Through the Dark Night of the Soul:
A Poem by St.John of the Cross on Using Our Afflictions for Greater Spiritual Growth
By Tim Gebhart
We all face crippling hardship at some point in our lives. The future might seem hopeless with no way out with everything in our lives falling into disarray for extended periods of time. The 16th-century Spanish Christian mystic, St.John, described these periods in the Christian faith as going through “the dark night of the soul” which was the title of a poem he wrote about the deep hardships we face in life and their purpose. As he described it, the dark night of the soul is a time when we are meant to go through a spiritual crisis to reassess ourselves and our values and notions about life with the ultimate purpose to break us of our ego and draw us closer to divinity.
The poem, “The Dark Night of the Soul” is divided into four parts.
The first two parts describe the night of the senses in which we are purged of our false desires and attachments. The second two parts detail the process of transforming our notions, memories, and natural understandings of the world into higher wisdom and pure faith. When the dark night of the soul comes our way, if we choose to accept its challenge, our transformation will be such that it will be a rebirth or an awakening of our true self.
In the nearly 30 years in my own life that could easily be categorized as “the dark night of the soul,” I have come to realize that the intensity of pain and the emotional turmoil with all of the depression, disquiet, and trial I have endured are not to be avoided, but analyzed, studied, and dissected. It is easy, and it might be a natural response to avoid diving deep into ourselves and the hidden pain. We have our phones, entertainment, the company of others, busyness, and millions of other things in this buzzing modern world we may habitually seek to distract us from facing our intense emotions and deeply hidden turmoil squarely.
Facing our inner worlds with our notions, habits, and base desires squarely could be the most difficult and trying path a person can set out on, but if we choose to not distract ourselves, dive inward, and begin the spiritual journey towards virtue, that is embarking on“the dark night of the soul.”
At any rate, St.John’s poem “The Dark Night of the Soul” shows us that our emotional suffering, if we can dig deep into it and not turn away from it, can help us grow to become more content and centered with ourselves and our ability to overcome hardship. In fact, studies have shown that how we view suffering and stress can have a dramatic effect on whether our bodies will cope biologically in a harmful or in a beneficial way. Likewise, St.John would argue that the intense emotions of loneliness, hopelessness, depression and the trials we face may, if we choose, become a blessing.
The Night of the Senses
In the first two sections of the “Dark Night of the Soul,” St.John describes this as a process of reorienting our desires and senses from the material world, to that of a longing for divinity. Our worldly desires and habitual ways of viewing the world often prove so hard to break, that the only way to make us aware of their existence is to throw us into prolonged periods of disarray where we may lose everything time and again until we become exhausted and humbled, with our normal worldly dreams and aspirations laid to waste as we throw our hands up in surrender.
In a shattered state, if we choose to take the spiritual path, we inevitably look to the Divine and higher wisdom for guidance on how to deal with the matter. This points us towards a virtuous life and helps us see the true benefits of living in that way. We may be guided to a virtuous life by experiencing the worst treatment from others and be put in detestable environments that could reflect our own inner immorality and indulgences in our minds. Our own base desires and thoughts might also be heightened to a degree that they might bring us great shame. This, as St.John put it, is to cleanse one’s self from the “inner poverty of spirit”. These trials are the first step on this journey.
In this phase of the journey, our souls know only suffering as the world starts to lose its appeal. We are coaxed into a yearning for purity and divinity as we see the failings of the human condition and want to transcend it.
“The soul takes it as a happy chance to be broken from the bonds of its lower self” though outwardly, little might noticeably change, small shifts in thought raise oneself up little by little.”
~ St.John, “The Dark Night of the Soul”
With our worldly attachments weakened, we slowly live more in tune to the divine nature of the cosmos and its manifestation within us. St.Augustine lays out this process succinctly in his statement, “let me know myself oh Lord, and I shall know you.” We, bit by bit, shed our worldly desires. They are replaced with inner contentment as we no longer find pleasure in base desires, but instead align ourselves with more transcendental desires and virtues. Ultimately, we become what we align ourselves with.
“[A] great benefit derived by the soul from this purgation of sense is a profound knowledge of self.”
~ Father Garrigou-LaGrange, on “The Dark Night of the Soul”
St.John of the Cross was a Carmelite friar who spent his life studying theology and philosophy in 16th century, Spain. In addition to writing “The Dark Night of the Soul,” he wrote a supplemental poem entitled “Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom.” The poem is an allegory of a soul portrayed as a bride in search of a groom. The groom is an analogy of Jesus Christ. (Public Domain)
The Night of the Spirit
The most harrowing and difficult journey is the night of the spirit. Few people can fully pass through this phase as it tests us to our core. The suffering we endure is intensified to bring us to a greater understanding of our emotions. We dig into them to find that they really have no substance. We may find that in our everyday world, people live their entire lives solely in the pursuit of satisfying their emotions and lower desires. Through this process and realization, our old selves are nearly completely undone, as St.John described it, we pass from the natural to the supernatural.
In this passing phase, St.John said we will feel bitterly alone, unable to confide in others. We won’t find pleasure in life, and it may feel like we are completely lost in the world. At this point, we may come to realize we can turn to no other person for help. We are left to strengthen our inner spirit through faith and discernment alone. The world will in effect run counter to everything we will value at this point. Until we transcend our own emotions and rise above them, it will be a living nightmare in this in-between state. St.John in his poem described this transformational stage as such, “This “purgative contemplation” causes the soul to feel like an outcast, “of enduring a kind of living hell,”
In all of the scenarios above, suffering is the catalyst that calls upon us into a state of reflection or action. If we lived a life without suffering, we would never learn, mature, or strengthen ourselves. We would never find the impetus in a carefree existence to look within and find out who we truly are and develop our character.
In this process we are purged and purified like iron in a blazing smelter, removing all impurities, thus making us more refined and aligned with the divine. Our normal modes of reasoning will be replaced by a higher wisdom, and our desires will be only on aligning ourselves more towards compassion, higher beauty, and truth.
“United with divine love, it no longer loves in a lowly manner, with its natural strength, but with the strength and purity of the Holy Spirit; and thus the will does not operate humanly in relation to God. The memory, too, was changed into eternal apprehensions of glory. And finally, all the strength and affections of the soul, by means of this night and purgation of the old self, are renewed with divine qualities and delights.”
~ St.John, “The Dark Night of the Soul”
St.John goes into great depth and detail on the journey of the dark night of the soul and the many pitfalls and experiences we may encounter in it. Above is a very brief summary of his writing. When I encountered this poem, the journey he outlined seemed all too familiar. As I looked back on my past, I have found I created habits unwittingly to try to avoid at all costs to look deep within. St.John reaffirmed the value and necessity to not run from that pain.