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Dark Night of the Soul

The Dark Night of the Soul is a process of spiritual purgation.  The most authoritative writings on the subject come from two Catholic saints: St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa d'Avila.  John of the Cross was a Carmelite monk who lived in the 1600s in Spain.  His  two main works on the subject are "The Ascent of Mount Carmel" and "The Dark Night."  St. John wrote about the Dark Night because he came to realize that the phenomenon was much more common than previously thought.  He wrote that the Christian spiritual life is divided into three stages:  Beginner, Proficient, and Perfect. 


The Christian starts the spiritual life as a Beginner.  In this stage, the person first learns to encounter God in prayer and to live a better life by trying to follow the words of Jesus.  As the person's walk with God deepens, the beginner slowly matures and draws closer to God and his fellow neighbor.  Many will progress and experience periods of extremely lush pray with God whereby the person will feel profoundly close to God and loved by Him.  This will alternate with periods of mild aridity where this great feeling will dissipate and God will not feel as close.


Whether it be due to lukewarmness or the allure of society, status, power, or wealth, most people will not advance beyond this stage.  However, for those Christians who develop sufficient spiritual maturity and who commit themselves more fully to God and to the harder but happier path of love, God will draw them into the Dark Night of the Soul.


According to St. John, the Dark Night of the Soul is divided into two sub-nights.  The first and lesser night is called the Dark Night of the Senses.  The second and greater night is called the Dark Night of the Spirit.  The two Nights are encountered sequentially with a person not entering the second night until after successfully completing the first.  Upon entering the first Night, a person is called a spiritual Proficient:  Upon entering the second Night, a person is called a spiritual Perfect. 

Multnomah Falls shroaded in Mist

Dark Night of the Senses

The purpose of the Dark Night of the Senses is to purge the soul of its imperfections in prayer and to infuse a new method of prayer – contemplation.  While the spiritual Beginner may view themselves as spiritually advanced because of their lush prayer life and perceived closeness to God, the truth is that this condition is much like an infant receiving milk from its mother.  A Christian Beginner is profoundly happy and content when the “warm fuzzy” emotions flow through their spirit.  But they are also prone to complain or fall away from God and/or the Christian life when the warm feelings stop.  The imperfections of prayer relate to the vices of pride, spiritual avarice, lust, anger, spiritual gluttony, spiritual envy, and spiritual sloth. 


God purges these imperfections of prayer by changing the way how the person prays.  He does this by leading the soul into an intensely arid desert of persistent dryness.  This dryness will utterly shock and horrify a person who has` become accustomed to a prayer life of lush pleasantries.  The duration varies depending upon the person and the grace that is necessary to effect the change.  It typical lasts about a year but can last as long as ten years.  God effects the change by preventing the person from praying the old way and leading them to pray the new way.

This first Night feels like an incredibly dense fog that has rolled in.  This "fog" feels like it absorbs all prayer from reaching God.  Souls will feel isolated from God.  They know intellectually that God still loves them, but they emotionally feel abandoned and alone.  The truth is that spiritual Proficients are actually much closer to God now than when they had been Beginners with their lush prayer life.


Whenever the person tries to pray the old way, he will experience a psychic discomfort in the mind.  The more intensely he tries to prayer, the worse the "pain" gets.  In this manner, praying in the old manner is squelched.  During this Night, God provides very rare but brief periods of lush prayer to help prevent discouragement.


This dichotomy in prayer presents a conundrum whereby the soul wishes to pray but does so only feebly.  To best resolve this issue, St. John strongly recommends that the person continue to have prayer time.  However, instead of praying the old way, he recommends that they quietly place themselves in the presence of God and sit – remaining focused on God but not trying to overtly pray with words.  This advice is folly for the Beginner but is sage advice for the Proficient.


Just as the soul cannot cause himself to enter the Dark Night, he also cannot bring himself out of it.  Both require an action of God.  And as with any worthwhile, difficult task, the soul that exits this state does so with a deep and profound gratitude towards God for this most happy and blessed grace. 


The spiritual defects of prayer have been removed and the soul now has access to contemplative prayer.  The Proficient once again feels the loving embrace of God.  He prays but no longer seeks spiritual consolation He prays solely out of love for God.  Mystics refer to the original method of prayer as meditative prayer.  Contemplative prayer is a grander, superior method and typically involves few words, if any.


The above description is the normative way a soul experiences the first Night.  St. John of the Cross also mentions one or two alternate methods which appear to be less austere but more prolonged. 


Most people who become spiritual Proficients never sufficiently advance to the next level.  Regrettably, the cares of the world, distraction, and vanity hamper spiritual progress.  However, for those happy few who heroically live the Law of Love and continue to advance along the path, God will eventually call them into the Dark Night of the Spirit.  While the laity are certainly open to this grace, spiritual Perfects are usually found among the ranks of monks and nuns.


Dark Night of the Spirit

The Dark Night of the Spirit is far more rigorous and involves much more austerity and suffering than the first Night of the Senses.  Whereas the purpose of the first Night is to remove imperfections of prayer and to infuse a new method of prayer, the second Night purifies the rest of the person’s life of evil and sin. This greater Night typically lasts about ten years, although it can easily last much longer.

Based on the writings of St. John of the Cross, the second Night uses the same general principles as the first Night.  However, because this mortification and purification involves the person's entire life, this second Night involves considerable pain and suffering.  Upon exiting the Dark Night of the Spirit, evil and sin no longer holds sway over the soul.  Consequently, the person can now love God unfettered by sin, and the soul experiences a profound sense of joy, gratitude, and peace.

If you're interested in learning more and reading the works of John of the Cross and Teresa d'Avila, we've included the following links where you can purchase their writings.  For Teresa d'Avila, her most popular works are found in Volume II.


Purgatory and the Dark Night of the Soul

Christians who are reading this will notice that the Dark Night of the Soul sounds remarkably familiar to the Christian doctrine of Purgatory.  The reason for this similarity is that the Dark Night is essentially Purgatory on Earth. 

According to the doctrine, Purgatory is like an antechamber of Heaven where people go if they are destined for Heaven but aren't yet suitable for Heaven-at-large.  It's where people go to wash their robes and make them white in the blood of the lamb (Bible, Revelation 7:14, Quoted out of context yet still very applicable). 


The issue is that Jesus can forgive our transgressions against him and others, but our sinful habits often remain despite his forgiveness.  These habits may not be as severe in the afterlife, but the entrenched ones will likely remain for many of us.  These entrenched habits and attitudes need to be purified for "nothing unclean shall enter [heaven]" (Bible, Revelation 21:27).

While the effects of the Dark Night and Purgatory are the same, Saint John of the Cross states that the soul who experiences the Dark Night rather than Purgatory is much more pleasing to God. Why?  Because the Dark Night demonstrates a much deeper love.

On a Dark Night . . .

The following poem was written by St. John of the Cross circa 1578 AD.  It pertains to the soul's experience as it moves through the Dark Night of the Soul.

One dark night.

fired with love’s urgent longings

– ah, the sheer grace! –

I went out unseen.

my house being now all stilled.


In darkness and secure,

by the secret ladder, disguised,

– ah, the sheer grace! –

in darkness and concealment,

my house being now all stilled.


On that glad night

in secret, for no one saw me,

nor did I look at anything

with no other light or guide

than the one that burned in my heart.


This guided me

more surely than the light of noon

to where he was awaiting me

– him I knew so well –

there in a place where no one appeared.


O guiding night!

O night more lovely than the dawn!

O night that has united

the Lover with his beloved,

transforming the beloved in her Lover.


Upon my flowering breast,

which I kept wholly for him alone,

there he lay sleeping,

and I caressing him

there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.


When the breeze blew from the turret,

as I parted his hair,

it wounded my neck

with its gentle hand,

suspending all my senses.


I abandoned and forgot myself,

laying my face on my Beloved;

all things ceased; I went out from myself,

leaving my cares

forgotten among the lilies.

                            – Saint John of the Cross


Banner photo by Kyle Johnson from

Waterfall photo by Cierra Loux from

Foggy mountain photo by Vincent Guth from

Sketch of Christ Crucified by Saint John of the Cross courtesy of Wikimedia

Dark road photo by Michael Mouritz from

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