Summary of The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross

Resources Used:
1) John of the Cross, Saint, David Lewis, and Nicholas 
   Patrick Wiseman. The Dark Night of the Soul. London: 
   Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, & Green, 1864. Print.
2) Dubay, Thomas. Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, 
   St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel—On Prayer. 
   San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989. Print.
3) Study Guide on St. John of the Cross by Dr. D. W. Ekstrand

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Introduction

In 1577, St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), due to refusing his provincial superior’s request  to return to the house of his profession in Medina (St. John had already been approved in 1572 by his immediate superior to be the director and confessor of St. Tersea of Avila’s Convent of the Incarnation) was imprisoned for 9 months in a Carmelite house in Toledo.

During this hellish imprisionment (see page 2), St. John wrote The Dark Night of the Soul, a spiritually moving and mystical book that systematically describes John’s actual experience in poetic language.

Although it is one of the most difficult books to read on Christian mysticism, St. John’s forceful and energetic style give hope and comfort to those who have entered into the dark nights.

Having already outlined how we are to prepare ourselves for union with God (“the active night”) in The Ascent of Mount Carmel, St. John now explains how God prepares us for union with Him (“the passive nights”).

Why does St. John of the Cross use the “night” to describe these received purifications?

1) The point of departure: In this journey to God, we are deprived of seeking finite things for themselves, and this emptying is perceived as a “night” for the senses.

2) The means: We travel this road to union with God by receiving His actions through the dark light of faith, which is a “night” to our human ways of thinking. A “ray of darkness” (381) leads us on this path.

3) The point of arrival: God, Who is endless light, is beheld by our minds as darkness because He utterly transcends us.

St. John says that it is “a principle of philosophy, namely, the more clear and self-evident Divine things are, the more obscure and hidden they are to the soul naturally. Thus the more clear the light the more does it blind the eyes of the owl, and the stronger the sun’s rays the greater the darkness of our visual organs; for the sun, in its own strength shining, overcomes them, by reason of their weakness, and deprives them of the power of seeing. So when the Divine light of contemplation shines into the soul, not yet perfectly enlightened, it causes spiritual darkness, because it not only surpasses its strength, but because it obscures it and deprives it of its natural perceptions” (381).

Characteristics of the “dark nights”:

1) Contemplative: Although ordinary sufferings (eg. illness, depression, failures) can purify us when we accept them with love and may accompany the contemplative purification, they are fundamentally different and distinct from the “dark nights”.

“One of the most common mistakes spiritual directors and confessors tend to make is the easy diagnosis of ordinary sufferings as “dark nights”. This mistake has, of course, unfortunate consequences for the directee” (Dubay 160).

2) Painful: Since this purification process is a cure for our illness, we experience pain during the divine surgery. St. John compares it to the painful correction of a decayed tooth with no anesthetic. And since God’s penetrating light shines upon our deepest faults and miseries, we experience a pain. Think of the pain your eyes feel when you see the bright sun after having spent time in darkness (the pure and clear light of God’s love shining on the impure and dark state of our soul cf. 382).

“The very fire of love which afterwards is united with the soul, glorifying it, is that which previously assails it by purging it, just as the fire that penetrates a log of wood is the same that first makes an assault upon it.… Because this flame is savory and sweet, and the will possesses a spiritual palate disturbed by the humors of inordinate affections, the flame is unpleasant and bitter to it.” – St. John of the Cross

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3) Necessary: St. John makes clear that “these received purifications of sense and spirit are not optional or peripheral in the spiritual life” (Dubay 161). Since everyone is called to perfection, that is, a complete holiness free of all defects, it is evident how necessary the dark night is to burn away “the deep roots of our woundedness, roots we cannot actively reach and eradicate” (Ibid).

“Until a soul is placed by God in the passive purgation of that dark night, which we shall soon explain, it cannot purify itself completely from these imperfections nor from the others.… No matter how much an individual does through his own efforts, he cannot actively purify himself enough to be disposed in the least degree for the divine union of the perfection of love. God must take over and purge him in that fire that is dark for him.” – St. John of the Cross

Principle of dogmatic theology: Man, by himself, is incapable of attaining that degree of purgation necessary for union with God. God must take us by His hand and purify us in the “dark fire”.

Book 1: The Night of Sense

“In an Obscure Night, With anxious love inflamed, O, happy lot! Forth unobserved I went, My house being now at rest” (Stanza 1).

The “night of sense” is the first purification that God effects in the soul through the gift of infused contemplation. Although God communicates His life and love during this divinely-caused sanctification process in a manner that is far more beneficial than any discursive meditation, we, due to our incapacity and opaqueness and unlikeness to the divine, perceive it as darkness, pain, and emptiness.

St. John says that this night of sense is really a “re-formation and bridling of the appetite rather than purgation” (378) since the real purgation happens in the night of the spirit. During this night of sense, the senses are harmonized to the spirit.

When does this 1st night of sense occur in one’s spiritual life?

Very soon after a person begins to live the Gospel seriously and give adequate time to mental prayer.

“After all our exertions to mortify ourselves in our actions and passions, our success will not be perfect, or even great, until God Himself shall do it for us in the purgation of the Obscure Night” (345).

“Recollected persons enter the Obscure Night sooner than others, after they have begun their spiritual course; because they are kept at a greater distance from the occasions of falling away, and because they correct more quickly their worldly desires, which it is requisite to do even at the commencement of the blessed Night of Sense” (347).

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What are the signs that one is in the 1st night of sense?

Since these aridities may proceed, “not from this night and purgation of the sensitive appetite, but from sin or imperfections, from weakness or lukewarmness, from some physical derangement or bodily indisposition” (348), St. John of the Cross gives 3 chief signs that must ALL be present:

1) No consolation: “The first is when men find no comfort [or consolation] in the things of God, and none also in created things” (348). 

A person in the 1st night of sense can still delight in created reality (a beautiful sunset, a cold drink on a hot day, joy in a dear friend) but he finds not lasting contentment in the created order and therefore no longer seeks created things for themselves. In addition, his prayer life is dry and unsatisfying with little or no delight in it.

“It is then probable, in such a case, that this aridity is not the result of sin or of imperfections recently committed; for if it were, we should feel some inclination or desire for other things than those of God. Whenever we give the reins to our desires in the way of any imperfection, our desires are instantly attracted to it, be it much or little, in proportion to the affection we regard it with” (348). 

2) Faithfulness: “The second sign and condition of this purgation are that the memory dwells ordinarily upon God with a painful anxiety and carefulness, the soul thinks it is not serving God, but going backwards, because it is no longer conscious of any sweetness in the things of God” (349). 

A person in the 1st night of sense is:

  1. generous in wanting to give God everything – the soul has a ready and strong spirit to serve God.
  2. habitually turning to God – “the soul feels a longing for solitude and repose” (351) to be with one’s Beloved. God begins to take over the person’s will.

3) Inability to meditate: “The third sign… is an inability to meditate and make reflections, and to excite the imagination, as before, notwithstanding all the efforts we may make” (352). 

Dubay comments well here in that a person can still engage in discursive reasoning but it runs counter to one’s desire:

“In prayer we ordinarily follow the gentle lead of the Spirit, and in these beginnings of infused contemplation His action tends to preclude our action. We are thus disinclined to meditate, and should we force ourselves to it, we would find little or no profit and would forfeit inner peace” (Dubay 166).

NB: If things are going well during meditation, keep it up! God is blessing you and you should honour those blessings by continuing to meditate.

3 factors that determine how long the purification will last:

1) The greater or lesser amount of imperfection to be burned away

2) The degree of love to which God wishes to raise the person

3) The generosity with which one responds to the divine operation

“Those who are endowed with the capacity for suffering, and who have force sufficient to endure, are purified in more intense trials, and in less time. But those who are weak are purified very slowly, with weak temptations, and the night of their purgation is long: their senses are refreshed from time to time lest they should fall away; these, however, come late to the pureness of their perfection in this life, and some of them never. These persons are not clearly in the purgative night, nor clearly out of it; for though they make no onward progress, yet in order that they may be humble and know themselves, God tries them for a season in aridities and temptations, and visits them with His consolations at intervals lest they should become faint-hearted, and seek for comfort in the ways of the world. From other souls, still weaker, God, as it were, hides Himself, that He may try them in His love, for without this hiding of His face from them they would never learn how to approach Him. But those souls that are to go forwards to so blessed and exalted a state as this of the union of love, however quickly God may lead them, tarry long, in general, amidst aridities, as we see by experience” (371-372).

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The benefits of the night of sense:

1) Knowledge of self: The “excellent and necessary virtue of self-knowledge” (360). The soul will see its own misery and have no satisfaction in itself because it sees that of itself it does and can do nothing.

#2: Knowledge of God: The soul is enlightened to know God’s grandeur and majesty on a deeper level. This leads to purity of devotion: “The soul learns to commune with God with more reverence and gentleness” (360) and “obey Him solely through love” (365). The soul has a constant recollection of God, begins to bear the 12 fruits of the Spirit, and is delivered from the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Note that St. John considers the knowledge of God (perfected in love) and the knowledge of self (perfected in humility) to be “the state of perfection” (432).

3) Divine growth in heroic virtue: A remarkable growth in all the virtues (cardinal, theological, and moral) occurs. In particular, the increase in self-knowledge leads to genuine humility and obedience (we consider others better than ourselves and submit to their counsels) and the patient longsuffering of going through the dark night leads to a purity of soul and peace of heart.

“And, therefore, when the four passions of the soul, joy and grief, hope and fear, are subdued by persevering mortifications, when the natural sensitive appetite is lulled by continual aridities, when the concert of the senses is silent, and when the interior powers have ceased from discursive reflections—this is the household of man’s lower nature—these enemies cannot hinder the spiritual liberty of the soul, and the house thereof remains tranquil and at rest” (369).

“O how happy must the soul then be, when it is delivered from the house of its sensitive appetite! None can understand it, I think, except that soul which has experienced it. Such a soul clearly sees how wretched was its former slavery, and how great its misery when it lay at the merey of its passions and desires; it learns how that the life of the spirit is true liberty and riches, involving innumerable blessings, some of which I shall speak of while explaining the following stanzas, when it will clearly appear, what good reasons the soul has for describing the passage of this awful night as a happy lot” (418).

How to conduct yourself during the Night of Sense:

1) Take courage. Be patient. Persevere in prayer.

God never forsakes those who seek Him with a pure and upright heart. He has simply taken you off the road of meditation and is now leading you down the road of contemplation. Therefore, trust in Him. He will give you all that you need on this new road.

Do not shorten your prayer time. Refuse to be downcast about what you perceive as inner emptiness. God is at work transforming your soul!

2) Do not go back to discursive meditation. Rather, keep your attention lovingly and calmly focused on God.

“Let them in nowise have recourse to meditations, for the time is now past, and let them leave their soul in quietness and repose, though they may think they are doing nothing, that they are losing time, and that their tepidity is the reason of their unwillingness to employ their thoughts” (354-5).

Once you recognize the signs of infused contemplation at work in your soul, remain quiet with a simple attentiveness to God. Do not desire to taste or to feel any divine things.

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Book 2: The Night of the Spirit

“In darkness and security, By the secret ladder, disguised, O, happy lot! In darkness and concealment, My house being now at rest.” (Stanza 2).

The “night of the spirit” is the second passive night. This stage “concerns the purification of the intellect and the will, and at the same time it completes the reformation of the senses. It is much more painful than the first night, but it is also far more beneficial, fitting a person to be united in a perfect oneness with God ” (Dubay 159-160).

When does this 2nd night begin?

Ordinarily, a person does not transition immediately from the 1st night into the 2nd night but rather spends some time, perhaps years… in “the state of proficients” (373).

During “the state of proficients”, the soul, having purified & accustomed the senses to the spirit, “enjoys both new spiritual freedom with a serene, loving contemplation and delight in prayer” (Dubay 169). But, since the purgation of the soul is not finished and perfect, can still experience, at various intervals, certain intense darknesses and trials that act “like signs and heralds of the coming night of spirit” (373).

Common imperfections that exist prior to the 2nd night:

“A dullness of mind … lack of sensitivity to the Holy Spirit … a distracted and inattentive inner life … “a lowly and natural” mode of communion with God … a feeble and imperfect knowing of Him … an ill-founded persuasion that one has visions and prophesies … remnants of pride still surfacing, such as wanting to be seen in stances of advanced prayer … an undue security in one’s own spiritual experiences” (Dubay 168).

What does one experience in the 2nd night?

Since “the whole process of Christic prayer is a gradual transformation into a Godlikeness” (Dubay 169), the soul undergoes a deeper passage from the human mode of praying into the divine mode of praying.

Since the philosophical axiom holds true “that all that is received is received according to the condition of the recipient” (421), God must purify and empty all of our faculties (memory, imagination, intellect, and will) in order to give us the capacity to receive His gifts.

Since “it is God Himself Who is now working in the soul” (393), the soul feels powerless and incapable of prayer: “it cannot elevate the mind and affections to God as before” (392) and “abides in darkness” (396). By preventing our lower nature from understanding what God is working in the soul, He protects the soul from the evil one and is able to bestow more graces on us (cf. 447).

The soul derives no consolation from the advice of others (certain that one’s spiritual direction does not understand their condition). Even reflecting on the blessings that flowed out of the 1st night cannot comfort this soul now.

St. John calls this whole process an “oppressive undoing”: “the soul seems to perish and waste away, at the sight of its own wretchedness, by a cruel spiritual death… suffering the pangs of Jonah in the belly of the whale” (384).

The soul feels suspended between heaven and earth, intensely desiring and loving God (“ready to die for Him a thousand deaths” (392)) but feeling certain that it has been rejected and abandoned by Him (St. John considers this to be the greatest of all afflictions). In fact, St. John says that these souls “have their Purgatory in this life” (388).

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How long does the 2nd night last?

St. John says that “the duration will depend on what is needed to render the soul delicate, simple, refined and pure enough that the final transformation can take place. And this will be according to the degree of holiness to which God wishes to raise each person and also according to the amount of purification needed” (Dubay 170).

Since the 2nd night is caused by God’s infused love and is only effected in order to bring the soul to the very summit of love, the love of union begins to blend into the experience of painful darkness.

Hence, the saint is able to say that the soul “in the midst of these dark conflicts feels vividly and keenly that it is being wounded by a strong divine love, and it has a certain feeling and foretaste of God”. This “impassioned and intense love … is now beginning to possess something of union with God”.

Effects of the 2nd night:

#1: Heroic virtue.

The soul, having been cleansed and purified in the fire of love, now glows intensely with it through heroic virtue.

“In the state of perfection, having grown to manhood, they do great things in spirit—all their actions and all their faculties being now rather Divine than human” (378).

“So is it here, when all imperfections are removed, the suffering of the soul ceases, and in its place comes joy as deep as it is possible for it to be in this life” (404).

The soul, having ascended to the heights of the mystic ladder of divine love, is now united with God in a bond of perfect love and is able to share that love with everyone (click here for the 10 steps of the mystic ladder).

#2: All remaining imperfections are burned away by the divine fire or pulled up by their roots. 

Just as fire first purges away all the contrary qualities of fuel before it transforms the fuel wholly into itself, so too “the Divine fire of contemplative love” (402) purges away all the soul’s contrary qualities before it unites it with Himself.

O happy lot! Forth unobserved I wentMy house being now at rest.”

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Comments

  1. Nice summation. Thank you. More helpful than the “guide” I bought along with the copy I read. I found myself very convicted, if you will, by the errors made by beginners and the comparisons to the 7 deadly sins. It was, in total, a difficult read but wonderful. The descriptions of the pain in the purgation will put off many, and St. John of the Cross was know for his great austerity already. Nonetheless, a spiritually powerful read.

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