The Dark Night of the Soul: Reflecting on St. John of the Cross's Understanding of Spiritual Darkness

Books by Bishop Callahan

What is a Christian
Faith of Our Fathers
Deathly Silence
Pray Without Ceasing

St. John of the Cross, a 16th-century Spanish mystic and one of the leading figures of the Carmelite Order, is renowned for his profound writings on the Christian soul’s journey to union with God. One of his most iconic works, “The Dark Night of the Soul,” delves deeply into the experience of spiritual dryness or “darkness” that many encounter on their spiritual path.

1. The Nature of the Dark Night

Contrary to popular perception, the “dark night” isn’t a mere period of suffering or desolation. For St. John, it represents a transformative stage wherein the soul is purified and prepared for a deeper union with God. It’s a necessary passage, stripping away the soul’s attachments and imperfections.

2. Senses vs. Spirit

St. John differentiates between the night of the senses and the night of the spirit. The former pertains to beginners in the spiritual life, where they find difficulty in meditation and feel God’s absence. The latter, a deeper and more intense purification, pertains to those advancing in their journey. Here, deeper-rooted imperfections of the spirit are cleansed.

3. Benefits of the Night

This dark night, while painful, is of immense spiritual benefit. It nurtures virtues like patience, hope, and love. As the soul endures this trial, it learns to rely less on itself and more on God, leading to profound humility.

4. Navigating the Night

St. John offers guidance on navigating this challenging phase. He advocates for patient endurance and complete trust in God’s providence. Importantly, he warns against the desire for spiritual consolations, urging the soul to seek God for His own sake and not for the feelings of spiritual sweetness.

5. The Dawn After Darkness

St. John assures that the dark night isn’t perpetual. It’s a transition leading to the unitive state, where the soul experiences profound union with God. After the purification of the dark night, the soul emerges more free, more open, and more passionately in love with the Divine.

6. A Universal Experience

While St. John’s writings come from the depth of his Carmelite spirituality, the experience of the dark night isn’t exclusive to mystics. Many people, regardless of their spiritual state, can identify with feelings of abandonment, dryness, and interior darkness. Hence, his insights offer solace and guidance to all.

7. Conclusion

St. John of the Cross, through his poetic and doctrinal writings, provides a roadmap for souls experiencing spiritual dryness. His central message is one of hope: the dark night, no matter how daunting, is a passage that leads the soul closer to its ultimate end – union with God.

In today’s world, where instant gratification is sought after, the teachings of St. John on the value of spiritual dryness and purification are especially poignant. The journey might be arduous, but it promises a union so deep and transformative that all the trials pale in comparison.

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