “I can usually tell whether persons are depressed or in the dark night by attending closely to my own interior reactions as these persons describe their inner experience. As a disorder of mood or affect, depression communicates across personal relationships. Depressed persons typically look depressed, sound depressed, and make you depressed. After listening to depressed persons describe their suffering, I myself begin to feel helpless and hopeless, as though the dejected mood of persons with depression is contagious. I also frequently feel deep pity for the “profound rejection and hatred of the self” that characterize persons who are truly depressed. By contrast, I seldom feel down when I listen to persons describe the dryness of the dark nights of sense and spirit. Instead, I frequently feel compassion for what persons suffer as they are spiritually purified, together with admiration for their commitment to do all that God asks. In fact, at these times I feel my own self being energized. It seems that the strengthening of spirit that God brings to persons through darkness is also communicated to me.33
What we have noted so far has to do with the dark nights of the soul occurring in the transitions between the purgative and illuminative and between the illuminative and unitive ways. But we must recognize another kind of dark night, one that is not transitional to higher stages of the spiritual life; instead, it belongs to the highest stage of spiritual life. In the perfect unitive life, one of the modes of union with God would include union with Jesus in the darkness of the Cross. This is where one must locate the dark night experienced by our Lady in her mystical, co-redemptive sorrow at the foot of the Cross — a sorrow born of an incomparably profound participation in the sorrow of Jesus. Since it is an expression of Christ’s divine love, this sorrow forges a deeper union between the Mother of God and her divine Son.
An excellent contemporary example of such a dark night ex-perienced by a saint (as opposed to the dark nights necessary to attain to sainthood) is that of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Let us examine how this differs from depression. It came as a surprise to most people to learn after her death that Mother Teresa was in profound spiritual darkness for nearly forty years. Why were so many people shocked? Because she was so joyful. She was full of vitality and had incredible energy and charisma to draw others into her prayer and work for the poorest of the poor. Her personal writings make clear that she spent years in a kind of profound dark night; but she was far from depressed. Anyone who met her could testify that she exuded a joy that was contagious — a joy that communicated the presence of God to those around her. We could say that the sorrow she experienced in the felt lack of God’s presence in her soul is that mystical, uniquely Christian sorrow that is born from the Cross. It is a participation in Christ’s own sorrow, where joy and sorrow are not opposed because both are expressive of the divine love revealed in the Cross.”
29 I am indebted in this section to an excellent theological and psychological study by Kevin Culligan, “The Dark Night and Depression,” Carmelite Prayer: A Tradition for the 21st Century, ed. Keith J. Egan (New York: Paulist Press, 2003), 119-139.
30 Ibid., 125.
31 For a general introduction to the three stages of the spiritual life, see Benedict Groeschel, Spiritual Passages: the Psychology of Spiritual Development (New York: Crossroads, 1984). See also Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Conversions of the Spiritual Life (Rockford, Illinois: TAN, 2002).
32 Culligan, “The Dark Night and Depression,” Carmelite Prayer, 130.
33 Ibid., 135.
-Kheriaty, Aaron; Cihak, Fr. John (2012-10-23). Catholic Guide to Depression (p. 62-69). Sophia Institute Press. Kindle Edition.