In our second week of delving into the medieval mystics, we find ourselves with John of the Cross and his “dark night of the soul.”
Juan de Yepes was born into extreme poverty in 1542 in Fontiveros, Spain. When his father died he moved with his mother to Medina de Campo where he had access to some of the finest education at the time, first as an orderly at a plague hospital where he was permitted to study at the new Jesuit school, and then at the university of Salamanca as a young Carmelite student. He was ordained in 1567.
Truly, John was an introvert, a scholar and a poet, but Teresa of Avila saw something great in him and hitched him to her cause of reforming the Carmelite order, which had been founded on the ideals of a simple life spent in solitude and prayer, but that vision had all but died. At the time there were some 200 nuns in the convent, the wealthiest of those had suites of rooms that they shared with relatives and servants. Teresa decided to start a new convent closer to the original idea, but faced huge opposition. She pressed on anyway, but knew her reform would fail unless it involved monks as well. Though John was 27 years her junior (and under 5 feet tall, not that that means anything) he became her apprentice and they founded a new reformed Carmelite order for men. Three years later John’s superiors told him to quit. He refused, thus becoming an outlaw in his own order.
Shortly after, John was abducted, bound and blindfolded and taken to a monastery over 80 miles away where they tried to force him to renounce his work. He refused and was beaten and thrown into the monastery prison where he survived on bread and water. He was not allowed to bathe, change his clothes, or leave his cell, except for beatings. After two months he was placed in solitary confinement where the only light came through a slit in the prison wall. There he began to compose his greatest works, including the poem “The Dark Night of the Soul,” first by memorizing the words it the dark and then writing them down when he was finally given paper and ink. He escaped after 9 months.
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John has been called the greatest psychologist in the history of mysticism. While his theology is quite varied, he is best known for his exploration of the “dark night.” This concept of the “dark night of the soul” has become common terminology over the centuries, but few people know where it originated.
When people hear that he wrote dark night while in prison, they assume that it is a memoir about the worst part of his life. Perhaps we expect John to tell us how awful it was and how his faith got him through it. But it is more accurately thought of as a love story between the lover and the Beloved. It requires the lover (aka “soul”) to completely let go of everything and enter into the unknown darkness to have a true encounter with the Beloved (aka “God”).
In the commentaries he wrote on his own poem, John uses the “dark night” to refer primarily to the critical moments of transition in the stages of spiritual growth. For our purposes, it is sufficient, as scholars Robin Maas and Gabriel O’Donnell say, “to speak of the “dark night” in terms of human “limit-experiences”… times when we’ve reached a point in our lives and in our prayer when everything seems to fall apart. We feel lost, confused, frustrated, and abandoned by God and our friends. We may be painfully aware of how good we used to have it. Often this happens when our comfortable religion breaks down in the face of lives struggles and questions. Perhaps God no longer seems real. Perhaps our faith now seems meaningless.”
How do you know if you’re really in a dark night?
If the dark night is due to illness, lukewarmness, or a recent “sin” then John says returning to health or “sincere Christian living” will take care of it. Depression can also resemble a dark night, except that it can be treated with medication or therapy. A true dark night, which may, or may not, be triggered by traumas in our lives is an intense and pervasive inner anguish and complete disorientation to everything – self, God and the world.
Well known preacher and theologian, Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, talks about experiencing the dark night (or cloudy night) of the soul when her “reliable ideas about God began to slip away.” The slipping began when the language of faith – sin, salvation, repentance, grace – lost meaning. She discovered that slowly, over the years, she had not lost faith, but had lost faith in a system that given her words, doctrine, rituals and practices that would supposedly be all she needed to understand, teach and share God. But, the way she had been taught to be Christian didn’t work anymore, and she found herself lost in that dark night.
John of the Cross has a very interesting take on God’s part in this dark night. When it is experienced, it feels as if God has abandoned us, as the Psalmist cries out in Psalm 22:1 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But in reality, John says, God is closer than God has ever been. The dark night is a time of releasing (purging) and illuminating.
Once again language falls short of explaining the ineffable, so John describes this experience metaphorically.
- One way to look at it is as if we were a cave dweller emerging into the bright sunshine. The brilliant light is actually painful to look upon. There is only one way to regain one’s sight and that is to continue to spend time in that bright light, giving the eyes time to adjust, no matter how painful it might be.
- The second metaphor John uses is that of a log becoming fire. He explains that what happens inwardly in the dark night of the soul is that as the love of God penetrates deeper and deeper into our being we are slowly consumed and engulfed, eventually becoming the fire itself. The smoke and steam, and perhaps worms and bugs, seen exiting the log as it begins to burn are the things of our lives that need to be released, let go of, before transformation can take place. These things might include our belief structures, ideologies, expectations, perfection, mistakes, guilt, shame, material things, fear, grudges and more. Once all of those things are let go, one can see the light within oneself and is transformed.
Both of these processes are painful. Walking into such brilliant light that our own flaws, failings and weaknesses seem to stand out in stark contrast, and the process of having to examine and release all of these flaws, failings and weaknesses as we watch them turn to steam and disappear. Our old religion, creeds and doctrine, and images of God no longer fit in comparison to the reality found in the darkness. We are stripped of our illusions and false securities. We feel like we are losing our very selves.
Spiritual director and Jesuit priest, Thomas Greene, in his book When the Well Runs Dry recalled a “very prayerful sister telling [him] of her experience: God seemed so far away and so uninterested in her that she finally said to [him]: “All right! If you don’t care, then neither do I!” And she tried to avoid prayer and go her own way, even to “sin”! But she was equally miserable.” She was very surprised when Thomas told her that her experience was probably “a sign something good and deep was happening!”
Brown Taylor interprets John the Cross as saying,
“the dark night is God’s best gift to you, intended for your liberation. It is about freeing you from your ideas about God, your fears about God, your attachment to all the benefits you have been promised for believing in God, your devotion to the spiritual practices that are supposed to make you feel closer to God, your dedication to doing and believing all the right things about God, your positive and negative evaluations of yourself as a believer in God, your tactics for manipulating God, and your sure cures for doubting God. All of these are substitutes for God.”
In the same way the dark night frees us from our ideas about ourselves, the stories we tell about ourselves, the fears we have about life, the things we’ve bought into or rail against, our brokenness, our failures, our successes. All of these are substitutes for our authentic selves.
Just thinking about it can make me want to run. Escape sounds like a great idea, if only it were possible. Once the process begins, there is really no easy way out, one must go through. But what we are doing in this process of releasing and letting go is making room for something or someone greater and more mysterious. If we can stay in the place when we feel and see God least, and let the night do its work, we will gradually discover the Divine already dwelling within our hearts.
John’s advice is to “learn to let go, to walk forward in simple trust, [then] the turmoil will eventually give way to a profound and unshakable union with God that no further suffering can fundamentally disturb.”
God has not deserted us in the darkness, God is not punishing us or forsaking us. God is simply a creative force working in a way that is so deep it is beyond our senses. For John it was “God teaching the soul secretly and instructing it in the perfection of love without its doing anything or understanding how this happens.”