Who is St. John of the Cross?
St. John of the Cross was a Spanish Catholic who was born in 1542 amidst the throws of the Protestant Reformation. He was a major figure in the Catholic Counter-Reformation and would later be named a Doctor of the Church. He was a priest, mystic, and Carmelite who was mentored by the great St. Teresa of Avila.
Not only a remarkable theologian and saintly priest, St. John of the Cross is one of the most widely celebrated poets in the Spanish language. His style, use of symbolism and imagery, and depth of content are worthy of great admiration. One of his most famous poems is the “Dark Night of the Soul.” His impact is still felt today, influencing and inspiring great saints and theologians of the modern era. St. John Paul II even wrote his theological dissertation on the mystical theology of St. John of the Cross.
What is a “Dark Night of the Soul?”
This phrase, “Dark Night of the Soul,” comes from St. John of the Cross’ poem “The Dark Night”, though St. John himself never actually uses the phrase Dark Night of the Soul. He narrates the journey of a person’s soul from its home in the body here on earth to its union with God in Heaven. The reason that this night is “dark” is because God is our destination and He is unknowable in the normal sense of knowing.
Generally, we can describe what God is not, but not what He “positively” is. For example, we can say that God is all-good but what we are really saying is that there is no evil in Him. We can say that He is all-knowing but what we really mean is that He is without any ignorance. The exact path to God is unknowable which is why we often are asking what God desires of us or what we should do next in our life. To understand the unknowable darkness of God, we can use the image of the dark cloud of smoke where God dwells in Exodus 20, when Moses encounters Him.
The Two Purgations
Within the Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross speaks of two purgations: the first one is sensory and the second is spiritual. Both are necessary for growth in holiness.
The dark night does not come at the beginning of the journey to God. It happens when the soul begins to approach deeper union with God. This may seem harsh, but it is for our growth. St. John describes the first sensory purgation with the example of a mother and her child. The mother weans the child away from her breast – the source of life, comfort, and food – in order for the child to experience some level of independence. The mother is the one doing the purification, not the child. Therefore, the child is passively experiencing this purification, without which he could never progress to be a toddler, child, teen, or adult. The purification is necessary and natural for growth.
In the second purgation, the spiritual one, the intellect, will, and memory are purified. Once we have become reliant on the light of God’s grace and not stuck in the comforts of consolation, then God can heal our minds, desires, and even memories. Put another way, once God has purified our minds and hearts of attachments to temporal things and we are not agitated by various desires, then we can experience union with God and exercise love of God.
In both purgations, however, the action is actively God’s. The purgation is something that we experience passively and can do nothing other than simply dispose ourselves more and more to His action. St. John uses the example of a fire consuming a log. God’s fire consumes our minds and hearts more and more; all the log has to do is be receptive to the fire.
How Can I Tell If I’m Going Through a Dark Night of the Soul?
Prayer is like food and water to the soul. Without it, we are little more than a walking corpse. Therefore, only those who are seeking God and trying to pray will ever experience a Dark Night. In the Dark Night, there is a mystical union between God and the person in prayer. The soul – which is open and disposed – is detached from everything that is not God and is deprived of the light and consolation of God. However, this soul remains on the road of darkness because it leads to the light. Remember: growth in union with God is a passive process in which we are open to what God’s grace does within us and we cooperate with Him.
The soul in a Dark Night will not often experience the consolations of a new faith: feeling the nearness and sweetness of God, being moved emotionally by His tender touch, or feeling that prayer is exceptionally fruitful. Like the child being granted more independence, we must simply be open to God in prayer and allow Him to purify us, form us, and shape us. We can be certain, even in the absence of the spiritual comforts of experiencing God’s loveliness, that we are moving ever closer towards Him.
So, what is required of us: faith, hope, and love. In faith, we move along in the darkness, knowing that God is near, even if we do not feel His presence. We pray in hope of the certainty of Heaven if we follow Him and the commands of the Gospel. And we cooperate with God’s love to love Him, our neighbor, and ourselves. Whatever you do: do not be disheartened or give up. God is nearer to you than you are to yourself. Keep praying and keep cooperating with His grace. Then, in the end, you will behold His marvelous light for all eternity in Heaven!
In the darkness . . . Lord, my God, who am I that you should forsake me? The child of your love — and now become as the most hated one. The one — you have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer . . . Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. Love — the word — it brings nothing. I am told God lives in me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.– St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta