Lessons in the Dark Night of the Soul

Jul 28, 2020

Joseph Parisi, OCDS

A dark night of the soul is a spiritual experience, one in which our insights and aspirations, reasonings and imaginings suddenly are not enough to sustain us and must give way to a less graspable but more complete and total form of togetherness with God. In recent years we have seen the term ‘dark night’ referred to as a description of a life tragedy that causes one to re-evaluate one’s life. We’ve seen the dark night terminology applied to bouts of depression and other mental illness. So, in popular understanding, the term is associated with a deep level of human suffering.

It should be said that not every suffering is night. But any suffering can become night. For it to be night – to be a ‘sheer grace’ in darkness, leading to union – there has to be three elements: 1) an inflow of God, 2) darkness – that is suffering, with the accent on bewildering suffering, and 3) a creative response – faith, acceptance, and trust. For a night to be blessed, at some point there has to be a “yes.”

Let’s begin with the original context and meaning. This may not be the path that everyone is on spiritually, but it is the path that some are on. An understanding of the spiritual dark night can provide affirmation and guidance for those proceeding on this path to knowing God. And it is a path that is primarily one of prayer that can be triggered by an event in life.

St. John of the Cross, Doctor of the Church and co-founder of the Discalced Carmelite Order (along with another Doctor of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila), wrote about the deprivation and loss of certain consolations in prayer as a person moved from a more affective and sensory way of knowing God to a more spiritual way of knowing God – that is the context. However, we do have some common ground to work with concerning the events of personal and psychological crisis popularly referred to as dark nights when relating to people in crisis. All share a loss or deprivation of something that was being counted upon as central to their understanding of self or central to the understanding of their faith. John of the Cross wrote of this deprivation solely within the context of faith, of having the usual supports, and what he thought were meaningful signs of faith removed from him.

John of the Cross spent a period of six months imprisoned in a dark cell. As a priest, he was deprived of many things – Mass, the Eucharist, his books, human contact – and of the things he had found comfort in, even religious items that he held dear – rosaries, etc. John’s faith had to take a turn inward without these supports. In this was born the doctrine of the dark night. So, we begin to understand that a dark night is characterized by the deprivation of things that we previously found of great support and value to our faith.

John uses ‘night’ as a symbol for the obscurity of faith. While knowledge and control are good, we are called to celebrate what we do not know, what we cannot control. The mystics serve to remind us of this. Far from having fathomed the divine, they say, “We do not know.” “Of God himself,” John writes, “nothing could be said that would be like him.” Wrapped in darkness, John came to an understanding of faith that relied entirely on God leading him and not on his own senses or intellect. We say that faith is obscure because God is beyond our way of knowing. God’s ways are not man’s ways. Our way of knowing is limited to our own capacities. Seeking God in this way and, developing this faith in metaphorical darkness, requires great trust and to some extent the surrender of our own desire to make our own path under our own power. Or worse, perhaps we have a sense that we know what there is to know about God, that God has been defined and categorized – this is a place where the Christian life is more about maintenance than transformation; a place of spiritual complacency.

The dark night strips these obstacles from within us. The night makes unusable our human ways of knowing and gives us the opportunity to seek God in a spiritual way. The night removes our reliance on self. The emphasis is not on our forging a way, but on our getting out of the way. Progress will be measured less by ground covered and more by the amount of room God is given to maneuver. ‘Space,’ ‘emptiness,’ are key words; or, as John puts it, “nada.” These spaces are opened up in the dark night. The letting go and the surrender which opens this space within us in a dark night experience is painful.

John’s life experience that triggered this spiritual night was the imprisonment that we mentioned above. For most of us, our experiences will be very different. But all dark night experiences share certain characteristics. A sense of loss, perhaps loss of identity, a sense of powerlessness where previously we felt under control, and a sense of deprivation - being deprived of things that we previously defined as an important part of our lives, maybe even things that are important to our religious lives. The night experience gives us a link to the Lord’s Passion. “Why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46; Psalm 22). It is at this point that we must surrender and fully trust God.

Here we are in the midst of the darkest part of the night, when we realize we can’t rely on that which we previously relied upon. But the night is a bridge – it is the narrow gate. It is Good Friday. We may often turn back from this gate. We may say as the Apostles did, “who can enter”? Maybe there will be another time in our lives when we are strong enough to let go. God is patient. If we enter, we see that there is the faint glow of another light as we approach morning, but a different light, that which is a truer light of God. Hope is what propels us into the night. The humility that grows in the night is our fare on this journey.

Joseph Parisi, OCDS, is the Director of Formation of the Secular Discalced Carmelite Community in Buffalo, NY. He’s currently in the St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry MAPS program and is a candidate for the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Rochester.