Dark Night of the Soul · Mysticism

The Mystic Way 10: The Dark Night of the Soul

Last time we looked at the experience of Voices and Visions. Here we continue the extracts from Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism to explore the fourth phase of the Mystic Way, as outlined in part 1. This phase marks the final and complete purification of the Self, often called the Dark Night of the Soul:

“The most intense period of that great swing-back into darkness which usually divides the ‘first mystic life,’ or Illuminative Way, from the ‘second mystic life,’ or Unitive Way, is generally a period of utter blankness and stagnation, so far as mystical activity is concerned. The ‘Dark Night of the Soul,’ once fully established, is seldom lit by visions or made homely by voices. … The self is tossed back from its hard-won point of vantage. Impotence, blankness, solitude, are the epithets by which those immersed in this dark fire of purification describe their pains. It is this episode in the life-history of the mystic type to which we have now come.

“We have already noticed the chief psychological characteristics of all normal mystical development. We have seen that its essence consists in the effort to establish a new equilibrium, to get, as it were, a firm foothold upon transcendent levels of reality; and that in its path towards this consummation the self experiences a series of oscillations between ‘states of pleasure’ and ‘states of pain.’ Put in another way, it is an orderly movement of the whole consciousness towards higher centres, in which each intense and progressive affirmation fatigues the immature transcendental powers, and is paid for by a negation; a swing-back of the whole consciousness, a stagnation of intellect, a reaction of the emotions, or an inhibition of the will.

“Thus the exalted consciousness of Divine Perfection which the self acquired in its ‘mystical awakening’ was balanced by a depressed and bitter consciousness of its own inherent imperfection, and the clash of these two perceptions spurred it to that laborious effort of accommodation which constitutes the ‘Purgative Way.’ The renewed and ecstatic awareness of the Absolute which resulted, and which was the governing characteristic of Illumination, brought its own proper negation: the awareness, that is to say, of the self’s continued separation from and incompatibility with that Absolute which it has perceived.

“During the time in which the illuminated consciousness is fully established, the self, as a rule, is perfectly content: believing that in its vision of Eternity, its intense and loving consciousness of God, it has reached the goal of its quest. Sooner or later, however, psychic fatigue sets in; the state of illumination begins to break up, the complementary negative consciousness appears, and shows itself as an overwhelming sense of darkness and deprivation. This sense is so deep and strong that it inhibits all consciousness of the Transcendent; and plunges the self into the state of negation and misery which is called the Dark Night.

“We may look at the Dark Night, as at most other incidents of the Mystic Way, from two points of view:

  1. We may see it, with the psychologist, as a moment in the history of mental development, governed by the more or less mechanical laws which so conveniently explain to him the psychic life of man: or
  2. with the mystic himself, we may see it in its spiritual aspect as contributing to the remaking of character, the growth of the ‘New Man’; his ‘transmutation in God.’

Psychologically considered, the Dark Night is an example of the operation of the law of reaction from stress. It is a period of fatigue and lassitude following a period of sustained mystical activity. … However spiritual he may be, the mystic – so long as he is in the body – cannot help using the machinery of his nervous and cerebral system in the course of his adventures. His development, on its psychic side, consists in the taking over of this machinery, the capture of its centres of consciousness, in the interests of his growing transcendental life.

“In so far, then, as this is so, that transcendental life will be partly conditioned by psychic necessities, and amenable to the laws of reaction and of fatigue. Each great step forward will entail lassitude and exhaustion for that mental machinery which he has pressed unto service and probably overworked. When the higher centres have been submitted to the continuous strain of a developed illuminated life, with its accompanying periods of intense fervour, lucidity, deep contemplation – perhaps of visionary and auditive phenomena – the swing-back into the negative state occurs almost of necessity.

“… The great contemplatives, those destined to attain the full stature of the mystic, emerge from this period of destitution, however long and drastic it may be, as from a new purification. It is for them the gateway to a higher state. But persons of a less heroic spirituality, if they enter the Night at all may succumb to its dangers and pains. This ‘great negation’ is the sorting-house of the spiritual life. Here we part from the ‘nature mystics,’ the mystic poets, and all who shared in and were contented with the illuminated vision of reality. Those who go on are the great and strong spirits, who do not seek to know, but are driven to be.

Rapid oscillations between a joyous and a painful consciousness seem to occur most often at the beginning of a new period of the Mystic Way: between Purgation and Illumination, and again between Illumination and the Dark Night; for these mental states are, as a rule, gradually not abruptly established. Mystics call such oscillations the ‘Game of Love’ in which God plays, as it were, ‘hide and seek’ with the questing soul.” … The theory … that the ‘Dark Night’ is, on its psychic side, partly a condition of fatigue, partly a state of transition, is borne out by the mental and moral disorder which seems, in many subjects, to be its dominant character. When they are in it everything seems to ‘go wrong’ with them. They are tormented by evil thoughts and abrupt temptations, lose grasp not only of their spiritual but also of their worldly affairs. … The health of those passing through this phase often suffers, they become ‘odd’ and their friends forsake them; their intellectual life is at a low ebb. In their own words “trials of every kind,” “exterior and interior crosses,” abound.”

“This sense of a generally inimical atmosphere, and of the dimness and helplessness of the Ego oppressed by circumstances, is like the vague distress and nervous sensibility of adolescence, and comes in part from the same cause: the intervening period of chaos between the break-up of an old state of equilibrium and the establishment of the new. The self, in its necessary movement towards higher levels of reality, loses and leaves behind certain elements of its world, long loved but now outgrown, as children must make the hard transition from nursery to school.

“Destruction and construction here go together: the exhaustion and ruin of the illuminated consciousness is the signal for the onward movement of the self towards other centres; the feeling of deprivation and inadequacy which comes from the loss of that consciousness is an indirect stimulus to new growth. The self is being pushed into a new world where it does not feel at home, has not yet reached the point at which it enters into conscious possession of its second or adult life.

“… In the resulting darkness and confusion, when the old and known supports are thus withdrawn, the self can do little but surrender itself to the inevitable process of things: to the operation of that unresting Spirit of Life which is pressing it on towards a new and higher state, in which it shall not only see Reality but be real.

“Psychologically, then, the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ is due to the double fact of the exhaustion of an old state, and the growth towards a new state of consciousness. It is a ‘growing pain’ in the organic process of the self’s attainment of the Absolute. The great mystics, creative geniuses in the realm of character, have known instinctively how to turn these psychic disturbances to spiritual profit. Parallel with the mental oscillations, upheavals and readjustments, through which an unstable psycho-physical type moves to new centres of consciousness, run the spiritual oscillations of a striving and ascending spiritual type. … The machinery of consciousness, over-stretched, breaks up, and seems to toss the self back to an old and lower level, where it loses its apprehensions of the transcendental world; as the child, when first it is forced to stand alone, feels weaker than it did in its mother’s arms.”

“Such an interval of chaos and misery may last for months, or even for years, before the consciousness again unifies itself and a new centre is formed. Moreover, the negative side of this new centre, this new consciousness of the Absolute, often discloses itself first. The self realizes … the inadequacy of its old state, long before it grasps the possibility of a new and higher state. This realization will take two forms:

  1. Objective: the distance or absence of the Absolute which the self seeks,
  2. Subjective: the self’s weakness and imperfection.

“Both apprehensions constitute a direct incentive to action. They present, as it were, a Divine Negation which the self must probe, combat, resolve. The Dark Night, therefore, largely the product of natural causes, is the producer in its turn of mystical energy; and hence of supernatural effects.

“So much for psychology. We have next to consider the mystical or transcendental aspects of the Dark Night, see what it has meant for those mystics who have endured it and for those spiritual specialists who have studied it in the interests of other men.

“As in other phases of the Mystic Way, so here, we must beware of any generalization which reduces the ‘Dark Night’ to a uniform experience: a neatly defined state which appears under the same conditions, and attended by the same symptoms, in all the selves who have passed through its pains. It is a name for the painful and negative state which normally intervenes between the Illuminative and the Unitive Life – no more. Different types of contemplatives have interpreted it to themselves and to us in different ways; each type of illumination being in fact balanced by its own appropriate type of ‘dark.’

“In some temperaments it is the emotional aspect – the anguish of the lover who has suddenly lost the Beloved – which predominates; in others, the intellectual darkness and confusion overwhelms everything else. Some have felt it, with St. John of the Cross, as a “passive purification,” a state of helpless misery, in which the self does nothing, but lets Life have its way with her. Others, with Suso and the virile mysticism of the German school, have experienced it rather as a period of strenuous activity and moral conflict directed to that “total self-abandonment” which is the essential preparation of the unitive life.

Those elements of character which were unaffected by the first purification of the self – left as it were in a corner when the consciousness moved to the level of the illuminated life – are here roused from their sleep, purged of illusion, and forced to join the grooving stream.

“The Dark Night, then, is really a deeply human process, in which the self which thought itself so spiritual, so firmly established upon the supersensual plane, is forced to turn back, to leave the Light, and pick up those qualities which it had left behind. Only thus, by the transmutation of the whole man, not by a careful and departmental cultivation of that which we like to call his ‘spiritual’ side, can Divine Humanity be formed: and the formation of Divine Humanity – the remaking of man “according to the pattern showed him in the mount” – is the mystic’s only certain ladder to the Real. …”

“This ‘hard saying’ might almost be used as a test by which to distinguish the genuine mystic life from its many and specious imitations. The self in its first purgation has cleansed the mirror of perception; hence, in its illuminated life, has seen Reality. In so doing it has transcended the normal perceptive powers of ‘natural’ man, immersed in the illusions of sense. Now, it has got to be reality: a very different thing.

“For this a new and more drastic purgation is needed – not of the organs of perception, but of the very shrine of self: that ‘heart’ which is the seat of personality, the source of its love and will. In the stress and anguish of the Night, when it turns back from the vision of the Infinite to feel again the limitations of the finite the self loses the power to Do; and learns to surrender its will to the operation of a larger Life, that it may Be. …”

“We must remember in the midst of our analysis, that the mystic life is a life of love: that the Object of the mystic’s final quest and of his constant intuition is an object of adoration and supreme desire. … Hence for the mystic who has once known the Beatific Vision there can be no greater grief than the withdrawal of this Object from his field of consciousness; the loss of this companionship, the extinction of this Light.

“Therefore, whatever form the ‘Dark Night’ assumes, it must entail bitter suffering: far worse than that endured in the Purgative Way. Then the self was forcibly detached from the imperfect. Now the Perfect is withdrawn, leaving behind an overwhelming yet impotent conviction of something supremely wrong, some final Treasure lost. We will now look at a few of the characteristic forms under which this conviction is translated to the surface-consciousness.”

Next we’ll continue to explore the forms of the dark night

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