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The Dark Night of the Soul

A Précis with Commentary

Daniel J. Castellano


1. The First Dark Night: The Purgation of Sense
2. The Proficient State
3. The Second Dark Night: The Purgation of Spirit
4. The Ascent to Union with God
5. Summary

St. John of the Cross' spiritual classic Dark Night of the Soul is a commonly misunderstood work. In our modern era of rampant unbelief, the “dark night” is commonly misconstrued as a “crisis of faith” in the sense of doubting basic propositions of the faith, including the existence of God. This is a gross misrepresentation of the thought of St. John and other Catholic mystics describing similar phenomena in the sixteenth century and earlier. Contemplatives of this era did not flirt with apostasy or hesitate in their assent of faith, but instead felt a spiritual aridity and lack of consolation, an alienation from God due to acute consciousness of their unworthiness, not doubt regarding God's existence or Providence.

We can see this clearly by examining St. John's writings in some detail. Dark Night of the Soul, though commonly published as a separate treatise, was really a continuation of the Ascent of Mount Carmel, which had already touched upon the concept of a spiritual dark night:

WE may say that there are three reasons for which this journey made by the soul to union with God is called night. The first has to do with the point from which the soul goes forth, for it has gradually to deprive itself of desire for all the worldly things which it possessed, by denying them to itself; the which denial and deprivation are, as it were, night to all the senses of man. The second reason has to do with the mean, or the road along which the soul must travel to this union—that is, faith, which is likewise as dark as night to the understanding. The third has to do with the point to which it travels—namely, God, Who, equally, is dark night to the soul in this life. These three nights must pass through the soul—or, rather, the soul must pass through them—in order that it may come to Divine union with God.

Right away, it is obvious that the dark night has nothing to do with a loss of faith or hesitation in faith; on the contrary, faith is the means by which we traverse this night. The figurative “darkness” comes from (1) denial of worldly desires, effectively “blinding” the senses; (2) traveling the road of faith, to which the intellect is blind; (3) approaching God, who is incomprehensible to the soul in this life.

In the opening of his treatise on the dark night, St. John characterizes this phase as proper to the “progressive” contemplative, who is no longer a novice, yet has not achieved “the state of the perfect, which is that of the Divine union of the soul with God.” It is an intermediate state, lasting weeks, months, or years, during which “the soul is strengthened and confirmed in the virtues, and made ready for the inestimable delights of the love of God.”

St. John makes an analogy with a loving mother, who provides warmth and nourishment for her infant, but as it grows older, she withdraws some of her tender care, so the child can walk on its own and learn serious occupations. Similarly, God blesses the recently consecrated with abundant grace, so that they delight in prayer, fasting and the sacraments, receiving many spiritual consolations. They seek the good because it delights them, but as they mature they must learn to develop virtues independently of these spiritual consolations. In other words, they must learn to perform their religious duties out of virtue even when they do not give immediate pleasure.

As was typical of the sixteenth century, St. John analyzes the spiritual imperfections of novices with respect to the seven deadly sins. He shows how those with the fervor of novices are vulnerable to a spiritual pride in their works, or a spiritual avarice for mystical consolations. Since the delights of these consolations have a sensual or emotional aspect (luxury), the Spirit of God is received in an imperfect way by the sensitive soul, when instead the soul ought to be received into the Spirit. When these consolations cease, the novice can become irritable or wrathful, even frustrated with their imperfection, contrary to humility, “so impatient are they about this that they would fain be saints in a day.” The desire for consolations may tempt some to “strive more after spiritual sweetness than after spiritual purity and discretion,” a sort of spiritual gluttony. Envy can be manifested among those who resent being surpassed by others in spiritual goodness. Lastly, a spiritual sloth can develop as a reluctance to pursue “the things that are most spiritual, from which they flee because these things are incompatible with sensible pleasure. For, as they are so much accustomed to sweetness in spiritual things, they are wearied by things in which they find no sweetness.” All of these imperfections, and many others listed by St. John, are to be cured by the dark night of the soul.

This He does by bringing them into the dark night whereof we now speak; wherein He weans them from the breasts of these sweetnesses and pleasures, gives them pure aridities and inward darkness, takes from them all these irrelevances and puerilities, and by very different means causes them to win the virtues. For, however assiduously the beginner practises the mortification in himself of all these actions and passions of his, he can never completely succeed—very far from it—until God shall work it in him passively by means of the purgation of the said night.

The dark night consists in the absence of pleasures associated with spiritual exercises, in order that the virtues may be developed purely, without admixture of “irrelevances and puerilities.” The dark night bestowed by God is necessary in order to progress spiritually.

THIS night, which, as we say, is contemplation, produces in spiritual persons two kinds of darkness or purgation, corresponding to the two parts of man’s nature—namely, the sensual and the spiritual.

The “dark night” is the contemplative state itself, in its progressive phase, which St. John distinguishes into two parts. First, the soul is purged of sensual desire (for the pleasure of special consolations) and subordinated to the spiritual order, and then the soul must be purged “according to the spirit,” stripped of spiritual pride, avarice, etc. in preparation for union with God. The first “night of sense is common and comes to many,” while the second “night of the spirit is the portion of very few.” In other words, it is common to learn the pursuit of spiritual perfection without desiring sensual consolations, but it is far less common to learn to seek God without seeking spiritual consolations, which can engender spiritual sins.

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1. The First Dark Night: The Purgation of Sense

St. John describes novices entering the first night as being tainted with the love of self, reflected in their desire for the pleasures associated with ascetic practices. God wishes to lead them to a more noble love. Since the novices already have practice shunning the grosser sensual comforts of this world, they are more capable of now enduring a bit of aridity, being less tempted to return to their earlier state of pleasure. God therefore shuts off the “sweet spiritual water,” leaving the novices without delight in their religious practices, which they now may find even bitter. St. John analogizes this initial confusion with a child first allowed to walk on its own, yet feeling strange as it lacks its accustomed means of support.

The first night happens commonly, and almost immediately among those less attached to things of this world. The numerous places in the Psalms of David speaking of a sort of spiritual darkness refer primarily to this first night, which is the common experience of outgrowing the fervor of youth searching for pleasurable ecstasies, in favor of desiring things of the spirit for their own sake rather than an emotional payoff.

St. John makes an important distinction, noting that spiritual aridity is not always a sign of contemplative progress, but can result “from sins and imperfections, or from weakness and lukewarmness, or from some bad humour or indisposition of the body.” We note how many modern observers clumsily refer to any experience of spiritual aridity, or even doubts regarding the faith, as the “dark night of the soul,” when in fact these are just the ordinary imperfections, lukewarmness, and infirmity of faith found among many believers. The “dark night,” on the contrary, is a purgation of imperfections, and it may be distinguished from other manifestations of spiritual aridity by three signs.

The first sign is that the arid soul who no longer finds sensual pleasure in the things of God also does not find pleasure in things of this world. Since the purpose of the first night is to purge attachment to sensual pleasure, detachment from worldly desire is a necessary precondition for this purgation. This sign is strong evidence that the aridity does not result from sin or imperfection, since the soul does not seek to taste things other than those of God.

The second sign “is that the memory is ordinarily centred upon God, with painful care and solicitude, thinking that it is not serving God, but is backsliding, because it finds itself without sweetness in the things of God.” This sign shows that the soul is not lukewarm, since it is in fact deeply concerned about its apparent failure to serve God. Neither is the aridity purely a result of natural melancholy, though that may often play a role, since melancholy alone does not produce the desire to sense God. Though the sensual soul “is weak and feeble in its actions, by reason of the little pleasure which it finds in them,” the spirit remains “ready and strong.” In fact, the spirit is strengthened by spiritual pleasures which the sensitive soul cannot receive, leaving the latter barren and arid. However, the spirit is accustomed to sensual pleasures, so it is at first incapable of appreciating its spiritual consolations, as it longs for the sensual pleasure in things of God. The purgation is the process of losing this longing, so that spiritual pleasure can be clearly appreciated. St. John likens this to the Israelites wandering in the desert, who did not appreciate the heavenly manna since they were accustomed to fleshpots.

Nonetheless, though the spirit at first tastes no sweetness from its spiritual consolation, it immediately draws strength from this consolation, which is a contemplation that inclines the soul to seek solitude and quiet, “without being able to think of any particular thing or having the desire to do so.” Those who are actually able to achieve this silent freedom from all anxieties will receive a refreshment so delicate that those who seek it will invariably fail, since it consists in freedom from desire. This sublime state is similar to that pursued by Buddhist monks and other Eastern contemplatives. Yet whereas for many of these ascetics this state is the ultimate goal, St. John regards it as merely a step in the way of purgation, and we are only in the first night of the soul!

The third sign whereby this purgation of sense may be recognized is that the soul can no longer meditate or reflect in the imaginative sphere of sense as it was wont, however much it may of itself endeavour to do so. For God now begins to communicate Himself to it, no longer through sense, as He did aforetime, by means of reflections which joined and sundered its knowledge, but by pure spirit, into which consecutive reflections enter not; but He communicates Himself to it by an act of simple contemplation, to which neither the exterior nor the interior senses of the lower part of the soul can attain. From this time forward, therefore, imagination and fancy can find no support in any meditation, and can gain no foothold by means thereof.

This is by far the most remarkable aspect of the first dark night, since the soul is actually rendered incapable of imaginative meditation. It no longer receives God by sensory images, but pure spiritual contemplation. If this aridity were merely the result of ordinary indisposition, the soul could surely return to simple imaginative meditations. The astonishing fact of being unable to meditate imaginatively is a sign that God has granted the purgation of sensory desire. Since the soul now apprehends God spiritually, the sensitive soul is unable to follow, and gradually loses its ability to work imaginative meditations. Those who remain indisposed to apprehend God spiritually, in contrast, should not lose their ability to meditate imaginatively, unless they lack one of the other two signs and are even further removed from spiritual perfection. Some people enter the night not to receive the full purgation of sensory attachments, but only to be humbled and cured of spiritual gluttony. These may feel aridity at some times but not others, being allowed to remain with imaginative meditations throughout life, yet these being sometimes withdrawn in order to prevent inordinate attachment to them.

The first dark night, when it achieves full purgation of sense, brings “the soul from the life of sense into that of the spirit—that is, from meditation to contemplation—wherein it no longer has any power to work or to reason with its faculties concerning the things of God.” Thus the soul is not deprived of the things of God, though at first it may appear as such due to the disorienting loss of imaginative meditation and its sensual consolations, but rather the things of God are apprehended more purely by simple contemplation.

The greatest trial in the first dark night is not so much the spiritual aridity itself, but the fear that such aridity means that “that all spiritual blessing is over for them and that God has abandoned them since they find no help or pleasure in good things.” At this point, the novice might redouble his efforts to experience a pleasurable meditation, depriving his soul of the tranquility that comes with spiritual contemplation, and at the same time failing to recover his earlier consolations, as these no longer satisfy the soul. Now he runs the grave risk of becoming discouraged altogether, and falling away from the path to perfection. The scrupulous may worry that they are failing due to sin or negligence, not realizing that “God is now leading them by another road, which is that of contemplation,” which involves neither imagination nor reasoning.

St. John encourages those in the dark night to take heart, for God will never abandon those who truly seek him with a pure heart, nor will He fail to provide them the means to continue on this path. Those in the first dark night should conduct themselves…

…in peace and quietness, although it may seem clear to them that they are doing nothing and are wasting their time, and although it may appear to them that it is because of their weakness that they have no desire in that state to think of anything. The truth is that they will be doing quite sufficient if they have patience and persevere in prayer without making any effort.

Those in the dark night must persist in prayer, yet refrain from imaginative or rational meditation, as these are obstacles to the peace of spiritual contemplation. Instead, they must serenely allow God to work within them the gift of infused contemplation. “For contemplation is naught else than a secret, peaceful and loving infusion from God, which, if it be permitted, enkindles the soul with the spirit of love…”

The soul does not feel this love at first, either because of its own impurity, or because of the confusion resulting from its current state, but soon a yearning toward God manifests itself, and the desire for God increases, yet this time He is sought through spiritual contemplation rather than sensory meditation. Ultimately, the soul is freed of its dependence on natural affections and loves God spiritually. The lower or sensitive soul is finally brought into conformity with the spirit. At this point, the soul receives the gift of the second dark night, the night of the spirit.

The benefits of passing through the night of sense include knowledge of oneself and one’s lowliness. Regarding itself as nothing, the soul takes no satisfaction in itself, and feels afflicted at its apparent inability to serve God. This humility and affliction is in fact more pleasing to God than the pursuit of sensual consolations, for the contemplative is truly devoted to God without admixture of self-love. Aware of its lowliness, the soul is much more respectful and courteous in conversing with the Most High, whereas earlier it presumed a disrespectful and bold intimacy. In fact, those who are closer to God are more acutely aware of the distance between their lowliness and His greatness. The soul more clearly apprehends God’s greatness, and realizes that the sweet consolations earlier thought to reflect divine intimacy are altogether inadequate for the reception of divine influence. To hear God, “the soul needs to stand upright and to be detached, with regard to affection and sense.”

The aridities experienced in the first night of the soul are certain to bring spiritual humility. Seeing that he is vulnerable to aridity as much as others, perhaps even more so, the contemplative learns not to esteem himself above others, and develops a greater love of neighbor. Most importantly, he becomes submissive and obedient as he continues down the spiritual road. Similarly, the purging of desire for sensual consolations helps develop numerous spiritual virtues, guarding against avarice, luxury, gluttony, and envy. The soul also learns patience and longsuffering, and the practice of religion “without consolation and without pleasure.” This resembles divine charity, as it is not motivated by the pleasure of the work itself, but by the love of God. As patience and fortitude are developed, the moral virtues no less than the theological are strengthened by passage through the night of sense. Above all, the yearning to serve God is strengthened as the soul is afflicted and the natural passions (joy, grief, hope and fear) are mortified and brought into subjection to the spirit.

With the purgation of the sensual completed, the soul is now free to embark on “the way of illumination or infused contemplation, wherein God Himself feeds and refreshes the soul, without meditation, or the soul’s active help.” In the night of sense, the soul is also prepared for “the other and more formidable night of the spirit, in order to pass to the Divine union of love of God,” by means of numerous temptations, including imaginative suggestions to fornication and blasphemy. These trials are necessary for the soul to “quicken its sense of Wisdom,” which is necessary for the second night. St. John quotes Ecclesiasticus: “He that has not been tempted, what does he know? And he that has not been proved, what are the things that he recognizes?”

The first night varies among individuals, both in terms of the specific temptations endured, and the intensity and duration of the trials. St. John reasons that those with greater imperfections must suffer more trials. Likewise, those with greater strength may be subjected to more intense trials over a short period of time, while God will subject those who are weak to milder trials over a longer duration. Some are so weak that God will mercifully continue to provide sensual consolations at intervals, so that they do not fall away, but neither do they ever pass beyond the first night of the soul. Those who are to be led onward to the state of perfection must endure aridities and temptations even longer, through the second dark night of the soul.

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2. The Proficient State

The second night, or dark night of the spirit, does not immediately follow the completion of the first night, but a long period of time elapses, even years, during which the soul practices the state of the proficient or progressive. This soul finds much greater delight in contemplation than it knew when it was dependent on imaginative meditations, for now it can know “spiritual sweetness without the labour of meditation.” The soul may experience brief periods of aridity and temptation, sometimes lasting days, “as tokens and heralds of the coming night of the spirit,” yet overall the life of the proficient is one of serenity and spiritual delight.

These spiritual delights can flow into the purified sensual faculties and be experienced as sensual delight, but as the sensual faculties are “incapable of experiencing the strong things of the spirit,” proficient contemplatives are often susceptible to physical ailments, particularly of the stomach, and these in turn weaken the spirit. Thus, “The corruptible body presseth down the soul.” As a result of this limitation, the soul cannot receive communications that are purely spiritual, but instead the spiritual communications affect both spirit and the sensual nature, causing “raptures and trances and dislocations.” In other spiritual traditions, these experiences are considered signs of union with the divine, but St. John regards these as imperfect states, resulting from the limitations of our sensual nature.

The state of the proficient soul requires clarification, for although it has passed through the purgation of sense, imperfections remain. St. John says that the purgation of sense “serves rather to accommodate sense to spirit than to unite spirit with God.” Imperfect habits and affections of the spirit itself are untouched by the purgation of sense. Also, those who have achieved spiritual proficiency might be susceptible to demonic temptations whereby they mistake false sensual or spiritual visions for communication from God or the saints, and fall into presumption.

Although the proficient has learned to seek God rather than the pleasures of imaginative meditation and to passively allow God to manifest himself without the use of sensual consolations, he still receives these spiritual communications both through his sensual and spiritual faculties. The imperfections resulting from this admixture can only be remedied by purging both sense and spirit from the need for even spiritual sweetness, so that it can “walk in dark and pure faith, which is the proper and adequate means whereby the soul is united with God, according as Osee says, in these words: ‘I will betroth thee—that is, I will unite thee—with Me through faith.’” The faith is “dark and pure” because it does not rely at all on the lower faculties of sense, imagination or reason, which are incapable of receiving God.

Here we have a glimpse of the mystery of why God demands faith of us: it is the only means by which we can be in union with Him. To unbelievers, faith seems like a mere epistemological choice, and an odd one at that, so that they cannot understand why God does not manifest Himself in a way that would make faith unnecessary. This line of thought fails to recognize the complete inadequacy of sense and reason for comprehending the Infinite Unity of God, either because of a misguided belief in the omnicompetence of reason, or due to a crude understanding of the Divine Essence. Faith is not some arbitrary epistemic choice, but an absolutely necessary means for uniting the human soul to God, as it transcends its dependence on its lower faculties. The common caricature of faith as “belief without evidence” misconstrues faith as an ordinary epistemology, when in reality it is apprehension of God without cognition, imagination, or sensation. As the latter faculties are manifestly unequal to the task of contemplating God to anyone with a mature monotheism, it is evident that faith, which involves the shedding of the lower faculties and has nothing to do with the presence or absence of evidence, is necessary for union with God.

An analogy might be seen in the knowledge of my mental life. Another person may know that I have a mental life either by accepting my testimony on human faith, or by making rational inferences from my behavior that I probably have a mental life analogous to their own. However, I know my mental life neither by human faith nor reasoning, but by virtue of being in direct union with that mental life (which is understating the case, as I am identical with myself). Not only am I not bound by the same epistemic options as one who is outside that union, but my knowledge of my mental life is altogether of a different order than that of an outsider. I know my mental life in the experiential sense of conocer, but another person knows it only in the intellectual sense of saber. Hypothetically, another person could have similar knowledge only if it was possible for him to “see” my mind, being in some sort of psychic union with me. To know God in the sense of conocer, it is necessary to be in spiritual union with Him. This is divine faith, which is neither of reason nor of human faith, as both of these pertain to our ordinary cognitive faculties, and cannot give the knowledge of conocer for that which transcends the senses and imagination. Whether one has intellectual knowledge of God from philosophical argument or acceptance of tradition, neither can provide the experiential knowledge of God which is of another order entirely.

Since all sensual disorders have their root in the spirit, the senses are not truly purged until the spirit is purged. For this reason, St. John says that the night of sense properly “should be called a kind of correction and restraint of the desire rather than purgation.” The night of sense does succeed in subjecting sense to spirit, but if the spirit is disordered, sense will be similarly disordered. The trial of the first night has the advantage of making possible the simultaneous purgation of sense and spirit, as well as preparing the soul with the fortitude necessary to endure the great trials of the second night, the night of the spirit.

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3. The Second Dark Night: The Purgation of Spirit

St. John regards proficients who have only passed through the first night as “at a very low stage of progress,” who still think of God and experience God childishly. Only when they achieve perfection, that is, union with God, can they work divine things, and they are stripped of the old man and put on the new man, in the words of St. Paul. This stripping of the old man involves a total purgation of all faculties, spiritual and sensual: the intellect, the will, memory and affections. Deprived of the pleasure of spiritual blessings, the soul will learn to love God in a union of pure charity.

Just as in the first night the lower faculties of the soul were subjected to the higher, spiritual faculties, in the second night, all the human faculties will be subjected to the Divine. At the end of this journey, the intellect will know God not by its own virtue, “but through the Divine Wisdom wherewith it has become united.” The other faculties will similarly act not according to human standards, but by the power of God who now dwells within.

THIS dark night is an inflowing of God into the soul, which purges it from its ignorances and imperfections, habitual, natural and spiritual, and which is called by contemplatives infused contemplation, or mystical theology. Herein God secretly teaches the soul and instructs it in perfection of love without its doing anything, or understanding of what manner is this infused contemplation. Inasmuch as it is the loving wisdom of God, God produces striking effects in the soul for, by purging and illumining it, He prepares it for the union of love with God.

The dark night of the spirit is nothing less than the inflowing of God, but it seems strange that this supreme blessing should be referred to as darkness. St. John explains the paradox with the analogy of how bright light darkens the pupil of an owl, or how we are blinded by the sun. Similarly, the human soul is not capable of receiving the brightness of Divine Wisdom, and worse, it is corrupted by “vileness and impurity,” so that the infusion of God is an affliction to it. The idea that direct divine revelation is unbearable to the human soul finds expression in the Old Testament, where it is affirmed that no one can see God yet live. This is due to the weakness of human nature, and in particular the intellect, which is actually darkened in its understanding by the infusion of Divine Wisdom. As a good instructor knows, teaching something above the understanding of a student can actually cause greater confusion at first rather than enlightenment.

The impurity of the soul causes the infused contemplation of God to be experienced with great pain, so much so that the soul becomes aware of its own impurity, and “feels itself to be so impure and miserable that it believes God to be against it, and thinks that it has set itself up against God.” This belief that one has been cast away by God is not a denial of God’s existence or Providence, but an acute awareness of one’s impurity so that one regards oneself as incurring God’s wrath. Divine Wisdom reveals that the soul is “unworthy of God or of any creature,” and as long as it lives only by its own strength it can never be worthy of these.

The soul’s impurity is such that even the righteous Job could say: “Have pity upon me, have pity upon me, at least ye my friends, because the hand of the Lord has touched me.” St. John comments:

A thing of great wonder and pity is it that the soul’s weakness and impurity should now be so great that, though the hand of God is of itself so light and gentle, the soul should now feel it to be so heavy and so contrary, though it neither weighs it down nor rests upon it, but only touches it, and that mercifully, since He does this in order to grant the soul favours and not to chastise it.

St. John uses extremely strong language to describe the purgation of the spirit as nothing less than its death in order to be resurrected in union with God.

The Divine assails the soul in order to renew it and thus to make it Divine; and, stripping it of the habitual affections and attachments of the old man, to which it is very closely united, knit together and conformed, destroys and consumes its spiritual substance, and absorbs it in deep and profound darkness. As a result of this, the soul feels itself to be perishing and melting away, in the presence and sight of its miseries, in a cruel spiritual death, even as if it had been swallowed by a beast and felt itself being devoured in the darkness of its belly, suffering such anguish as was endured by Jonas in the belly of that beast of the sea. For in this sepulchre of dark death it must needs abide until the spiritual resurrection which it hopes for.

Worst of all the afflictions experienced is the belief that God and all other creatures have forsaken this poor soul. Further, the majesty and greatness of God make the soul more aware of its poverty and wretchedness. In opposition to temporal, natural and spiritual goods, the soul experiences “miseries of imperfection, aridity and emptiness of the apprehensions of the faculties and abandonment of the spirit in darkness.” These afflictions purge all aspects of the soul. “For the sensual part is purified in aridity, the faculties are purified in the emptiness of their perceptions and the spirit is purified in thick darkness.”

The perception that God has turned against the soul is common to those who have acquired this acute awareness of one’s sinfulness. Most eloquent in expressing this condition is the prophet Jeremiah:

I am the man that see my poverty in the rod of His indignation; He hath threatened me and brought me into darkness and not into light. So far hath He turned against me and hath converted His hand upon me all the day! My skin and my flesh hath He made old; He hath broken my bones; He hath made a fence around me and compassed me with gall and trial; He hath set me in dark places, as those that are dead for ever. He hath made a fence around me and against me, that I may not go out; He hath made my captivity heavy. Yea, and when I have cried and have entreated, He hath shut out my prayer. He hath enclosed my paths and ways out with square stones; He hath thwarted my steps. He hath set ambushes for me; He hath become to me a lion in a secret place. He hath turned aside my steps and broken me in pieces, He hath made me desolate; He hath bent His bow and set me as a mark for His arrow. He hath shot into my reins the daughters of His quiver. I have become a derision to all the people, and laughter and scorn for them all the day. He hath filled me with bitterness and hath made me drunken with wormwood. He hath broken my teeth by number; He hath fed me with ashes. My soul is cast out from peace; I have forgotten good things.

This is not a state of unbelief in God, but rather a conviction that one has somehow earned divine indignation. In vivid detail, Jeremiah describes a state very similar to the second dark night that St. John of the Cross expounds.

These pains and afflictions, nonetheless, will yield even greater blessings. St. John says the purgation must last years if it is to be truly effectual, though there are moments of respite, sweetness and peace in the loving contemplation of God. These periodic assurances are foretastes of the healthy state to which these trials lead. St. John observes that spiritual experiences have the quality of seeming eternal, so that the spiritually afflicted soul believes his trials were never end, while in the moment of respite, he thinks his spiritual blessings will not cease. This is because the spirit cannot realize a thing and its contrary simultaneously, so pure is its apprehension, compared with the sensual soul.

St. John opines that a similar situation obtains among the souls in Purgatory, who, despite their awareness of their faith, hope and charity, nonetheless derive no consolation from these, since it appears that their afflictions will never cease.

…they cannot think that God loves them or that they are worthy that He should do so; rather, as they see that they are deprived of Him, and left in their own miseries, they think that there is that in themselves which provides a very good reason why they should with perfect justice be abhorred and cast out by God for ever.

This may sound strange to modern ears, accustomed to the error that faith and hope require the conviction that God actually loves us. While there is a sense in which God loves all of creation unconditionally, there is another sense, in the order of justice, in which He is properly said to love the just and hate the wicked. The harmonization of God’s omnibenevolence with His justice is a great theological problem that can easily lead to error, but the sound method requires that we uphold both truths without compromising either. In modern theology, it is common to emphasize one at the expense of the other, resulting in a sugar-coated universalist Christianity where even the reprobate are not hated in any sense. The truer path can be found in Orthodox theology and in the Western mysticism expounded by St. John, where God is experienced as loving or hating the soul depending on the state of the soul itself, rather than any change in God. To those in union with God, the Divine Presence is experienced as light and warmth, whereas to those opposed to God, the same Divine Presence is experienced as a raging fire, and the same brightness that illuminates the blessed darkens the reprobate soul. The proficient soul undergoing the trial of spiritual darkness and affliction perceives by these that he is in opposition to God. This grieves the soul tremendously, for despite his intense love for God, he perceives that God has justly afflicted him, and will continue to do so forever. The erroneous perception that this affliction will be eternal comes from the nature of spiritual experiences. St. John, at this point, does not address the question of whether God actually “hates” the soul being purged, or if this is just a false perception. Nonetheless, he does not consider this perception to be contrary to the virtues of faith or hope, and we may at least say that God certainly “hates” the evil that is being purged from the soul. We must remember that we can speak of God “loving” or “hating” in the order of justice only equivocally, as there is no affection in God, who is unchanging, but rather this “love” or “hate” speaks of the relation of the “loved” or “hated” object to the unchanging God.

To explain this apparently paradoxical state of purgation, where the soul perceives itself as evil and accursed by God precisely when it is being brought closer to union with God, St. John invokes the metaphor of wood consumed by fire, which he will return to repeatedly to explain various aspects of this purgation. Just as fire acts upon wood to transform it into itself, so God acts upon the soul to bring it in union with Himself. Fire drives water out of the wood, drying it, and then brings out the “dark and unsightly accidents which are contrary to the nature of fire,” before finally giving it the heat and beauty of fire. Similarly, the “Divine fire of contemplative love” purges the soul of its unsightly accidents, making it seem darker and worse than its original state. The divine fire purges deep-rooted evils and vices of which the soul was never aware, but now are visible by contrast with light of Divine contemplation. In fact, St. John notes, the soul is no worse off then it was previously, but now it is more aware of its sinfulness. God indeed abhors this sinfulness—it is no delusion on the part of the ascetic—and as long as these faults persist, the sinner is unfit to be seen by God.

The analogy of fire consuming wood shows that it is the same Divine power that makes the soul arid (deriving no spiritual joy from religious practice), then makes it aware of its own ugliness, and finally unites with it in Divine love. One and the same power causes these seemingly contrary effects, all for the same end of imparting its nature to the recipient. The recipient, however, does not at first realize that these effects come from Divine love, but fears that they come from the weight of his sins. The sins are not the cause of the transformation, but are the object of Divine action.

St. John derives some other results from his analogy, the most speculative of which is his inference that the souls in Purgatory can only be affected by the fire there by virtue of their sins, until these are finally purged. St. John assumes, in agreement with Eastern Orthodox mystics, that the fire of Divine contemplation is one and the same with that of judgment. This would mean that the fire of Purgatory is not merely punitive, but a necessary cleansing so that the soul may be united to God. We should note that, in the second night of the soul, as for the souls in Purgatory, we are dealing only with venial sins or any attachment to sin that, however slight it may seem from human perspective, is utterly incompatible with the holiness of God. The Latin word for sin, peccatum, means flaw, and its use in moral theology can range from heinous crimes to any moral imperfection.

The soul’s experience of the second dark night varies, as at some moments the fire of Divine love is too hot for the soul to appreciate the good work that is being wrought, though it may be granted respite from time to time, and then see that these afflictions are actually enkindling the soul in Divine charity. By analogy, when a blacksmith withdraws his work from the furnace, he can better appreciate what has been accomplished so far.

St. John also notes a progressive increase in the intensity of suffering in each successive period of affliction, as the more inward and intimate parts of the soul are purged of the more deeply rooted imperfections. Although the soul’s imperfections are genuine and have truly earned God’s rejection, it is not the case that the soul is full of evil, nor that it will never possess the good again, though this seems to be the case. As noted earlier, spiritual afflictions have the character of seeming eternal, as do spiritual joys, and the experience of one does not admit the simultaneous experience of the other. As the soul progresses through successive purgations, it is ever less likely to be self-deceived, and becomes all the more acutely aware of its remaining imperfections, which afflict it all the more.

The second dark night of the soul, in sum, is not a crisis of faith or the entertainment of religious doubt, much less is it anguish at the misfortunes of earthly life, but rather it is a period in which one derives no joy from ascetic practices, and instead one is afflicted by a stark revelation of one’s innermost sins. Apprehending clearly one’s true unworthiness to stand before God, the soul is afflicted by the horror of its own sin, believing itself to be forever removed from divine joy. This delusion results not from a lack of faith in Divine Grace, but from the overpowering nature of spiritual affliction, which does not admit the simultaneous experience of spiritual joy. Despite these torments, the soul is granted respites during which one’s progress can be clearly apprehended. These moments of lucidity allow us to distinguish the second dark night from mere scruples or self-abuse.

In the second dark night, the soul is enkindled with the love of God, the warmth and strength of which comes from God, though the soul assents to it. The reception of this love is facilitated by the fact that the soul cannot take pleasure in any earthly or heavenly delight, so that all the soul’s powers, spiritual and sensual, are devoted exclusively to the love of God. The soul is so entirely devoted to the love of God, that it hungers and thirsts for the satisfaction of this love, without which it is afflicted. The soul is afflicted not only by the lack of spiritual consolation, but also “by the love of God, which enkindles and stimulates it, and, with its loving wound, causes it a wondrous fear.”

While it may seem strange that the love of God might be experienced as an affliction, St. John is quite clear on this point, repeatedly referring to a “dark fire of love” that assails the soul. Nonetheless, even in this darkness, “the soul feels within itself a certain companionship and strength,” so that, ironically, if this darkness were to be removed, the soul “often feels itself to be alone, empty and weak.” St. John claims this is because the soul actually derived its strength passively from the “dark fire of love.” It is not the soul’s imitation of divine love, but God’s love itself that at once afflicts the soul and strengthens it.

St. John earlier compared the dark night’s purging fire of divine love with that of Purgatory, but he does not regard these as similar in nature, only in function. The souls on earth experiencing the dark night are cleansed with the “dark spiritual fire of love,” while the souls in Purgatory are cleansed with “dark material fire.” King David compared the wisdom of God to silver tried in fire, and St. John sees in this wisdom the purgative fire of divine love, as God never grants mystical wisdom without the love that infuses it. This purging divine wisdom is the same that illumines the angelic intellect. The ordinary means of inspiration is like a ray of light from God that shines down through the hierarchy of angels, with less power and brightness in proportion to the intellect’s capacity to receive it. Since man is lower in his spiritual nature than any angel, he receives divine illumination most remotely, even painfully, while an angel of pure spirit would be enkindled in love. Due to the spiritual impurity and weakness of man, divine illumination causes him darkness and distress, and the love with which he is enkindled seems to be an affliction. Only when a man is purified by this same fire of love can he receive divine illumination sweetly as the angels do.

The role of divine wisdom in the dark night is to purge the intellect, just as the will is being purged in order to love only God. The enkindled intellect gradually achieves a mystical understanding that enables the will to develop greater fervor. The intellect passively receives the divine fire of love which grants an understanding that has a life of its own and urges the will toward God. This enkindling of the intellect and will is not sensed by the soul after it has been prepared by the purgative fire, in much the same way that natural fire must first dry out the wood before it begins to heat it. The enkindling of love ultimately experienced by the intellect and will is indeed a great delight, even a touch of Divinity and a beginning of the perfect union with God, as well as an ability to receive divine illumination as the angels experience it. This entry into union with God takes place only toward the end of the purgation, after many trials, though other touches of Divinity, of lower order, might be experienced earlier, usually in the will rather than the intellect.

The enkindling of intellect and will, which St. John finds analogous to light and heat, need not be simultaneous. Sometimes the soul may love without understanding, or understand without the will loving. God may infuse either of these gifts as he pleases, in order to best aid the soul's development. In both cases, the soul receives the gifts passively; it understands by partaking of God's wisdom, and loves by partaking of God's love.

A philosophical problem is presented by the situation where the will is enkindled with divine love, yet without divine illumination of the intellect. The will, by nature, acts freely and posterior to the intellect, yet here the will seems to act not by following the intellect, nor by its own free act, but by passively following the passion of love. In this scenario, divine love enkindles passions in the soul rather than the intellect, and these passions effectively subdue the will, for if a lower affection conceives of a passion, then the will will do likewise. The will loses its liberty in this case, and follows the passion of love. The fact that divine love may work through the lower affections in this way means that the will may be enkindled with divine love even before the intellect is sufficiently purged to receive divine illumination.

The enkindled love of this second dark night is very different from that of the first night, when the sensitive soul was being purged. The love now experienced belongs to the spiritual soul, and though, as we have just seen, this love may still enter through the lower affections rather than the intellect, even then it is acting to purge the spiritual will, for it is in the will that the desire for God is now most keenly experienced. Whereas in the first night God was desired for delightful consolations experienced emotionally, now the soul regards its present emotional afflictions as naught. Instead, the spiritual soul desires God strictly out of recognition of His goodness, and would gladly suffer any emotional anguish to reach God, but the soul knows darkness out of recognition of its own sinfulness and unworthiness before the God it desires so greatly.

At the beginning of this second dark night, the soul does not yet feel this enkindling of divine love, but is prepared by an aridity in which it fears to have lost God and to have been abandoned by Him. This is not to be mistaken for a lapse of faith, but on the contrary, is a recognition of one's own unworthiness before the holiness of God. Even in this fear of losing God, we may see that the soul does yearn for God in some way, until finally it is enkindled. The soul would not be troubled by this darkness or aridity if it knew that this was being worked for the end of union with God. Once the divine love enkindles the soul, it does indeed regard its suffering as naught, and will gladly endure this and much worse in order to be joined to God.

As the will is enkindled and the intellect remains in darkness, the soul boldly accepts its suffering and dares to endure more, though it still perceives itself as unworthy and knows its objective state as miserable and far removed from the God it desires. St. John explains why the divine light does not illumine the intellect at once, but at first throws it into darkness. The supernatural divine light enables the soul to see its own darkness and evil; until this is purged, the soul will see nothing but its own darkness.

Just as the first night purged the sensual part of the soul, so the second night purges the spiritual part of imperfect habits, so that these faculties become darkened and voided of all objects, in preparation for having God as its sole object. No longer can it love art, learning, or even spiritual meditation for their own sake, but it can only love insofar as something is of the divine nature. Until the soul becomes consciously enkindled with divine love, it experiences a temporary disorientation as it no longer delights in other spiritual objects. Even when he is enkindled with divine love, the soul may lack understanding and still perceive that God has abandoned him. Only when Divine illumination is provided, creating the new man in Christ that St. Paul describes, does union with God begin. The intellect understands not by its own power, but by virtue of union with divine wisdom, and similarly the will loves not by its own act, but by union with the Divine. Even the lower affections, such as memory and desire, are changed according to God. At the end of this process, the soul will be no different from a soul in Heaven, for it will be truly in union with God.

God purges all the faculties of the soul by first putting them to sleep or making them arid, so that the soul is no longer hindered by these, but can passively receive the divine love and wisdom that will purge these faculties and remake them anew, now in union with God. The darkness of the soul is not a temptation by which the soul might be lost, but rather a great benefit that enables the soul to ascend to God more securely, without risk of being distracted by other natural and spiritual objects. Thus it would be a great mistake to equate so-called crises of faith or vocation with the dark night of the soul, for here there is no temptation to sin or apostatize, but only a recognition of one’s sinfulness and distance from God.

The dark night of the soul purges all the faculties so thoroughly that not only are they denied the pursuit of natural objects that distract one from God, but even of the pursuit of divine, spiritual objects that are beneficial. The reason for this is that the natural faculties, unpurified, can pursue spiritual goods only in a base and impure way. Thus it is beneficial that the natural faculties be suspended from the pursuit of spiritual goods, so that instead the soul may passively receive from God spiritual goods in a sublime and lofty manner, for which it is necessary that the old man must die and a new man be born in Christ. Any spiritual goods not communicated directly from God will only be experienced in a base human fashion. There are many souls who direct their faculties to God in a natural manner, but this is not to be confused with authentic supernatural divine illumination.

The suppression or blinding of the natural faculties is necessary so God can lead the soul along an unfamiliar path by which it may progress. From the soul’s perspective, it may seem to be losing ground, so if it were still guided by its natural faculties, it would stray from this path of purification. Further, the trial by suffering adds the strength of God to that of man, making his progress more secure. Lastly, the dark night of contemplation immerses the soul in itself, to protect it from all that is not God. It must lose its appetite for all things save God, who is its health.

Ironically, the darkness deepens as the soul approaches God, for the divine nature so thoroughly transcends human understanding, that to approach it means to more clearly apprehend how incomprehensible God is, and thus be more blinded. Although the soul is traveling through increasingly dark waters, he is nonetheless nourished by them, and has a determination to do nothing that it understands to offend God, nor to omit anything that seems to serve God. Though the intellect is in darkness, the soul may still have the love of God.

Since the dark contemplation is communicated without the work of human intellect, it may be regarded as “secret,” as it is hidden from the natural faculties, so they may not interfere with its operation. Not only does the human soul not understand this secret wisdom, but even the devil, regarded as the greatest of angelic intellects, cannot understand it. This wisdom is understanding of the Divine substance itself, which cannot be comprehended by created intellects. Only by union with God can the soul experience this wisdom, but even then it cannot describe it with its own faculties, either by word or by imagination. For this reason, such souls may say only that they are satisfied and tranquil in the presence of God, but are not able to say anything more specific. This is different from receiving spiritual visions, which being received under some sensory species, may be described in sensory terms.

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4. The Ascent to Union with God

Paradoxically, the soul ascends to God through purification precisely by lowering itself through humility. The perfect love of God requires both knowledge of God and of self, hence it requires both exaltation and humiliation.

The ladder of ascent to divine contemplation may be described in ten steps, all of which are propelled by divinely infused love rather than the natural efforts of the soul. The first step is for the soul to languish and lose all appetite for anything that is not God. The second step is to seek God without ceasing. In the third step, the soul receives the fervor necessary to unfailingly pursue the quest for God. In the fourth step, the soul suffers for the Beloved, but regards these sufferings as naught. It is not that the soul seeks its own pleasure in God, but it seeks God for His sake, and desires only to serve Him at any cost. In this step the love of God is so enkindled, that it results in the fifth, which is an impatient longing for God, so that the soul feels oppressed by every moment that passes without union with God.

In the sixth step, the soul experiences its first touches of Divine illuminations. Here the soul is still driven by will infused with divine love rather than contemplation infused in the intellect. St. John, following Isaiah, describes this as an eagle’s flight, whose swiftness is caused by the increased charity in the almost purified soul. The soul does not fail to keep running toward God, so great is its hope, and this determination leads to the seventh step, where the soul boldly and unrestrainedly believes all things and hopes all things, in the words of St. Paul. This is the faith that moves mountains, yet no soul should presume to have ascended this far unless the King has extended his sceptre. Without this inner grace, the soul that presumes to possess such invincible faith would have greatly departed from humility, and risk stumbling back through the earlier steps. To those to whom God grants, however, such boldness is fully justified, and the soul may progress to the eighth step, which is union with God.

The soul, once united with God, holds fast to what it has long sought and refuses to let Him go. Despite this pure intent, in practice most souls lose their hold after a short period of time, and can only return there for brief intervals. If one could remain in this state, it would be heavenly glory, but human desires and distractions prevent the soul from remaining in this state for very long, so that even the prophet Daniel did not progress beyond the eighth step.

The ninth step is that of the soul’s perfection, where the soul burns sweetly in God, as St. Gregory said of the Apostles. Here the soul receives the unspeakable riches of God, and it is the highest the state the soul can achieve while united to corrupt flesh. Those who die in the ninth step ascend immediately to the tenth, which is the Beatific Vision, that direct apprehension of God through assimilation with Him. These select few do not need Purgatory, having already been wholly purged in this life by divine love. Those who experience the Blessed Vision are truly in the perfect likeness of God, not that the human soul acquires divine power, but rather it is like God, and is divine by participation in divine nature.

In the ten steps of this ladder, the soul begins in intellectual darkness, but through divine love, increasingly more is revealed to it, until in the tenth step nothing at all is hidden, by reason of complete assimilation. Thus Our Lord says, “In that day ye shall ask Me nothing.”

The darkness of the night of the soul comes from a human inability to receive divine illumination, but it does not reflect a lack of faith. On the contrary, St. John regards as a necessary foundation in order for the soul to ascend the ladder in the face of a lack of spiritual consolation. Without faith, it is impossible to please God, while with faith, a man may persevere even when Heaven seems closed to Him, leading to the virtue of hope. As faith guards against the devil, so hope guards against the world, regarding its bliss solely in God. Lastly, the soul is brought near to God by charity, which opposes the flesh or love of self.

The three theological virtues not only protect the soul in its trial, but prepare it for union with God. Faith darkens the intellect with regard to natural intelligence, preparing it for union with Divine Wisdom. Hope withdraws the memory from created possessions, and instead sets upon the union of God as its object. Charity annihilates the affections and will for things that are not God, focusing instead upon Him alone. In each of the three cases, the soul must reject natural goods as an end and instead tend toward God, the source of all natural and supernatural good.

The soul journeying “in darkness and concealment” is free from the temptations of the devil (meaning any wicked angel), since his inner spiritual contemplation is detached from his sensual faculties. By sensual faculties, St. John apparently means not only the senses, memory, appetites and cognition (the “sensitive soul” of Scholastic philosophy), but even the intellect and will insofar as these are subject to the sensual faculties. Only after the spirit has been purged of any attachments, either to physical or spiritual creations, does he say that the soul is inaccessible to the devil. The devil can tempt the soul only through its sensitive faculties, and the spiritual faculties insofar as they are influenced by these, so once the spirit is completely detached from the lower faculties, the devil has no power over it. In fact, he cannot even approach it or know what it is contemplating. The soul in communication with God walks securely as long as its lower faculties have no contact with the spirit, explaining the Gospel dictum, “Let not your left hand know what your right hand does.”

Although the devil has no access to this inner spiritual contemplation, he may reasonably infer its presence from the tranquility and repose of the sensual part of the soul. Then he may assault the sensual part of the soul with afflictions and fears, hoping to disturb the higher part. Yet, if the spiritual soul is truly detached from the lower faculties, this assault can be expected to have little effect; in fact, it will often withdraw further from the sensual, through no effort of its own, to the most secure refuge of Christ, impervious to external fears.

Nonetheless, there are times when the devil may still disturb the spirit, even at this stage. Naturally, if the senses are not perfectly detached from the spirit, their agitation can be expected to disturb the spirit. In this situation, the spirit is subjected to the worst horror conceivable, since it is in spiritual communication yet in contact with the sensual soul, permitting the devil to directly assault the spiritual soul, spirit against spirit.

Even when the spirit is securely detached from the sensual, God may show to the devil those divine favors bestowed upon the spirit through an angel. He does this, as in the book of Job, as a matter of justice, so that the good angel and the bad may fairly compete for the soul, and the soul is not exempted from trials and temptations.

Further, just as a spiritual vision is mediated by an angel, so may a demon be given leave by God to act similarly in a false vision. The devil can falsify those visions that come under bodily form or some other figure, but purely spiritual communications cannot be similarly counterfeited, as they have no form. Nonetheless, St. John holds that the devil may present a “similar” intellectual vision that imitates true spiritual visions, permitting the devil to appear directly, spirit to spirit, and afflict the soul with horror. It is not at all clear to what extent the devil may imitate spiritual visions, since it would seem impossible or at least counterproductive for him to give an intellectual vision of the true God. St. John gives no elaboration on how the demonic vision is “similar,” and in most other Catholic works, demonic visions are presumed to be sensual in nature. At any rate, the victim will know soon enough if the vision comes from the devil, for he will show himself and afflict the soul rather than permit it to benefit from spiritual contemplation.

Even in cases when a good angel permits the devil to overwhelm the soul with spiritual horror, this is but a mortification for the soul’s eventual benefit, and the horror is often followed by an even loftier contemplation. The horror of direct confrontation with the devil is something proper to next life, yet those who experience it now are better prepared for the next.

Spiritual contemplation may be interrupted by the devil in the above described cases only when the communication is mediated by an angel. When God Himself visits the soul, communicating with it directly, neither angel nor demon can see this intimate secret. “To this blessing none attains save through intimate purgation and detachment and spiritual concealment from all that is creature…”

The person who passes through the second dark night becomes completely withdrawn into the spiritual part of his soul, so that the sensitive soul seems to be almost a foreign entity. As his contemplation is wholly spiritual, in a sense his soul’s activity has become wholly spiritual. In this perfect contemplation, his spiritual passions and desires are purged just as his sensual passions were purged in the first dark night. The entire soul is finally at rest with respect to its desires, delighting solely in the love of God.

The two dark nights of the soul have thoroughly purged the sensual and spiritual faculties in preparation for union with God. The completion of this dual purgation restores the state of innocence lost by Adam. It has been completed not by human effort, but by the approach of God who touches the soul with spiritual communications. As soon as the spiritual purgation is complete, the soul is united with the Divine Wisdom. Finally, it beholds nothing but God, the object of its love. The soul is said to be darkened in its spiritual faculties (intellect and will) since it gazes not upon any object save God, and this state is achieved not by interior intellection nor by any external light save the love of God. Moved by this love alone, the soul finds perfect happiness in the night.

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5. Summary

We have seen that, far from being a crisis of faith, the “dark night” means following the way of faith, so that the soul is darkened to all that is not God. Yet as God Himself is incomprehensible to the soul by its own power, the soul is at times disconcerted by the fact that it lacks sensual and spiritual consolations, but is not yet united with God. It is precisely the soul’s longing for God, and the perception that God has abandoned the soul on account of its evil, that the soul suffers at first. We recapitulate the journey below:

5.1 The Dark Night of Sense

Novices are deprived of any sensual or emotional comfort from their devotions, so that they may learn to love religious practice for its own sake. This state of aridity is distinguishable from religious lukewarmness, as it results from detachment from worldly desire, and the soul still ardently desires God. In fact, the soul may fear that the disappearance of sensual consolations is an indication he is backsliding and that God has found disfavor with him. This fear is the greatest trial of the first dark night, yet it has nothing to do with doubting the existence or providence of God, but rather fearing God’s disfavor.

Those in the first dark night must persist in prayer, but refrain from imaginative contemplation, instead passively permitting God to infuse spiritual contemplation. As the soul emerges from its initial confusion, the infused contemplation increases the yearning for God, as contemplation is divine love. The soul learns to love God spiritually rather than sensually, and this love becomes independent of emotional consolations or ecstasies.

The first dark night varies in duration, but St. John regards it as merely a stepping-stone toward perfection, raising the novice to the status of a proficient. In deference to human weakness, God may continue to provide sensual consolations from time to time, but as long as these persist, the soul can never progress beyond the first night.

5.2 The Proficient State

A period of time elapses, often years, during which the soul practices the proficient or progressive state. Here the soul finds spiritual consolation far sweeter than the sensual or emotional consolations on which it was previously dependent. This is the mature spirituality of many experienced religious, and it is similar to the state of perfect detachment recognized by Eastern religion. It can result in raptures and trances that affect the sensual soul, but St. John considers these to be imperfections, and indeed regards the entire contemplative state as only a waystation on the road to perfect union with God.

5.3 The Second Dark Night

Some souls, after years of spiritual proficiency, may enter a second dark night in which the soul is purged of dependency on even spiritual consolations. The sensual soul having been subjected to the spirit, it remains for the spirit to be completely oriented toward God and no other desire. It must learn independence even from the spiritual delights of contemplation, so it will be cast into a deeper darkness than before.

Far from weakening in faith, the ascetic embarking on the second dark night must learn to walk by faith alone, as the rational and sensual faculties of the soul are darkened. This darkening is caused by the inflowing of God, which the soul's faculties are ill-equipped to receive. In fact, weak human nature may experience the infusion of God as an affliction. Wisdom beyond the capacity of a student can increase confusion, and so the soul receiving God is in darkness, feeling itself to be impure and incurring God's wrath. Although in fact God is granting sublime favors to the soul with His gentle touch, the weakness and impurity of the soul is such that this seems to be a great affliction or chastisement.

The soul is correct in its assessment of its own impurity, but mistaken in the belief that God is severely chastising him. However, the soul does experience God’s wrath in the sense that he stands in opposition to God insofar as he is impure. This sense of one’s distance from and opposition to God, being spiritual, seems that it will never end. This inescapable perception grieves the soul, who still longs to be with God. There is no questioning here of God’s existence or justice, but rather one perceives one’s own impurity and unfitness for union with God.

Paradoxically, this state of affliction is necessary for union with God, just as fire must dry out the wood before it burns. The dry, blackened wood seems worse than its original state, just as the soul stripped of consolations seems worse off than before. In fact, the soul has not backslid, but is only now more aware of its imperfections. This horror of sin makes impossible the enjoyment of ascetic practices, resulting in a spiritual aridity.

The soul is enkindled with the love of God, like a fire that both afflicts and warms. It is an affliction because the soul is aware of its impurity, yet also provides a “certain companionship and strength,” so that the soul would feel empty and weak without the darkness. The intellect is enkindled and purged by divine wisdom, and the will is purged by divine love. These purgations are experienced first as afflictions, and later as delight. Enkindled with divine love, the soul cheerfully accepts its afflictions, and would gladly endure more, though it still perceives its distance from the God of its desire.

The higher faculties are purged by being put to sleep, so they can passively receive divine love and wisdom. They are denied the pursuit even of divine, spiritual objects, because they can receive these only impurely. The natural man must die and a new man be born in Christ, who communicates God directly.

5.4 Ascent to Union with God

The second dark night may be described as an ascent to God in ten steps. First, it must languish in aridity, desiring nothing but God. Second, it seeks God unceasingly. Third, it receives the fervor necessary for this pursuit. Fourth, it suffers for God, but regards this as naught, as the will is now enkindled with divine love. Fifth, the soul impatiently yearns for God, so that it is afflicted by every moment without union with God.

Sixth, the intellect receives its first touches of divine illumination, though the soul remains driven by divine love infused in the will. Charity and hope increase, leading to the seventh step, unbounded faith and hope. This is the faith that moves mountains, and is received only by divine favor.

The eighth step is union with God, experienced only briefly in most cases. If one could remain in this state, which even the prophet Daniel did not surpass, it would be heavenly glory.

The ninth step is where the soul is perfected, burning sweetly in God. This was the state of the Apostles, the highest possible state while united to corrupt flesh. Those who die in the ninth step ascend immediately to the tenth, the Beatific Vision.

Throughout the second dark night, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity are active. Faith enables a man to persevere even when Heaven seems closed. It darkens the intellect with regard to natural intelligence to prepare for union with divine wisdom. Hope withdraws from the memory all that is created, however lofty, and instead focuses upon union with God as its sole object. Charity annihilates the desire for things that are not God, including one's self.

Insofar as the infused contemplations of the second dark night come directly from God, the devil has no power to interfere. There are some conditions where the devil is permitted to assault the soul directly with horrors beyond description. This affliction is but a mortification preparing for loftier contemplation.

Those who pass through the second dark night have the spiritual soul fully purged. The purified soul gazes upon nothing but God, in whom it finds perfect bliss.

5.5 Modern Usage

In modern Catholic theology, the term “dark night” is often misused to refer to any sort of spiritual aridity, crisis of faith or spiritual backsliding, as if these all found some validation in St. John of the Cross’s work as signs of spiritual growth. In fact, as we have seen throughout, the “dark nights” of St. John presume a strong, explicit faith. There is no point where the ascetic is questioning a proposition of the faith as part of his spiritual progress. The “darkness” comes not from theological doubt, but from the deprivation of pleasant consolations, first sensual, then spiritual. The ascetic still prays, but derives no pleasure from it; he still meditates, but receives no ecstasy. This darkening causes one to believe he has lost God’s favor, not because God is unkind or unjust, much less non-existent, but because of the soul’s impurities, which are now clearly apparent to itself. Even in the worst parts of the dark night, the soul is convinced of God’s existence and justice, but he believes himself to be unworthy and incapable of union with God. He is correct in his negative self-assessment, but mistaken in believing he is being permanently punished, for in fact God is preparing the soul for divine union.

To take a concrete example, the personal writings of Mother Teresa of Calcutta have been invoked as an example of an extended “dark night” lasting over thirty years. This interpretation mistakes the mere fact of spiritual aridity for proof of spiritual progress. Aridity can come from many sources besides the “dark night,” such as weak faith, worldly distractions, and demonic temptation. In fact, aridity usually comes from sin, so that those experiencing the dark night reasonably infer that their condition might be a chastisement for their sins. The novice or proficient undergoing a dark night is distinguished from mere backsliding by the fact that he or she desires God all along, and that God is of course the God of the Catholic faith. Further, the aridity of each dark night is succeeded by a higher apprehension or contemplation of God.

In the case of Mother Teresa’s writings, there are several statements that would seem to indicate positive doubts about the faith at times, without any apparent progress over decades. While it is difficult, if not impossible, to deduce a person’s spiritual state from their writings, it would seem that Mother Teresa was at best a “proficient” according to St. John’s definition, and one who was susceptible to moments of backsliding.[*] While doubting the faith, like all sins, is subject to divine pardon, it would be a perverse misrepresentation of the thought of St. John to include such doubts in the “dark night.” The “dark night” means purging the soul’s natural faculties so it can see and desire nought but God, finding joy in nothing but Him alone. It is a path toward union with God, in which faith, hope, and charity are continually active in increasing abundance. To lapse in faith is diametrically opposed to the divine activity described in St. John’s “dark night.”

The blasphemous suggestion that lapses in faith are signs of spiritual progress comes not from the Catholic tradition, but from existentialist Protestants such as Kierkegaard, who invented such doctrines to alleviate their own scruples. While God certainly allows men to be tempted so that they may emerge stronger and holier, it would be perverse to suggest that He would ever wish someone to lose divine faith in order to bring them closer to Him. In St. John’s theology, as in any sane theology, lapses of faith only move one away from God. On the contrary, it is the natural faculties which must be darkened so faith can shine more brightly. We must be wary, then, of false gospels that would make lack of faith a sort of virtue or sign of strength, in plain contradiction with Christ’s emphatic teaching.


[*] (1/28/2017) The postulant for Mother Teresa’s cause, Fr. Kolodiejchuk, urged that these professions of doubt should not be taken at face value, but as expressing her feelings of desolation. Indeed, while she laments the “non-existence” (absence) of God and claims that she has “no faith,” sometimes in the same passages she matter-of-factly takes for granted the reality of Christ and her commitment to religious duty. It would seem that she lacked faith only as an emotional experience, but continued to assent to the faith with her will.

See also: Message of La Salette | Hesychasm of Gregory Palamas

© 2008 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved.