The Deeper Meaning of the Dark Night of the Soul

By Peter Holleran, via his website
This is an edited version of the longer essay, found here.

When your grief transcends all bounds, it becomes its own cure. – Ghalib

St. John of the Cross was described by Thomas Merton as “the greatest of all mystical theologians”, and his writing stands at the pinnacle of the Christian esoteric tradition. The Dark Night of the Soul, his best-known work, is considered a peerless account of spiritual blindness and its eradication by divine grace, and his astute analysis and advice have meaning and usefulness for many who find themselves in an apparent impasse or quandary on the path.

In essence, the famed “dark night” is considered by some to be a transitional phase between a long novitiate of self-effort to a more direct path of self-transcendence through grace and active endurance, from a time of reliance on the ego to one of reliance on and transformation by the divine, from belief in a personal self to knowledge of its relative unreality, from identification with the ego to identification with the higher Self, and the very non-dual Self of consciousness-being that you are, and from the feeling of the soul exclusively being somehow inside the body to that of the body also being inside of the greater Soul. It brings a thorough purgation where the personal will passes through existential hopelessness and increasingly becomes sacrificed to the impersonal divine will. It works to produce a complete metamorphosis wherein one’s conception of self and world are literally turned inside out.

While it has been written about and experienced on many levels, and may perhaps be considered a metaphor for much of the spiritual path itself, St. John, while somewhat confined to the world-view of his time, specifically states:

Into this dark night souls begin to enter when God draws them forth from the state of beginners – which is the state of those that meditate on the spiritual road – and begins to set them in the state of the progressives – which is that of those who are already contemplatives – to the end that, after passing through it, they may arrive at the state of the perfect, which is that of the Divine union of the soul with God.” (2)

During the course of one’s initial approach to spiritual practice, grace or the apparent fruit of one’s effort often manifests in the beginning with the gift of visions, positive emotions, interiorization of attention, and experiences of subtle energies. These are a glimpse of things to come and a form of incentive for the seeker to persevere in spiritual work. For St. John, the dark night generally only comes to those souls who have completed this initial stage and enjoyed many such “sweets,” which were gifts to wean them from complete attachment to the world, or from a materialistic viewpoint. This is the traditional mystical portrayal of the dark night. It may not be necessary or even appropriate in any individual case, however, for one to achieve complete mystical success in its traditional form–or even pursue it, perhaps–for the essence of the dark night experience to settle into one’s bones, as it were. That is, it may take many forms.

For St. John, however, in order to progress further, these kinds of experiences must fade, and true tests of will, determination, patience, discrimination, and understanding will come to the aspirant, who may then feel as if he has been abandoned, whereas, in truth, this is not so. He is actually being brought to a new stage in which he is humbled, purified, emptied of self-satisfaction, and prepared for a more permanent realization of his essential Self or Soul, wherein he will also be able to perceive things in a divine or universal manner, as it were, rather than a personal or egoic one, which he could not do otherwise as a beginner, due to his inherent ignorance. In this third and final stage, even the world, as well as the personal self, is no longer negated, or even avoided, but is spiritualized or seen as existing in and as God or, in more philosophic traditions, Mind or Consciousness.

We can not say that the classic dark night itself and all of the various stages are required experiences. It is just that they occur, and must be accounted for. However, all will generally pass through a dreaded black vortex, an abyss, or many such passages, to be born again from the ground up.

To summarize, St. John proposes that there are two nights: of sense and of spirit. He says that much had been written of the first, but not of the second – and unfortunately, he died before explaining more than the first three stanzas of his eight-stanza poem on the complete enfoldment of this transforming divine union as he envisioned it. The ‘night of sense’, according to St. John,  can be ‘bitter and terrible’, but it ebbs and flows. It has itself two phases: active and passive. In this night, the soul still does practices, but the divine or Overself or God starts to take a hand in the work of weaning the soul from spiritual consolations, consolations which in turn had earlier begun to wean the soul away from gross pursuits. Some persons, he says, may never pass through either night; others, what he calls the more ‘recollected’ types (which means the more self-introspective and/or more meditative/concentrated souls), will pass directly into at least the night of sense very soon after actively starting on their spiritual way. Of course, karma needs to be considered, too, in regards to what one will or needs to go through. We generally are said to pick up where we left off in a previous incarnation, with different lessons to be learned.

There is still much active work or effort of will and understanding and endurance in this dark night of sense, which is more or less of a correction of desires, cleaning up the act, getting more respectful and humble before the divine, and so on. For some traditional religious persons, he says that this is as far as they can go without falling off the path. They can tolerate some aridity and ebbing of their spiritual experiences, but only to a point, and God accommodates them.

The ‘night of spirit’, on the other hand, while a continuation of the first night of the sense, is entirely a passive infusion of grace, what he calls infused contemplation (i.e., no longer active meditation as such), and the action of grace is largely behind the scenes and imperceptible much of the time to the personality. He speaks of the ‘object’ of our devotion and aspiration ‘retreating’ from in front of us, so to speak, to take up a rear guard as our principle support. It is also characterized as a deep purification to the very roots of the ‘old man,’ often seeming like a ‘cruel spiritual death,’ including in general stripping away of all supports or anything the ego can rely on for certainty – or even for breath! The descriptions he gives go so far as to be ‘horrible and awful’ with extremes of deep pain in body, mind, and soul. The quotes are fairly harrowing and hair-raising. One can easily see this night is much more than just a period of despair and depression, although those are certainly there. But this also is said to only come to souls strong enough to handle it, who have the requisite faith and/or background – or who have ‘signed on for the trip.’ One spiritual master, Sant Darshan Singh, said, “when a saint takes a soul under his wings, he is anxious to compress twenty lifetimes into one; but if we want to pack twenty lives into one we must pay for it.”  That is, the Master, the Overself, God, whatever, hears our prayers, takes us at our word, and assumes a much more apparently active hand in the work, doing what we can not do for ourself in so short a time. Even here there are periods of respite; it is not a constant ‘darkness or ‘down’ period, for most. The soul has periods, albeit short, when it feels more liberated than ever before, with more confidence in God even as it has less confidence in itself.

The more philosophic aspirants, if he likes, may consider all of these experiences as ‘oscillations of conscious clarifying itself,’ rather than as the action of God in the soul; either way, the process has its way.

The revelations of the dark night are essentially what masters mean when they say that “self-knowledge precedes God-knowledge.” Indeed, Teresa of Avila held that “the first mansion of spirituality was true self-knowledge.” We see what we are really made of, in all our human misery, emptiness, and insufficiency, in order to be prepared to then see the awesome grandeur and mercy of God, who is “more the life of the soul than the soul is the life of the body” (de Caussade). We are, in essence, purified of the conceit of the Gnostics, which Ireneus said long ago was that “they seek to become divine before they have become human.” So this sort of teaching has been around for a long time.

St. John appeared constrained to use dualistic, theistic language, i.e., soul and God, and so forth; one could attempt to update and explain this process more non-dualistically, but with some effort and even then perhaps not entirely successfully. In part what this essay tries to do, however, is to interpret this phenomenon in both a traditional as well as a more modern way. For we must not be limited to certain preconceptions derived from a theological model that may not in all case suit us today. Much of it is of a perennial nature, but the stages as depicted hundreds of years ago may not enfold literally or linearly as described.

While for some, then, this night serves to break down what has been termed “wrong crystallization”, wherein the ego has become spiritualized yet remains intact, its greater purpose, it is suggested, goes beyond classic purgation to prepare an aspirant to advance beyond mystical experience itself to that of sahaj, or a lasting enlightenment, in which one not only feels himself as Soul, or perhaps, in more modern terms, Consciousness-Being, but knows its true nature under all conditions, both within and without, and sees the world and others as non-different from ones own self.

Even if one understands this, however, and has had many such glimpses, to become stable in this condition involves an ordeal, as the vasanas or tendencies of egoity are not so easily dismissed. Truly awakening as conscious-being through the portal of the broken-heart makes one more in touch with his humanity – his divine humanity – and all his parts come back to be embraced and known as ‘non-other.’ Thus, a confrontation with ‘shadow’ material may continue long after one’s initial true awakening.

This is an edited version of the longer essay, found here.

(2) E. Allison Peers, trans. The Dark Night of the Soul (Garden City, New York: Image/Doubleday, 1959), p.37

About the Author

Peter Holleran is a longtime spiritual seeker, practitioner and writer, chiropractor and avid cyclist. His purpose in writing is to highlight and explore essential common themes in authentic spiritual paths, to help foster discrimination, faith and unity. He received a B.A. in Philosophy in 1971 and M.A. in Education in 1972 from Cornell University, and D.C. from Palmer College in 1983.

    The doctor of the future will give no medicine, 
    but will interest the patient in the care of the
    human frame, in diet, and in the cause and prevention
    of disease. – Thomas Edison