The Dark Night of the Soul
edited: Friday, March 01, 2002
By Theodore J. Nottingham
Posted: Monday, November 19, 2001
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A teaching from the Spanish mystic John of the Cross on the feeling of abandonment by God.
Have you ever felt empty and abandoned, not just by people, but by God? Unable to feel the way you once felt, unable to experience joy, unable to pray? These are symptoms of a condition called by centuries of spiritual teachers "the dark night of the soul." Those of you who know these symptoms only too well ought to take heart at the mere fact that this condition is not unique to your situation.
This "night" is a specific stage along the path of spiritual development. Not only are you not alone in this experience, but it is quite possibly a sign that you are moving forward in the direction toward which your heart is yearning.
One of the great teachers on this subject is the Spanish mystic, poet and monk, John of the Cross (1542-1591). He wrote some of the most beautiful poetry ever penned in the Spanish language and then authored entire books as commentaries on each stanza.
John of the Cross said the following about the dark night: "Even though this blessed night darkens the spirit, it does so only to impart light in all things. And even though it humbles us and reveals our miseries, it does so only to exalt us. And even though it impoverishes us and empties us of all our possessions and natural affections, it does so only that we may reach forward divinely to the enjoyment of everything in heaven and on earth, all the while preserving a general freedom of spirit in them all."
As in all spiritual insights, these ideas require the reconciliation of opposites in order to be understood. According to the mystical tradition, the darkness which is so oppressive to us can turn out to be light itself. The desolation of the soul becomes a purification from selfishness and desires in order to clear the ground for the reception of greater wisdom and joy. It can develop a new ability to perceive and understand: through unknowing we come to truly know. These paradoxes are much more than mind-bending sayings. They represent the essence of the human experience of divine reality. We can never hope to know the creative force of the universe with our tiny minds, nor can we understand the depth and breadth of the purpose of life in its objective totality. This is why faith is at the center of spiritual teachings. Not faith as adherence to a belief system which is passively accepted, but faith as a powerful, courageous opening of the heart and mind beyond the realm of the senses.
It should be no big secret to thinking persons that life cannot simply be taken at face value. If the sum total of existence is fully explained on the six o'clock newscast, then we confine ourselves to a narrow and essentially meaningless view of why we are here. Most of what we see on the surface of life is little more than chaos. Yet something within us senses that there is a greater mystery behind it all. Fine art and music, or a glorious sunset can often strike a chord that carries us beyond the mundane insanity of daily life. The same can be said for our suffering and sadness. Those of us who have cried out in prayer for help or who are plagued with desperate loneliness must open themselves to the possibility that they are being heard and answered, but not as they expect.
To journey with perseverance through the seeming endlessness of such dark times will lead to another shore. The very acceptance of these unacceptable times is part of the answer. Maturity of character, release from self-absorption, new depths of courage eventually give birth to another self. This is a self that understands in ways that the mind cannot grasp, that has gone out of itself in order to find itself, and that sees what other eyes cannot see. This is the self that comes from the deep running river of the soul, no longer from the surface persona we know so well.
We have to face the fact that life is not meant to be a banquet of satisfactions for our particular interests. We are here for a much nobler purpose, one that links us with creation as a whole. It is the sense of being isolated entities that causes a great deal of our dysfunction and sorrow. As we claim our true worth as children of the universe, we recognize the self- sacrificial aspect of our purpose here.
We are not on this earth merely to gratify ourselves or to have every little passing wish come true . We are here as beings endowed with higher consciousness and willpower for the very specific aim of being useful to the purposes of our Creator. Just as a parent has the absolute obligation to care for his or her child, so must we care for the beings (human, animal, vegetable) placed upon our path and, in so doing, spread harmony and healing to the world around us. If we do not, if we plant ourselves squarely on our own acre of self-interest, then our days upon this planet will have been wasted.
However, in order to be able to become participants in the care of the world, we must maintain our link with our ineffable Maker. This we cannot do as long as our selfishness, self-gratification, and ignorance stand in the way. We must be empty in order to be filled, say the mystics. Filled with what? The awareness of the holiness of life. The preliminary emptying is the dark night of the soul. When our reason can no longer make sense of what is taking place, when we have to surrender ourselves into invisible arms that don't seem to be there, then we become empowered with a consciousness of deeper reality that nothing can ever take away from us.
Spirituality has been described as the degree to which we are in touch with reality and the dark night is the process of going ever further through those degrees. It is true that many people suffer from despair that leads nowhere and that has no transforming value. Such sorrow leads only to bleakness and an emptiness that is not fertile with the Presence of God. In this case, a person must pray for and find those who can help them turn this grief into new understanding.
The fact is that every human experience can be fuel for wisdom and if there is any message that religions and metaphysics have taught us down through the centuries, it is that there is always cause for hope! Someday we will each be able to say: "Death, where is thy victory?"
Then we will see from a new perspective all the sufferings that caused us such anxiety and hopelessness. The dark night of the soul teaches us to know through unknowing, to see in the darkness, to find meaning in meaninglessness, and union in solitude. It is the mystery of mysteries, the deepest secret of all religions, and the very core of what it means to be human.
To accept our pain, our mortality, and say "yes" to life, opens onto a transcendence that frees us from it all. The dark night refers to the times when it seems that we are down for the count, when nothing can lift us up, when there is no help, no hope, no way out. Yet the mystics of all ages make it very clear that this is precisely when we are asked to hope more than ever. This is precisely when we are being worked with most closely.
We must get beyond our senses and our natural inclinations if we wish to enter the supernatural dimensions of spiritual awareness. Sometimes this requires that all the lights be turned out, that we walk alone in the dark, in the night of uncertainty and confusion. A friend once told me that it was when circumstances had shattered him that he truly encountered the reality of God. In his despair and brokenness, he nevertheless felt himself mysteriously held up by a compassionate force. Having gone to the heart of hopelessness, he found there an inexpressible Presence that came to his aid and kept him going.
Since then, that Presence has made itself known to him in more vivid ways. According to the classic spiritual tradition represented by John of the Cross, "the purifying and loving divine light operates within us as does fire upon wood which transforms the wood into itself." The idea expressed here is that acceptance of spiritual suffering results in a spiritual activity that leads to transforming union with the Source of our being. John of the Cross tells us: "In order to arrive at being everything, desire to be nothing."
These are difficult teachings indeed and demand great strength of character. But so does living rightly on this planet. If we choose to be more than a slave to our every impulse and seek the dignity of being a child of the universe capable of witnessing the wonder of life and of participating in its care-taking, then we need to be grounded in something other than our own desires and satisfactions.
This is where the dark night can be useful to us: it can create new foundations made out of patience, perseverance, and a faith in the ultimate goodness of the universe which nothing will be able to destroy. Certainly it means sacrifice and acceptance of pain and insecurity. But this is what creates a spiritual being who can care for the unlovely and put up with the twists and turns of existence until the time when it enters into an even greater darkness which, some say, turns out to be the most wondrous light of all.