St John of the Cross’ ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ is as much bewildering as it is misunderstood. Drawing from my own recent trials, I share my original story “The Fallen Knight” to explain the key features of the Dark Night, and why it is an indispensable gift for our spiritual growth.
Excerpt from episode
“The term The Dark Night of the Soul is something some listeners may have come across before. Coined most famously by the medieval mystic St John of the Cross, it is often used to describe a type of extreme spiritual darkness, something akin to Mother Teresa’s fifty long years of not feeling God’s presence, or Therese of Lisieux’s doubt about heaven’s reality on her deathbed, or Jesus’s interior anguish during his passion. However, the gift of the Dark Night of the Soul — and it is a gift — is not something reserved for the extremely saintly. If it were, I’d be instantly disqualified because I’m not very saintly at all. Rather, the Dark Night is a necessary gift for our spiritual growth.
But what is the Dark Night? Let’s start by talking about what it is not. It is not a) just a period of spiritual desolation, where one feels disconnected from God, or when prayer suddenly goes dry b) it is not an extreme mental condition like depression, or grief or anxiety, or even a mixture of mental and spiritual conditions and c) it is not an experience of overwhelming suffering, if suffering could somehow by quantified on a scale. For suffering, is never the central focus of a soul being led through a Dark Night. Rather, union with God is always the central focus of the Dark Night.
In order to achieve that union though, John of the Cross says that God must first lead us through some intense purification that we would otherwise never dare to undertake ourselves. The Dark Night then, could be understood as God leading the soul down a map only God sees, in order to bring the soul to place we would never travel ourselves.
The Dark Night is always an experience best captured using poetry and imagery, rather than just words. Indeed St John wrote his Dark Night of the Soul as a poem first, before he turned it into spiritual commentary. Taking his cue, I recently fleshed out a short story called “the Fallen Knight” which aims to communicate my own Dark Night experiences through narrative and symbol … ”
The Impact of God (Fr Iain Matthew): An excellent general introduction to St John of the Cross’s spirituality, and his concept of Night
Dark Nights of the Soul (Thomas Moore): A brilliant read from an author who is both theologian and psychologist. De-mystifies The Dark Night, and presents it as gift.