Imagine, if you will, being totally in love with God. When you pray, you feel God’s presence there with you. The liturgies and rituals of the Church regularly bring tears of joy to your eyes. You fast with ease and are moved to give generously to those who have less. And there is nothing you love more than to curl up with edifying books, filled with profound truths to help you on the Way.
Now imagine, all that going away. The expansive love you once felt shrinks to nothing. Your prayer becomes rote. Your practices become a matter of going through the motions rather than a place of communion. Liturgy and sacrament leave you feeling empty. Fasting becomes impossible — despite the fact that you’ve lost your appetite. And the words of ancient and contemporary saints become little more than gibberish on the page.
And now imagine finding God right there, not just in the midst of that desolation, but in the desolation itself.
This is the experience of faith famously recounted by St. John of the Cross in his poem “The Dark Night of the Soul” and the commentary of the same name.
I think it’s fair to say that no mystical concept is as widely known — or as widely misunderstood — as St. John’s Dark Night of the Soul. It’s become the go-to cliché in Christian circles to describe any sort of unpleasantness that touches on the life of faith. And certainly, when I was in my personal and spiritual crisis a decade ago, my friends leaped to this language to try to keep me from giving up, even trying to convince me that I should be grateful for what was happening.
But what St. John is describing is not necessarily a crisis of faith but something far more subtle. “The Dark Night” is, in fact, a love song.
The history of “The Dark Night of the Soul” provides helpful context. St. John of the Cross (d. 1591) was part of a group of monks and nuns (including his mentor St Teresa of Avila) seeking to return monastic life in Spain to simpler values and practices during the crisis of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Europe. But, as we know, speaking truth to power is never popular, and John found himself kidnapped by supporters of the religious establishment and held captive in an old latrine. (Seriously, people, Christian history is nasty.) During his captivity, he composed poems to keep his mind active. “The Dark Night” is one of these poems, a beautiful and highly erotic song (so erotic that he was required to write the commentary to explain himself) that imagines the soul as a young woman escaping her home to visit the man she loves:
On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings
Oh, happy chance!
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.
In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised
Oh, happy chance!
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.
In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide,
Save that which burned in my heart.
This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he
(Well I knew who!) was awaiting me,
A place where none appeared.
Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!
Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand
He wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.
I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.
The most important line of the poem — which St. John spends most of his commentary explaining — is the very first: “On a dark night.” For John this wasn’t a “dark and stormy night.” There were no tornado sirens going off, no tree limbs crashing down in the winds. The point of the dark night is not a calamity, but simply the darkness of night.
It is this night that allows the soul, the “lover” of the poem, to meet her beloved. During the day, the household is too busy for her to slip away unnoticed. But during the night, when all is still, quiet, and asleep, she can make her escape to her beloved’s side. As John explains, this is about the stripping away of all the little consolations in the life of faith: the happy thoughts, the peace of heart from services, the feeling of communion with God, even excitement over a new icon or rosary. Such things may keep the household of faith going, but to the lover longing for the beloved, they are distractions that keep her chained at home. Only when they are dormant — in that dark night — can the soul meet her longing.
Moreover, because this night is dark and moonless, she can escape the notice of the guards at the gates and watchtowers, which we might think of as our ego and defense mechanisms, which similarly get in the way of our truly uniting with God.
The night, then, dark as it may be, is not a punishment or even a test from God, but a gift.
But it is still darkness. It is still disorienting and confusing, especially if one is used to navigating by the daylight. There is still suffering. There is still the overwhelming dread that one has gone off course and terror that one will never find one’s way again. The soul proceeds in complete darkness, “without light or guide, save that which burned in [its] heart.” No longer able to see where it is going, the soul must learn to navigate only by its longing, trusting its desire for the Beloved to get her there safely.
Once she trusts this inner light, she finds that it is a true guide, “surer than the light of noonday,” “more lovely than the dawn,” and enables her to find her Beloved waiting for her in His secret place.
And so, it is on this dark night, and not in the light of day, that lover and Beloved consummate their love. They are joined, transforming the lover in the presence of her Beloved.
These are beautiful metaphors, but if we strip them away, the bare truth they contain is a tough pill to swallow: This confusing, confounding experience of spiritual desolation is in fact, the place where our soul finds its rest in union with God.
This is St. John’s idea of the Dark Night of the Soul. What do we make of it? At first glance it seems quite different from St. Bernard’s stages of love, even though both are describing a process by which we come to know and be united with God. St. Bernard’s model was clean and conceptually clear. It described a process of never-ending growth in love, ending in the selfless-self-love that is mystical union with God. St. John’s Dark Night is equally conventional in the sense that it too attempts to describe a phenomenon that is at least potentially universal, but there is nothing clean or clear about it. It seems to me that the two ideas are looking at the same phenomenon from opposite perspectives: Bernard describes it objectively, as though from God’s perfect vantagepoint, while John describes it subjectively. The soul’s growth into love doesn’t feel clean and by-the-book. More often than not, spiritual growth feels less like frolicking in the clouds than it does trudging through the mud. And so, St. John’s poem stands out as a helpful witness to both halves of the truth: the spiritual life is often a tough slog, but also the tough slog is where we meet God. Just as a baby can’t learn to walk if her mother doesn’t put her down, so too must we learn to find God in the darkness.
That said, I don’t believe that St. John’s Dark Night of the Soul is a universal phenomenon. While everyone will go through struggles and times of pain and confusion in this life, not all of these will be experienced as a “dark night.” (The story of Job comes to mind here; his calamities were certainly painful and confusing but they didn’t cause him to question his path.) But the point John makes so powerfully and eloquently stands: Growth doesn’t always feel good. The right path won’t always feel right. The way will rarely be clear. Confusion is part of the deal. Suffering isn’t always a sign that we’re in the wrong.
I’d like to end today’s reflections using words from Mirabai Starr’s commentary on The Dark Night of the Soul as a prayer:
Take my juicy spiritual feelings, Beloved, and dry them up, and then please light them on fire. Take my lofty spiritual concepts and plunge them into darkness, and then burn them. Let me only love you, Beloved. Let me quietly and with unutterable simplicity just love you.