John of the Cross was born into poverty in Spain in 1542. He joined the Carmelite Order of the Roman Catholic Church but quickly became disillusioned by the dogma and yearned for direct experience of the divine. When he was 25, John met St Teresa of Avila, a 52 year old nun busy trying to reform the Carmelite Order, and they formed a passionate spiritual partnership which lasted the rest of their lives. St Teresa’s new movement became known as the Discalced Carmelite Order, or the Barefoot Carmelites.
Officials in Rome were not happy with their reforms, and in 1577 John was captured and imprisoned in a room previously used as a toilet. He was interrogated and tortured, and was only brought out to be flogged in front of the other monks as they ate their dinner. He was starved and his clothes rotted on his body.
In despair, John composed love poems to God, writing them down using a quill and ink smuggled in by another monk who was guarding the prisoner. After nine months of torment, John escaped and found sanctuary in a nearby convent of Teresa’s nuns. Now free, he fell into ecstasy and wrote Songs of the Soul.
Mirabai Starr’s translation of Dark Night of the Soul is the first by a scholar from outside the Catholic Church. It includes the poem and John’s commentary but much of the extreme religious language has been toned down. All references to evil, sin, hell and the devil have been replaced with more psychological terms that reflect our false sense of separation from God. This makes following the text much easier on our modern sensibilities and brings the reality that John speaks of closer to home.
Night of Sense
Dark Night of the Soul is divided into two books: the Night of Sense, and the Night of the Spirit. In the Night of Sense, the soul is stripped of all perceptions of God, while in the Night of the Spirit, all ideas of God fall away. The first night is sensory and the second is spiritual.
John begins his exploration of the Night of Sense with a description of the imperfections of beginners on the path, of which there are seven: spiritual pride, spiritual greed, spiritual lust, spiritual anger, spiritual gluttony, spiritual envy and laziness. He then discusses the signs that you are on the path and have entered the Night of Sense.
In order for the senses to be purified, the soul must undergo certain ‘internal aridities.’ You can no longer find consolation in your spiritual practice but worldly pleasures have no appeal either. You find it hard to think clearly and contemplate God or spiritual realities. The mind is being spiritualised so the analytical mind no longer works like it used to. You find yourself yearning to serve God but feel incapable of doing so. You know you are failing to live up to the highest truth but can do nothing about it.
Finally, John ends with a look at the benefits of the Night of Sense. As you are purged of your imperfections, you begin to lose your attachments. The soul is illumined with divine wisdom and you grow in true self-knowledge. You are filled with humility, compassion and patience.
“We cannot know for certain how long the soul will be held in this fasting and penance of the senses. Not everyone goes through the same thing or faces identical temptations. Everything is given in accordance with the will of God, in proportion to the greater or lesser degree of imperfection each soul needs to purge away.”
Night of the Spirit
During the whole process of the Dark Night, the purgation will come and go. In between, the soul is transported with raptures and bliss. But the purification isn’t yet finished. Once the senses have been purged, the next part of the path begins: spiritual purification.
Having come through the Night of Sense, the soul is now considered an adept, but there are still imperfections and attachments which must be dropped. At this stage you may become distracted by external things, or overflow with imaginary spiritual visions and false prophesies. You may believe God or the saints are talking to you and indulge in displays of apparent holiness, such as trances.
In their spiritual pride and arrogance, these adepts “become bold with God”. They lose their sense of awe and simplicity. The Night of the Spirit is designed to burn all these imperfections away so unity with God may be achieved.
John goes on to explore the real nature of the Dark Night, pointing out that although the soul believes she is in darkness, she is being illumined by God. In the fierceness of that light, the soul sees its imperfections more clearly and so knows how far from perfection she is.
“The joining of two extremes – divine and human – is excruciating. The divine is the purifying contemplation and the human is the soul herself. The divine lays siege upon the soul in order to make her new and to make her divine, stripping her of habitual affections and attachments to the old self to which she had been reconciled. The divine disentangles and dissolves her spiritual substance, absorbing it in deep darkness. In the face of her own misery, the soul feels herself coming undone and melting away in a cruel spiritual death.”
John then explores the Songs of the Soul again in relation to this Night and shows how the soul is supported throughout this process. Despite the torments and anguish, you are never truly abandoned. It is a journey from despair to blissful union, where the soul finally realises the truth: she is free.
This is a spiritually transforming work which I have found both consoling and chastening, but mostly illuminating. It is a book to return to time and again, and to live with as an aid to contemplation. If you find yourself struggling with a Dark Night of the Soul, this book will provide welcome support and inspiration. You don’t need to be Catholic or Christian, or even to believe in God, to benefit from John’s timeless wisdom.
Read the whole poem by John of the Cross: Songs of the Soul