The Dark Night has a precise and rich context. Its focus lies on God’s innovating activity upon the soul destined for transformation. The soul remains in spiritual darkness, passive yet docile and responsive to the divine touch.
By contrast, the dark night of the soul focuses on the individual self and one’s particular trial—any trial—that causes sadness, agitation, turmoil, or distress in one’s life. It has a one-dimensional perspective—the self.
Moses and the Divine Darkness
In the Book of Exodus 20, Moses approaches the dark cloud where God dwells. This is a metaphor for his journey into the dark of night where it is impossible to see. Darkness is a symbol for the encounter with God who is incomprehensible. Here Moses encounters God in the darkness only to be enlightened by that very same darkness.
Put another way: Moses’ eternal progress is the movement from human light to divine darkness. The vision of Moses begins in the light. But as he becomes more perfect, he is led by God into the darkness where he is enlightened.
Thus the life of prayer and contemplation is represented paradoxically as a journey from light to darkness. It is only through this maze of darkness that the soul can reach God who is beyond all intellectual comprehension. To remain in one’s own light is to die. To walk through the darkness where God dwells is to live in the light.
St. Gregory of Nyssa (d 394), one of the Eastern Church Fathers, used Moses to exemplify and develop a symbolism of darkness. His 1Life of Moses is considered the crowning work of his mysticism. Gregory was followed by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagate (d 5th-6th c) who became the major resource for the study of the divine darkness.
The Dark Night Proper
The Dark Night, the title of a poem and treatise on prayer, was written between 1578-85 by St. John of the Cross, the great Spanish Carmelite saint, mystic and poet (d 1591). It complements his treatise, The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, in which the soul learns to love God by pulling up and rooting out his or her vices. Whereas vices puff up the ego, the love of God scours the ego clean.
The Dark Night is a metaphor describing the mystical union between the soul and God in prayer. In this dark night, the soul is detached from all that is not God, undergoes privation of light but remains on the road to darkness because it will lead to the light. Thus John builds his systematic exposition of the spiritual life upon this metaphor.
The dark night comes not at the beginning of one’s journey to God. It usually happens when souls have entered the unitive way, that is, when their wills and hearts are united in perfect harmony with God’s.
History has proved that God consistently sends trial to the souls who seek perfection, but lay persons and consecrated men and women experience different dark nights suited to their different vocations. The biographies of saints as well as the masters of the spiritual life are in agreement.
In The Graces of Interior Prayer, Fr. A. Poulain, S.J. tells us who he likely ones are to receive these trials. “And as persons who are leading a purely contemplative life are not obliged to undergo the arduous labors the active life entails, God sends them interior crosses by way of compensation. And then they feel these crosses more keenly, being more thrown back upon themselves” (400).
It appears that Mother Teresa is an exception to this rule. Her life serving the poorest of the poor was not just active. It was arduous. The work day of the sisters is usually between ten and twelve hours of manual labor. Yet the Rule of the Missionaries of Charity requires them to spend at least two hours in prayer and contemplation every day in addition to other exercises—the Office, Examen, and spiritual reading. Formed and guided by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, these sisters are true active contemplatives.
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The Dark Night and Passive Purification
The Dark Night is essentially an experience of infused contemplation. One cannot ask for it; one ought not ask for it. In The Dark Night, the purification is accomplished by God and not by the will of the individual who could never accomplish this task. John describes this metaphor: A mother weans her child away from the sweetness and consolation of being nourished at the breast, and of having her child experience its own independence away from the mother. This purification is accomplished by the mother and not by the child. Passive purification.
The dark night first affects and purifies the individual’s spiritual senses. These are: spiritual pride and avarice, spiritual lust and anger, spiritual gluttony, envy, and sloth. Persons succumb to spiritual gluttony, for example, when they seek sweetness, delight, and satisfaction in prayer, striving more to savor the sweet experiences rather than the desire to please God. Spiritual sloth delights in spiritual gratification, but when the soul is told to do something unpleasant, it remains lax.
The first and chief benefit of this dark night of contemplation is the knowledge of self and of one’s misery and lowliness but also of God’s grandeur and majesty. The second is the purification of the spiritual faculties: the intellect, the will, and the memory. John compares this experience to a fire consuming a log. In both books, the soul does little more than dispose itself for the divine action.
Here are the first two stanzas of the poem anticipating the explanation of Books One and Two:
One dark night,
Fired with love’s urgent longings
--ah, the sheer grace!—
I went out unseen,
My house being now all stilled.