The Bitterness of The Dark Night

St. John of the Cross shows in The Ascent of Mount Carmel that the soul consists of a sensory part and a spiritual part. The sensory part of the soul involves our senses and physical appetites, for sustenance, pleasure, rest, and so on.  These things are not bad in themselves. But excessive devotion to them–“attachment” in St. John’s terminology–will impede the soul in its progress.

In The Dark Night, our guide seeks to give us an understanding of the spiritual attachments that impede the soul. These attachments occur when the consolation and satisfaction one receives in prayer become the object or goal of prayer. The soul judges its progress by the occurrence of agreeable emotions rather than the growth of real virtue, which requires an arduous struggle. St. John offers sound advice in The Ascent about separating oneself from attachment to good feelings that arise in prayer–weaning oneself from mother’s milk, and preparing for the solid food that makes the soul strong.

A key insight that the saint shares is the significance of aridity. As the soul progresses, sweet feelings and sensations in prayer (consolations) become less frequent and may disappear entirely. The term for this is aridity, or dryness, in which the soul continues to desire prayer and closeness with God but feels no sense of His presence. This must be distinguished from desolation, in which one feels a distaste for prayer and works of virtue and instead is drawn to low and earthly things. English translations of St. John of the Cross don’t always use these exact terms, but the distinction between the two types of experiences is clear.

Many people experiencing aridity for the first time may mistakenly think they are somehow failing at prayer. They might believe that they should try harder to recover the sweetness they formerly experienced. The saint’s insight is that aridity is not a sign of backsliding but of progress; it is exactly that process by which God draws the soul away from childish pleasures to the hard work of purification.  When God’s communication with the soul through the senses and through images diminishes and ceases, then contemplation can begin. In contemplation, God works directly on the soul that continues, in spite of aridity, to seek Him.

St. John of the Cross warns us that the passive night of the senses is “bitter and terrible,” and the passive night of the spirit is even worse. DN I.8.2.  The reason is that the soul feels intensely aware of its own wretchedness, but also is unable to find consolation in any of the created things that it previously enjoyed. The soul experiences intense longing for God but also feels abandoned by God.

Reading this, one might wonder: who would want that? It’s a good question. Perhaps there’s a deeper question underlying it: Do you love God? Not in a comfortable, conventional way, but with passion and longing? Can you allow yourself to be enflamed by His love? Can you call Him “Beloved of my heart”? That is His name for you.  St. John of the Cross shows in The Dark Night that this is a journey of love, beloved seeking Beloved. Only the soul in love will take it.

What we will find is alluded to in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.” Rom 8:18

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.

Rom 8:18


Image courtesy of Unsplash

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