What is the dark night of the soul?

Glad you asked . . . ON A CARTOON POSTED ON MY OFFICE DOOR, A MONK PONDERS, "BLACK HOLE OF THE MIND?" "Tar pit of the heart?" "Murky morning of the Spirit?" "Foggy afternoon of the persona?" The caption beneath the drawing speaks of Saint John of the Cross suffering writer's block before he hits on "dark night of the soul."

Saint John of the Cross did compose, in fact, a wonderful poem called "The Dark Night" (La Noche Oscura) and a prose commentary on it, but, as far as I can determine, the great 16th-century mystic never uses the phrase "dark night of the soul." John does speak of the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the spirit, but he does so with a rather precise intention in mind. He very much does not want to have his reader think of depression (or, as he would call it, melancholy) when one passes through the dark night. 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, did John mean by the "dark night"? At the risk of simplification (for John is a very profound and subtle thinker), John's one desire is to help people come to a profound experience of the reality of God through love. To do this, John teaches, we need to pass through a purification of our sensual and spiritual appetites to be open to God alone in love. As he wrote, 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.

That purification of the senses, however, is not sufficient. We also need a purification of the spirit. We need to let go of our desire for satisfying spiritual experiences, as well as cozy domestic visions of what God is like. This purification is a purification of faith. John understands faith to be obscure in the sense that anything that we believe about God is always inadequate and partial. 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—John is not a Buddhist!—but to be filled with the in-rushing power of God, which John calls the "living flame of love."

John does use a rather forbidding vocabulary, with words such as "nothingness" or "annihilation" or spiritual "nakedness" and "forgetfulness." What is often overlooked, however, is that for John, nothingness brings with it plenitude; nakedness, new garments; forgetfulness, an awakening. When John speaks of the night, he has in mind both the darkness and the immensity of the darkness that slowly gives way to the dawn.

The analysis John gives about the night of the senses and the spirit is a very subtle one. For the person of prayer, however, his doctrine is consoling: When we feel spiritually dry or when our faith is tested to the point where God may seem absent, it is at that dark moment when God may be drawing us closer to him.

From our perspective it may be necessary to give up warm and fuzzy religious feelings, or have them taken from us by God to draw closer to the One who first comes to us in darkness, but who ultimately is revealed, as John writes, as a living flame of love.

Lawrence Cunningham teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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