The term “dark night (of the soul)” was originally used in Roman Catholicism for a spiritual crisis in a journey towards union with God, like that described by Saint John of the Cross. It has since been adopted by many spiritual practitioners across many modalities of spiritual practice and refers to a turbulent period of darkness encountered along the spiritual path.
“I reserve the expression ‘dark night of the soul’ for a dark mood that is truly life-shaking and touches the foundations of experience, the soul itself. But sometimes a seemingly insignificant event can give rise to a dark night: You may miss a train and not attend a reunion that meant much to you. Often a dark night has a strong symbolic quality in that it points to a deeper level of emotion and perhaps a deeper memory that gives it extra meaning. With dark nights you always have to be alert for the invisible memories, narratives, and concerns that may not be apparent on the surface.” – Thomas Moore, A Dark Night Of The Soul And The Discovery Of Meaning
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a 19th-century French Carmelite, wrote of her own experience. Centering on doubts about the afterlife, she reportedly told her fellow nuns, “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into.”
While this crisis is usually temporary in nature, it may last for extended periods. The “dark night” of Saint Paul of the Cross in the 18th century lasted 45 years, from which he ultimately recovered. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, according to letters released in 2007, “may be the most extensive such case on record”, lasting from 1948 almost up until her death in 1997, with only brief interludes of relief in between. Franciscan Friar Father Benedict Groeschel, a friend of Mother Teresa for a large part of her life, claims that “the darkness left” towards the end of her life.
“In the twilight of life, God will not judge us on our earthly possessions and human successes, but on how well we have loved.” – John of the Cross
John of the Cross (1542 – 1591), was a major figure of the Counter-Reformation, a Spanish mystic, Catholic saint, Carmelite friar and priest, born at Fontiveros, Old Castile. Saint John of the Cross was a reformer of the Carmelite Order and is considered, along with Saint Teresa of Ávila, as a founder of the Discalced Carmelites. He is also known for his spiritual writings.
Excerpt from Dark Night of The Soul by St. John of The Cross
Translated by E. Allison Peers
Although this happy night brings darkness to the spirit, it does so only to give it light in everything; and that, although it humbles it and makes it miserable, it does so only to exalt it and to raise it up; and, although it impoverishes it and empties it of all natural affection and attachment, it does so only that it may enable it to stretch forward, divinely, and thus to have fruition and experience of all things, both above and below, yet to preserve its unrestricted liberty of spirit in them all.
For just as the elements, in order that they may have a part in all natural entities and compounds, must have no particular colour, odour or taste, so as to be able to combine with all tastes odours and colours, just so must the spirit be simple, pure and detached from all kinds of natural affection, whether actual or habitual, to the end that it may be able freely to share in the breadth of spirit of the Divine Wisdom, wherein, through its purity, it has experience of all the sweetness of all things in a certain pre-eminently excellent way.
And without this purgation it will be wholly unable to feel or experience the satisfaction of all this abundance of spiritual sweetness. For one single affection remaining in the spirit, or one particular thing to which, actually or habitually, it clings, suffices to hinder it from feeling or experiencing or communicating the delicacy and intimate sweetness of the spirit of love, which contains within itself all sweetness to a most eminent degree.
…it is most fitting and necessary, if the soul is to pass to these great things, that this dark night of contemplation should first of all annihilate and undo it in its meannesses, bringing it into darkness, aridity, affliction and emptiness; for the light which is to be given to it is a Divine light of the highest kind, which transcends all natural light, and which by nature can find no place in the understanding.
And thus it is fitting that, if the understanding is to be united with that light and become Divine in the state of perfection, it should first of all be purged and annihilated as to its natural light, and, by means of this dark contemplation, be brought actually into darkness. This darkness should continue for as long as is needful in order to expel and annihilate the habit which the soul has long since formed in its manner of understanding, and the Divine light and illumination will then take its place.
In order to attain the said union to which this dark night is disposing and leading it, the soul must be filled and endowed with a certain glorious magnificence in its communion with God, which includes within itself innumerable blessings springing from delights which exceed all the abundance that the soul can naturally possess…
It is meet, then, that the soul be first of all brought into emptiness and poverty of spirit and purged from all help, consolation and natural apprehension with respect to all things, both above and below. In this way, being empty, it is able indeed to be poor in spirit and freed from the old man, in order to live that new and blessed life which is attained by means of this night, and which is the state of union with God.
- Ram Dass.org, The Dark Night of the Soul
- wikipedia, the dark night of the soul
- eckharttolle.com, the dark night of the soul
- Thomas Moore, A Dark Night Of The Soul And The Discovery Of Meaning, Kosmosjournal.org