The spiritual term ‘dark night of the soul’ is one of the most misused or abused term concerning the spiritual life by both Christians and non-Christians alike. Many Christians will describe having a negative spiritual experience, experiencing a bad life event or feeling dryness in their spiritual life as a ‘dark night’ experience. The term ‘dark night of the soul’ is like a classic literary book. Everyone has heard about it but nobody has read it!
‘The dark night of the soul’ was coined by a Carmelite monk called St. John of the Cross who lived in the 16th century. John is a Christian mystic and poet with extraordinary experiences of God and his teachings have shaped much of our understanding of spiritual theology today. The ‘dark night of the soul’ is a metaphor in which St. John describes the journey of a soul in its purification and progress towards union with God.
John of the Cross actually taught that there are four ‘nights’. They are
(1) The active night of the sense
(2) The active night of the spirit
(3) The passive night of the sense
(4) The passive night of the spirit
According to John, a new believer or beginner comes to God because of the pleasure God gives him or her. I am sure we remember the glorious day when we first became a Christian. It like falling in love. Everything is a fresh and vibrant. Every spiritual experience is pleasurable. Reading the Bible, prayer, and fellowship is a joy. God feels so real, loving and warm. John wrote that God gives new believers pleasurable spiritual experiences of the senses. This is the beginning of the spiritual life and as spiritual infants we crave for the pleasurable spiritual experiences which God is giving us. This is the active night of the sense.
Unfortunately we become addicted to these spiritual pleasures. We want more and more of these spiritual pleasures. If we do not get it, we begin to work harder to experience it. We think that by working harder at the spiritual disciplines (reading the Bible, prayer, and fellowship) we can recreate such pleasures for ourselves. This is the active night of the spirit.
During these two active ‘nights’ we have been loving God for what He can give us rather than who He is. We also believe that by our spiritual disciplines we can achieve deeper love for God (which means more pleasure). God needs to wean us off (1) our dependence on spiritual experiences, and (2) our idea that spiritual growth can be the result of our trying harder. He does this by moving us into the passive night of the sense.
The passive night of the sense is when we do not feel God’s presence. We also do not feel pleasures in spiritual experiences. It is not that God has abandoned us. He is still with us and within us. It is just we do not ‘sense’ His presence. We often call this a ‘darkness’ and describe our spiritual life as dry, arid, duty, obligation, and boring. When we are spiritual infants, God feeds us with spiritual milk by using a ‘spiritual milk bottle.’ When we are spiritually older, He starts us on a weaning diet. However, most of us still prefer the bottle. And how do we react to this? We react by looking for the presence of God. We work harder at our spiritual disciplines, attend more spiritual retreats, and even by artificially creating emotionally stirring ‘worship’ by music and choruses. Yet, we always leave empty.
It is by His ‘absence’ that the Holy Spirit is able to work to detach our spirits from their attachment to pleasurable spiritual experiences so that we can love God for who He is, not for what He can give. It is moving us from meditative to contemplative prayer. This is like a marriage. Initially a marriage is defined by the relationship of what the husband and wife can give to each other. Later it is the relationship itself. This inner work of the Holy Spirit to detach us from our attraction to spiritual experiences and worldly things is called the passive night of the spirit. It is passive because we now realise that our spiritual growth is purely by grace and not by our efforts. The dark night of the soul prepares us for union with God.
The dark night of the soul is brought by the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. Personally I do not think every Christian will experience this. However, I do know of some Christians who are in the ‘dark nights’ and has been for many years. How do we know we are in a dark night phase and not because we are harbouring some sins or suffering from depression? This is where a spiritual director, a mentor or a Christian counsellor will be of help. The dark night experience is painful. The person who is devoted to God cannot understand why he or she is in the dark; crushed, powerless, and abandoned. This is the final purification. The other side leads to a deep mystical union with God.
Download text of The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John’s of the Cross here
Kieran Kavanaugh (ed.) (1987), John of the Cross: Selected Writings. The Classics of Western Spirituality series. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press)
R.A. Herrera (2004), Silent Music: The Life, Work, and Thought of St. John of the Cross. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans).