The Night of the Spirit
Presence of God – Pour forth, O Lord, into my soul greater love and greater courage, that I may willingly accept Your purifying action.
The difficult and bitter purification called the night of the spirit is necessary to extirpate the roots of imperfect habits. The purification of the soul begins with the night of sense, which, by putting the soul into obscurity and depriving it of all sensible consolation, frees it from attachment to creatures and to material goods; but this night is completed only by the night of the spirit, which, annihilating the soul in its spiritual faculties, succeeds in destroying in it every imperfect habit. St. John of the Cross remarks very appositely that after having passed through the night of sense, “there still remain in the spirit the stains of the old man, although the spirit thinks not that this is so, neither can it perceive them” (Dark Night of the Soul, II, 2,1); these stains are so deep and hidden that the soul has difficulty in recognizing them.
Consider, for example, one who is detached from creatures and earthly goods, advanced in prayer and virtue, a soul, therefore, who has already gone through the stages of the purgative and illuminative ways; nevertheless, when put to the test, it is easy to discover in it a certain attachment to its good works–works of the apostolate, exercises of penance or devotion–so that if obedience or the service of its neighbor oblige it to leave these works or substitute others for them, the soul is troubled, offers a certain resistance, and only with much reluctance does it succeed in submitting. This happens precisely because there are still within it the roots of imperfect habits and, above all, those of pride and egoism, whence spring all the other faults and imperfections. Of what use is it to suppress faulty actions if their roots remain in the spirit? Cut off only superficially, these roots, sooner or later, send forth shoots in a new direction.
No one can be freed from the roots of his faults without passing through the painful night of the spirit. Comparing this night with the night of sense, St. John of the Cross says that the difference between one and the other “is the difference between the root and the branch, or between the removing of a stain which is fresh and of one which is old and of long standing” (ibid). Although the operation is very arduous and painful to undergo, it is nevertheless indispensable, because the stains of the old man are removed only “with the soap and strong lye” of the purgation of the spirit, without which the soul “will be unable to come to the purity of divine union” (ibid).
“O my soul, when will you be delivered from your passions and vicious tendencies and changed for the better? When will the root of all evil be dried up within you? When will every trace of sin in You be effaced? Oh, if only you would love your God ardently! If only you were indissolubly united to your Sovereign Good!
“Good Jesus, tender Shepherd, my sweet Master, King of eternal glory, when shall I appear before You without stain and truly humble? When shall I truly despise all that is of earth for Your love? When shall I be entirely detached from myself and all things? For if I were really free of all worldly attachment I would no longer have any will of my own, nor would I any longer groan under the yoke of my passions and ill-regulated affections; I would no longer seek self in anything. The lack of this absolute, total detachment is the only real obstacle between You and me, the only thing which keeps me from taking flight freely toward You. When, then, shall I be despoiled of all? When shall I abandon myself without reserve to Your divine will? When shall I serve You with a pure, humble, calm, serene spirit? When shall I love You perfectly? When, after receiving you into my heart, will my soul unite itself delightfully to its Beloved? When shall I leap up to You with tender and ardent desire? When will my negligence and imperfections be absorbed in the immensity of Your love? O my God, my life, my love, my sole desire! My treasure, my good! My beginning and my end! My soul longs for Your tender embrace, it languishes and faints with desire to unite itself to You, to be held close to You by the bond of a sweet, holy and indissoluble love! What have I in heaven? What do I desire upon earth? The God of my heart, the God who is my portion forever!” (Bl. Louis de Blois).
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Art: Dan Burke’s graphic on “The Three Ways” from his post “Longing for the Face of God“. Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, mirror from open source material.