When I began to formally study theology, a few of my friends within the Christian circle offered me a warning. Their argument centered around the idea that Christians should not become too focused on the systematic analysis of the scriptures because such studies might diminish the thankfulness we have for God’s grace and love. I found it strange that many of them thought that the study of ancient languages, church history, and scriptural exegesis could potentially derail my understanding of the foundational gospel message. With their cautionary words, I thought that I might be well-advised to read the works of those who successfully blended systematic theology with a more mystical type of spiritualism. While I could appeal to several theologians who have captured my heart, I find a great deal of comfort in the writings of St. John of the Cross—a man to whom wisdom and humility were bestowed in order that he might perceive spiritual mysteries. St. John was a man who was certainly not driven from his faith despite a depth of university learning.
St. John was a sixteenth-century Spanish priest who served alongside St. Teresa of Ávila, another well-known mystic. St. John and St. Teresa worked toward reforming monasteries, but their efforts were not always well-received. In fact, St. John was imprisoned in 1578 by a group of Carmelite monks who opposed reformation, and they ensured that St. John was tried before a court of peers since the local church had called for reformation efforts to cease. St. John was found guilty and imprisoned until he escaped nine months later. It was during this period of imprisonment and shortly thereafter that St. John penned his untitled poem now entitled “Noche Oscura” or “Dark Night.”
About six years later, St. John wrote a commentary on the first two stanzas of the poem. His treatise is now referred to as Dark Night of the Soul. It runs about one hundred pages, and was first published in 1618, but St. John’s writing retains its popularity even into current times. Perhaps his modern appeal stems from the timelessness of his argument. St. John might tell us that computers and cell phones are diversions that cannot fulfill the inward desire of man to reach God, and such digressions only drive us further from holiness. For the few who seek the narrow path, though, God can bless those individuals with a holy darkness. For St. John, the mind is not able to complete the work of God in the soul. The sensual nature of the soul is capable of learning and appealing to God, but it cannot know the means of achieving union with Him. Only God can perform that work, and He does so through a darkening of the carnal nature of the person.
Dark Night of the Soul begins with a brief explanation of the Passive Night (in which the human soul is passive to the force of God). The soul entering this night has already reached a state of perfection; it is the desired, but often unrealized, hope of the immortal part of man. St. John says that the Passive Night is preceded by the Active Night, and the Active Night is the primary focus of his essay. It is during the Active Night that the soul attempts to contact God using its sensory faculties. God allows this futile act in order to bless man with sweet, spiritual milk which comes in the form of answered prayers, visions, and ecstasies…various manifestations of God’s active presence. Such delights please the soul, and desire for God is further kindled. The soul does not realize that God is nurturing it as a mother does her infant. God will inevitably wean the soul from the sweet milk, and He will require that the spiritual nature of the soul rule completely over its sensual nature. At that point, St. John writes, the soul will either fall away from God or push into a time of purgation. During purgation, God may not often be perceived by the individual. Unfortunately, this period of trial can last for many years and cause some to ultimately abandon their faith.
For St. John, this period is the most important time for the soul. It is when the soul releases its desire for sin. St. John discusses the seven deadly sins in juxtaposition to the seemingly fruitful acts of Christians. For example, he writes that many Christians must be cleansed of their spiritual gluttony and pride, in which they inform others of their piety and are sure to make their spiritual lives known to receive human praise. The Passive Night can never come to those who still seek approval through the sensual soul; therefore, the value of the Active Night is that it exposes the contrary will of the sensual soul which struggles against God’s will. In “Dark Night,” St. John uses symbolism to identify the soul’s sensual nature as a house and the soul’s spiritual nature as a lover. The spiritual nature cannot be freed until the house is quiet: “When this house of sensuality was now at rest—that is, was mortified—its passions being quenched and its desires put to rest and lulled to sleep by means of this blessed night of the purgation of sense, the soul went forth, to set out upon the road and way of the spirit, which is that of progressives and proficients, and which, by another name, is called the way of illumination or of infused contemplation, wherein God Himself feeds and refreshes the soul, without meditation, or the soul’s active help” (Dark Night of the Soul, 46). God does not need for the soul to do His work for Him; in fact, the soul can do nothing but receive the Spirit, and this is its true nature and one desire.
In “Dark Night” St. John metaphorically paints the image of the spiritual soul meeting with her lover, Christ. Though the image is lovely, my analytical side thrives upon the study that the author gives regarding his own work. St. John beautifully captured the great mystery of the soul’s ascent to union with God, but the author was equally adept at scrutinizing the path of deliverance via his Dark Night of the Soul. The desire of those who seek God has changed very little since the first sin. Devout modern Christians share many of the same desires that ancient Hebrews and Christians had; there is still a deep longing to please God. While Jesus has thankfully bridged a gap for Christians, His act does not negate the need for serious study and contemplation about what God wants from us. While I agree that the soul is ultimately fulfilled only when it relinquishes itself into the God who made it, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the difficulty at simply entering the Active Night of purgation. As a busy teacher drowning in a world of grading papers (and as student struggling just to write another paper), I find it increasing difficult to put my own “house” at rest. Perhaps that is ultimately why the writings of mystics set well with my soul. These mystics seemed to have a peculiar ability to cultivate time—time in which they could fruitfully contemplate God—and my own soul thirsts for what seems to be extravagant devotion.
Dark Night By St. John of the Cross On a dark night, Kindled in love with yearnings—oh, happy chance!— I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest. In darkness and secure, By the secret ladder, disguised—oh, happy chance!— In darkness and in concealment, My house being now at rest. In the happy night, In secret, when none saw me, Nor I beheld aught, Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart. This light guided me More surely than the light of noonday To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me— A place where none appeared. Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn, Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the Beloved! Upon my flowery breast, Kept wholly for himself alone, There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him, And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze. The breeze blew from the turret As I parted his locks; With his gentle hand he wounded my neck And caused all my senses to be suspended. I remained, lost in oblivion; My face I reclined on the Beloved. All ceased and I abandoned myself, Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.