Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Dark Night

"One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings
---ah, the sheer grace!---
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled. (First Stanza from "The Dark Night")

I am always rather leery of claims by my inner self that 'the dark night of the senses' and 'the dark night of the spirit' are being experienced. In "The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross - The Dark Night", the writer describes in great detail just what these experiences entail. It seems to me that, like the experience of grace, the experience of the 'Dark Night' is usually realised after the event. Certainly that was how it seemed for me when I went through my own 'dark night of the senses'. I recall that at that time I was so overwhelmingly caught up with the experience that it felt like total abandonment rather than a mere aridity. 

I have said previously that what characterises my present state is a profound loss of the sense of Presence. This loss goes hand in hand with a great loss of any desire to continue with any part of my studies and writing that I have enjoyed so much until now. Yet there are also some signs that I welcome. I find that I am able, at least for a large part of the time, to observe myself from the standpoint of 'remembering myself', as Gurdjieff would say. That is I am aware of my sense of "I-ness" concurrent with the experience through which I am passing. Interestingly, this is not a way of being that I have ever actively cultivated. And there is something truly wonderful about that because that way of being appears to have come of its own volition, or perhaps divinely implanted in some way. Alongside that appears to be a state, if not of desired detachment, of something bordering on disinterest, freed from the constraining influences of resentment, bitterness or self-pity and so on. I am going through what appears to be a natural, spiritual period of change.

Most works on psycho-spirituality approach the subject, if not openly then certainly implicitly, from the spiritual-pathology standpoint. That is to say that something needs to be cured, put to rights. And there is undoubtedly good cause for this approach, for it is most often the case that we turn to these studies when our lives feel to be in serious trouble. If it can be supposed that at some stage a 'cure' has been effected, what then? Well, assuredly, a healthy life-style of the spirit needs to be maintained so that the changes of the soul/spirit, appropriate to its right development, can take place. I would suggest that this latter process is above and beyond the stage of spiritual-pathology.      

"The Dark Night - Book Two" opens with three introductory chapters in which St. John of the Cross explains when the dark night of the spirit begins, some spiritual imperfections of people who have reached that stage, and the requirement to purge not only the spirit but also the last vestiges of the senses. I would like to quote some passages from the third chapter of this treatise:-

"In this night that follows both parts are jointly purified. This was the purpose of the reformation of the first night and the calm that resulted from it: that the sensory part, united in a certain way with the spirit, might undergo purgation and suffering with greater fortitude."

It seems to me that St. John is saying that the necessary correction of the role of the ego undergoes two stages. The first, the 'dark night of the senses' deals with the major part of the problems arising from a spiritually aberrant ego, whilst the second takes place in tandem with the purification of the spirit. There is a clear sense in these chapters that a great deal of psycho-spiritual energy is expended in this work, which seems to account for the powerful sense of lethargy that is currently being experienced. St. John goes on to say:-

"He [God] leaves the intellect in darkness, the will in aridity, the memory in emptiness..........For this privation is one of the conditions required that the spiritual form, which is the union of love, may be introduced into the spirit and united with it.

God works all of this in the soul by means of a pure and dark contemplation, as is indicated in the stanza quoted at the heading of this essay. Although this stanza was explained in reference to 'the night of the senses' (Book One of the treatise) the soul understands it mainly in relation to 'the night of the spirit', since this night is the principle purification of the soul.

I said above that I am always leery of inner claims of passing through a 'dark night'. Yet with the benefit of experience, and the searching out for an explanation of previous experiences through the works of this great mystic, St. John of the Cross, I am convinced that after all these years I have finally entered that phase of my spiritual life (or at least entered the forecourt) which I have dreaded yet also longed for. Yet still I wonder.


  1. My favorite post of yours, Tom. I think you know my difficulty of finding words, the right words, for what I want to express.
    Reading this, I am thinking of "making peace with oneself".

  2. Not sure what is prompting me to offer this Tom, in response to feelings more than thoughts here. Perhaps as Ellena suggests, there is some feeling of coming to acceptance.

    It seems most of my life I was somehow convinced that my natural tendencies, what "I" desired, was somehow wrong.
    Recently life has convinced me that absolutely nothing is wasted.

  3. Ellena; I do regret we are not able to communicate more freely, but it is good to hear from you. "Making peace with oneself." An interesting slant on the experiencing of 'the dark night of the spirit'. In a sense I suppose that the natural progression from the impure, spiritual state to the purged state of being, is about a coming closer to that which we were always destined to reach. It does seem to be a making peace with oneself, but at a very deep level.

  4. Halle; I suppose it depends upon what one means by acceptance. I think that in the case of 'the dark night' it is a question of being re-oriented spiritually, so that one is accepted by the Divine in the sense that, perhaps for example, two matching pieces of a puzzle are able to accept each other; they fit together perfectly.

    As to your second point, I regret that you have experienced a sense of wrongness about your natural tendencies. As you must realise by now, the sense of wrongness came not from the deepest you, but from imposed and projected attitudes of the society around you. This is a never-ending battle between the spirit, honestly trying to develop its potential, and a fearful, controlling society, desperately seeking a false sense of security.

    Nice to hear from you again.

    1. Two pieces of the puzzle coming together... What a lovely metaphor.

  5. Tom, just to let you know that I'm here and read all your posts attentively and with sympathy but I don't always know what to say. It seems to me that the Presence, which you've described so vividly in some of your posts, is experienced through a kind of Damascene moment when love is seen in utter simplicity and nakedness - so simple, so unadorned, that it frightens the analytical mind which insists that there must be more to explain, to strive for, to understand. And so the Presence hides, waiting to be rediscovered.

  6. Natalie; Thank you for your loyal following of my utterances. I keep mulling over what you've have said and find myself in the presence of a great mystery. I am naturally drawn, possibly as a result of my scientific background, to a more psycho-spiritual approach to life, yet feel increasingly comfortable with a more enlightened religious approach. I do not know yet where this will lead, but am increasingly of the opinion (I cannot be more certain than that) that there is a process afoot, in all of us if allowed to develop, that is of a naturally developing spirituality beyond pathology.

  7. I've been back to read and can't seem to put to words what I want to say. In a recent email exchange with a dear friend, she wrote words that touched me deeply. We communicate in German, so the translation is difficult. And perhaps that is why her thoughts went straight into me ... it is more natural for me to speak of, to think of these things in German.

    I'll keep trying to follow along in English.

  8. Rouchswalwe; I have long suspected that matters of the spirit finds their natural outlet through the German language. It is a matter of some regret that I cannot speak German, and that I am not naturally language-oriented. (Lord, I have difficulties enough with French, not my language of choice!)

    I am glad to know that you still continue to read Gwynt.

  9. P.T. Mistleberger talked about this issue in the book I mentioned. Referring to St. John of the Cross, he defined his essential message as being that our awakening and purification run along two simultaneously operating lines, those being our personal efforts, as well as the grace that descends from God when we are in a state of passive surrender to the divine.

  10. Susan; From a quick look at the 'Index' to 'The Inner Light', I see that I have not yet reached the point in the book to which you refer. I must confess that I quickly became engrossed in 'Rude Awakening' and must get back to 'The Inner Light' post haste.

  11. Oops, I didn't mean to write any 'spoilers' :) but I had no idea you were reading him. It was Three Dangerous Magi that kept me reading far into the night last autumn.

  12. Susan; It hasn't spoiled anything; quite the opposite in fact.

  13. Tom, it's good to keep up with your spiritual walk and work. I tend to blog and comment in fits. When I haven't been at it, I sometimes start back near where I left off on your blog, as I'm doing here.

    A friend of mine has been asking me about John's dark nights. I myself have been reading some of Merton's material on them again. (And some for the first time: I had never read his final book, Contemplative Prayer, until this past week.)

    And I'm really connecting with Merton's material on this in a fresh way. I tend to journal about it, but I get too self-conscious when I blog about it while it's going on. (Not that either your approach or mine in this regard is in any way wrong. I think sharing is in the "whatever helps, do it" line.) Anyway, what you write resonates with me.

  14. Peter; It is a wonderful experience when hearts and minds find common ground. I have very little literature by Thomas Merton, and have usually found him a little difficult to read at depth. "Contemplative Prayer" might be worth following up on.

  15. I find Merton to be a little cranky, but somehow his stuff works for me. "Contemplative Prayer" contains a very good overview of the history of the literature on Catholic contemplative prayer from the Desert Fathers forward. It also provides a good sketch of the stages, signs, and pitfalls of contemplative prayer. That portion of the book covers the dark night of the soul.

    His approach is not quite John of the Cross’s — he never discusses two separate nights, as John does, for instance — but he’s like John in that he treats the spiritual life as a doctor would: symptoms, diagnoses, and courses of treatment. (Prognosis is always good if the course of treatment is undertaken.) :)