The dark night of the soul

Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.

The term “dark night of the soul” within Christianity, describes a spiritual crisis of a person on the journey towards union with God, as described by Saint John of the Cross in his famous poem, marked by a feeling of deep loneliness and desolation. It is currently referenced in spiritual traditions around the world, but it is born in Christianity.

This term actually goes back —in a particular manner— to Saint Gregory of Nyssa, although it is Saint John of the Cross, who gives it a primary significance for the spiritual life and for the mystical experience.

The first verse of the poem narrates the journey of the soul to mystical union with God is translated: “In an obscure night, Fevered with love’s anxiety, (O hapless, happy plight!) I went, none seeing me, Forth from my house, where all things quiet be …” [Underhill, Evelyn. (1974). Mysticism. 12th ed., New York: New American Library. [1930], p.83.] —that is—, the body and the mind, with their normal cares, being silenced. At the commencement of his treatise Dark Night (the Declaración), St. John wrote: “In this first verse, the soul tells the modus and practice in which it begins, as to its affection, from itself and from all things, dying through a true subjugation to all of them and to itself, to evolve into a sweet and delicious life with God.” [my translation] Dark Night of the Soul also describes the ten steps upon the ladder of mystical love, previously described by Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” This Gospel submits one of Our Lord’s resurrection appearances on Easter Sunday. Having lost all aspirations, because Jesus, in whom they had placed their hopes and trust, had been crucified and was now lifeless, the two disciples had been making their way to Emmaus.

Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus wrote about her own experience of the dark night, a phase that was derived from the doubt of the existence of eternity, to which, however, she did not give her intellectual or volitional consent, but rather prevailed by strengthening her faith. She suffered deeply during these prolonged period of spiritual darkness, once declaring to her sister nuns: “If only you knew what darkness I plunge into…!”

Although this crisis is normally transitional in nature, it can also last long periods. The “dark night” of St. John of the Cross in the eighteenth century lasted 45 years, from which he eventually recovered. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, according to letters written in 2007, —may have been the most accredited known case— of this type of crisis, since 1948 almost until her death in 1997, she suffered, with only brief moments of moments of respite. [David van Biema. Ed. Beyond Blue. 2007. Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith. Beyond Blue. Available at: https://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/beyondblue/2007/08/mother-teresas-crisis-of-faith.html [Accessed March 5, 2021].

The Fr. Benedict Joseph Groeschel, C.F.R., a friend of Mother Teresa’s for a major part of her life, declared that the darkness had begun to leave her towards the end of her life. [Groeschel, Fr. Benedict (September 9, 2007). EWTN Sunday Night Live, ed. «The Mother Teresa I Knew» (RM).]

Jesus Christ could also have experienced such a crisis, when he pronounces my God, my God, why have you abandoned me? On the cross, before dying.

While this spiritual crisis is usually temporary, it can last for a long time. The “dark night” of Saint John of the Cross in the 1500’s lasted for 45 years, and from which he finally recovered.

Whilst the Dark Night of Saint Teresa of Calcutta, whose name in religion she selected in honor of Saint Teresa, “may be the most substantial case in history”, having suffered from 1948 almost until her death in 1997, with only brief interludes of relief, according to her letters.

During the Dark Night of the Soul the crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, exaltation and then sat at the right hand of the Father. It can happen at any time in life. God will remove everything from your life, even the good, to bring something better, preventing us from living in mediocrity, to bring value to our life. The Dark Night of the Soul is one of the most powerful stages of healing that an individual can work toward and overcome.

So what actually happens during a dark night of the soul?

A period of spiritual aridity is felt, the presence of God ceases to be felt in our lives, to the extent that our devotion and desire to pray reach an alarming decline, as an emotional winter begins to unfurl before us.

It is a devastating experience whilst at the same time privileged through the very life of the soul. One feels that God has left you enveloped in an intellect darkness, the will becomes arid, a memory without memories and your affections immersed in constant pain and anguish.

How does a dark night of the soul occur?

Deep down, what God wants is for us to reflect and deepen to the point that love for Him becomes an act of complete will, an “I want to be with you without conditions.”

The objective of this is not to nullify the emotions, but to purify them and, from there, to channel them towards a living, lasting experience, for life.

How does one overcome the dark night of the soul?

At the same time that God allows a series of moments to pause our schemes, which are often closed and exclusive, He offers us, as we have already seen, the consolation of the sacraments, of prayer and, as if that were not enough, He is in charge of placing people in our way upon our journey these people know exactly how to accompany us. A sort of God pre-scheduling.

During these spiritual dark night’s, God, will also occasionally grants us some relief; But the soul will immediately feel plunged into darkness until it enters the last phase of the life toward perfection, which is the transforming union.

The first and most important step is to hold on to that faith. I guarantee it’s easier said than done. It will be the lighthouse which will cast a light upon our tenebrous path.

We must be clear that God always is, and always will remains at your side, ever present and the bond one has with Him, instead of being affected, will reach an even deeper meaning.

We must know that if we feel anxious, disquieted or think that we are undeserving, or that we have failed, well that is only to be expected, it is a sign of growth and maturity in both one’s human and spiritual condition.

Do not ignore prayer or the sacraments believing that they are worthless, because on both points these are means which enable us to persevere in the midst of any crisis which God has sanction as an aid for us to achieve a more concrete faith. Our full potential, our own form of ascendancy both physically and spiritually with a warranty from God, so to speak.

We should always seek advice in spiritual direction and find a spiritual advisor for our journey. At the end of the day, after the “dark night” has come and gone “the sunlit day” follows, this is when the fruits begin to be gathered.

Typically for a believer in the dark night of the soul, consistent spiritual disciplines —such as prayer and lucid and dedication in God—a suddenly seem to lose all of their courage and impetus; Traditional prayer then starts to become extremely onerous and unfulfilling for an extended period of time during your “dark night.” You may feel as though God had suddenly abandoned you. And your prayer life is now a chore which will quickly crumble away into dust. It is important nevertheless to resolve this as quickly as possible, however, you have to take on board that if you have doubt that it does not amount to abandonment, in fact there is a strong biblical tradition of someone with a great deal of doubt before God. King David in Psalms 13 [Prayer for Deliverance from Enemies], 22 [Plea for Deliverance from Suffering and Hostility], and 44 [National Lament and Prayer for Help], he had undergone profound suffering because of his doubt and this caused him great anguish as he stood before God.

More than just causing permanent desolation, a dark night is viewed by mystics and others as a blessing in disguise, so that the individual is bare (dark) of spiritual ecstasy which is associated with acts of virtue. Although the individual can for a while decline acts of virtue, it may actually cause him to becomes even more virtuous, as he is being virtuous less for the spiritual rewards (ecstasy) already obtained but even more so to have a true love of God. It is this purgatory —a purgatory of the soul— which carries purity and union with God.

You are all in my prayers as I hope I would be in yours. Benedicite et pax.

6 Comments

  1. I am grateful for your blog, a recent discovery. I do wonder about placing St John of the Cross (1542-91) in the 18th century. Or was there another one of that name? Anyway, a continuing thank-you. Stat crux dum volvitur orbis.

    1. Thank you Roger, a typo I assure you, we are rushing to re-type and post all of our past articles again, but it’s tiresome and thus some errors are made, which I’m grateful to have highlighted by our readers.

  2. Dear Fr Ugo Maria
    I thank you for your dark night reflection. Yes.
    As my family has descended even further into hell, I ask your continuing prayers, please.
    A long haul ahead, even when we are freed… How long?
    I continue to pray for you and hermitage life, as indeed, I continue by the grace of faith in hermitage.
    How many years now have we prayed for each other!
    Carol McD
    Australia

    1. Sister, it is so great to hear from you. I trust and pray you continue to be in good health. We recently suffered a grave data loss hence the empty website, nevertheless we are rebuilding it slowly. I think we have prayed for each other for the last 2 years if not more. How is Oz at the moment, I trust all is well. I am and remain your brother in Christ. Blessings

      1. Way longer dear Brother, the years fly, though a single day can be fast or slow.
        How is your health now?
        Better than your IT issues, I hope. And your energy?
        Our family problem is a father’s 100% desertion of his 2 beautiful pre-teen daughters, financial concerns not yet resolved too. Very tough for their mother being mother-father that is 100% care, with some family and friend support. Next hearing, Holy Thursday. ‘Love one another’, we pray for our children. All I can do is pray and support phone, long-distance, ~80 miles.
        At least we in hermitages are pretty well protected from the big national virus and economic issues, huger there than here, but still not good here, either.
        I hope the three of you are in Lent communion of community…
        We pray on… and for the world in all her beauty and need…
        In brotherhood and sisterhood
        Carol

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