The Dark Night of the Soul: Part 44 Mini-Course on Prayer

Editor’s note:  David Torkington continues his series on prayer with the fourth and final section, “From Meditation to Contemplation”.  Read part 43 here, and begin with part one here.


The Mystic Way Part IV

When studying Philosophy I had a brief flirtation with Existentialism. My hero was Sartre who said that “hell is other people” and, essentially, that this is the trouble with the world. However, my own experience in prayer soon led me to agree with someone else whose dialogues I was reading at the time: St. Catherine of Siena, who said that the trouble with the world is not other people, but ourselves. ‘The trouble with the world is me.’ In saying this she was summing up the realization that led so many men and women in the first centuries to flee into the desert to seek the solitude where they would come face to face with the demons within, to defeat them before they were free to contemplate the One who had drawn them into the wilderness. 

The same happens in the spiritual desert that a beginner finds within them when they are led into the Dark Night of the Soul. Here, they soon become dissatisfied with the sparse spiritual food they have to survive on, day after monotonous day. Inevitably they begin to remember the delights of first fervor that not only gave them pleasure in God but strengthened them to resist other pleasures, illicit pleasures too that would draw them away from him. Now, finding themselves in a place of sensual deprivation like never before, they begin to yearn not only for licit spiritual pleasures but for the illicit pleasures too, that with God’s help they were able to resist before. But where was God’s help to be found in this inner wilderness where they now languish? 

It is now in the Dark Night of the Senses that sensual desires of every sort rise up and demand to be gratified. The more the traveler tries to journey on in the seemingly soulless solitude, the stronger these desires become and the more difficult they are to resist. Nor are they always resisted, for, truth to tell, they fall time and time again, and so experience their utter need of God. ‘When you stop falling you are in heaven when you stop getting up you are in hell’ (Peter Calvay).

The Dark Night of the Senses

Perhaps there have never been so many enticing sensual pleasures today than ever before. It is not only every kind of food and drink that could not even be imagined by our spiritual forebears but diversions like the radio, the television, the cinema, smartphones, smart speakers and so many other smart distractions, from pubs and clubs to sports of every sort to watch or take part in. How can we give up all these things to follow an obscure pull that appears to be leading us to God, although God is nowhere to be seen nor experienced? The answer is we cannot, nor is it necessary or even prudent to try to give them all up. What should we do then? Follow this little dictum and the Holy Spirit will gradually do for you what you cannot do for yourself: ‘Don’t give up anything you like or enjoy except when it prevents you from having daily quality time for prayer, come hell or high water, whether you feel like it or whether you don’t’.

True Christian ascetism means doing all we can each day to enable the Holy Spirit to make us perfect, trying to do the best we can, by observing this little principle.  I will return to how to pray in this night later, but first I want to introduce you to another and far more testing night that St. John of the Cross calls the Dark Night of the Spirit, that purifies us more deeply than anything we have experienced so far.

The Dark Night of the Spirit

Because this night comes later, do not think that the first night has to run its course before the second can begin. They continue together, both preparing us through purification for union with God. If, as the gospels insist, God is perfect and we must, therefore, become perfect to be made one with him, then we must be purified for this union in both nights. 

The first Christians did not speak of dark nights but of daily carrying one’s cross, of white martyrdom, and of giving everything up for the pearl of great price. They were speaking of the same journey that came to be called the mystic way, taking place unseen, inside the mystical body of Christ. Here the way to union with God would take place for those sufficiently purified in, with and through the loving contemplation of Christ. Padre Pio said ‘Pray, hope and don’t worry’ because the more we allow the Holy Spirit to purify us then the more his love suffuses and surcharges our love to enable us to do what is quite impossible without him.

The Purification of the Unconscious

In the Night of the Senses, we are gradually purified from all illicit sensual desires that lurk in the subconscious part of our minds. But in the Night of the Spirit, we are purified of the source of these temptations and even deeper and more ingrained evil inclinations and habits that lurk deep down in what Freud called the Unconscious or the Id. It is from here that powerful forces that we rarely even know about determine how we behave. What has been called a Freudian Slip may from time to time enable us to glimpse what is down there and what has to be purified before we can be united to Christ who can alone lead us on to union with God.

 One happened to me almost fifty years ago when my brother told me he was about to marry a black African. In those days many were horrified and said so, while I, the great white liberal said nothing. The truth was, I felt exactly the same as they did but could not say so.

A Sleepless Night

I did not sleep that night. It was not just the realization that I was prejudiced against black Africans, but that I had deceived myself into believing that there was not a shred of such prejudice in me. And if I was able to deceive myself about my prejudice against one particular race, what about all the other races on earth? I deceived myself into believing that I was not prejudiced against anyone, neither race, class, gender, or any ideals or other religion. I did not sleep because I was horrified to face the truth about myself and the deep-seated pride and prejudice that lurked deep down within me, determining how I behaved in the world where I thought myself an enlightened liberal, at least in all matters of irrational prejudice. 

A Ray of Hope

There is, however, a ray of hope. When I came to know my sister-in-law and experienced her love for me that enabled me to love her in return, I found I was no longer prejudiced against black Africans—although I am sure all my other prejudices were still intact. This is the ray of hope, because as a person progresses in the Dark Night of the Soul, gradually in many years, the ray of God’s love does for all the pride and prejudice within us, what my sister-in-law’s love did for one particular type of racial prejudice that was within me. Let me try to explain how the transformation that this brings about within us takes place. 

Every time the love of God envelops us, our love or our will is so absorbed in him that it loses control of what Freud called the censor in us. This censor redacts the truth that we cannot or do not want to face, or others to see, rising from our unconscious. The experience of God’s love so enthralls our will that it is totally absorbed in his love and is, therefore, unable to do anything else than lovingly gaze upon him. The will is no longer able to censor all we hide which rises into the conscious mind where it shames us and scandalizes others. That is why, as the Dark Night continues,  the love that we experience in such prayer as the Prayer of Quiet or Full Union is followed by darkness, as we then have to face the evil in us that rises from the deep. 

Just as a hot poultice draws all the infection out of a boil the heat of God’s love gradually draws out all the evil that infects the nether regions of our personalities.  As this happens, it is the time to confront them, confess them and make reparation for them as best we can, and then continue to journey on, come what may, to allow God’s love, his Holy Spirit, to continue the only purification that can prepare us for Union. 

All must go through this purification to attain union with God. In this life it is called the Dark Night of the Soul; in the next life, it is called Purgatory. No one can avoid it, any more than we can avoid having a cancer removed before returning to full health. Mystical theology teaches how this purification is brought about in this life. Without it, spiritual theology has no inner dynamism, depth or ultimate meaning.


David Torkington is the author of Wisdom from the Western Isles and Wisdom from the Christian Mystics which complement this series.

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