Dark night, a few thoughts

I just read St. John’s Dark Night of the Soul.

It is an inspiring read and instills hope. But it only adds to the already heaping book stack of “what we should do”, and is not a real personal road map of experience, what man really needs. A “My” dark night would have been a better prefix, and would perk up our ears a little better. A “How I stumbled, and what I did to recover” chapter would have been nice.

It also never investigates the exceptional cases and various plights of those who are by choice of life destined to be legitimately immersed in the sensual. What comes to mind are those in marriage who are to express sexually their obligations, and how much the instrument of the sense plays in importance in the marriage. Marriage being one, there are probably many more cases. The point is, here there is no option but to retain the sensual through the first night, and the soul can not be purged of it, at least if one were to retain some semblance of a normal marriage. Given that lost chapter I mentioned, we would see the struggling John, and perhaps he would have some advice.

One comes away with the feeling John’s position simplified his journey through the dark. Reading what is called for success, how well we see it coincidentally suits a cloistered environment, with it’s lessor distractions, and the ready to inspire members (eventually) of a like endeavor. St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises still recommend a similar environment and methodology. I don’t think the intent is to deliberately select candidates who are in a favorable position to embark on the exercises, but the recommended environment we continually find them in says so. One would think the statistics would show a great proportion of those who had made the journey had come from that pool of candidates who managed to come from this environment, who’s to say. I don’t fault John. If he hadn’t gone through this extensive elucubration we would suffer a great loss of knowledge.

Last but not least, there remains the factor of the Human Christ. His personal dark night of sense had at least one stumble. Either he was exempt from the processes and phases that would set him back a notch, or he did stumble on occasion in his passions, ready to resume again from this failed point onward. I speak of his anger at the money changers, or, fear in the garden. There may be something I’m missing here which I don’t understand.

On conclusion the book is indeed inspiring and John’s personal revelations will still help me to understand the mechanism of the soul. I had not known there was such an interplay involved with it.

I look around at my environment and wish it were the same. Today I think I witnessed two hip hugger “butt” jeans, and a “G” string, and the lady at the store could just a well have worn just a bra. I could readily select from any number of sexually explicit tv programs. My point is this is a typical environment today as we move closer to the end times. It would be a great help for once to get inspired by one of us, one who eventually has been chosen for that marvelous election and knows our problems and understands our situation. John had none of this situation. He was wrapped in a society that was very religious. The women clothed to the neck and for the most part set on domestic responsibilities. There was a climate of traditionalism much more than the remnant we see today. Purging of the souls first night sensual trappings is much less of a task than it would be today.

We need a “This is how I solved it” Saint for our times. Not a work based in the third person, rather, one of personal experience would be a great help.

BTW: Peers edition is more distracting than a help in MHO.


I think you miss the point of The Dark Night . . . “we” don’t solve anything. It’s “His” work. That’s the whole point of contemplation and the passive purifications of sense and spirit. Without the experience of infused contemplation, this work will probably be more confusing than helpful. With the experience of infused contemplation this work gives as much “personal insight” as we’d ever need . . . more, even, when we consider that not all will be brought to the depths he experienced and described so eloquently.

Now, if you’re looking for a more “we” oriented work look to St. John’s Ascent of Mount Carmel. This work is all about self denial and the practice of virtue . . . the things that are within our means to do. Asceticism (Ascent) is the foundation for mysticism (Dark Night).

Just my two cents,

Dave :slight_smile:

While this may not be precisely what you are looking for, May I suggest a book tha thas helped me tremendously.
It is called "The Fulfillment of All Desire", a Guidebook for the journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints, by Ralph Martin.
I simply cannot recommend it highly enough.
He takes us on the journey, the road to Holiness, using his own text plus ample insights from seven Doctors of the Church including St John of the Cross, St Catherine of Sienna, St Francis de-Sales and more.

I do understand though your desire for a book by a “Modern”, “Secular” mystic who can tell how to handle things in todays world.

Perhaps some wise person here on the boards knows of one or two to recommend.


Firstly, can I just say, Andy, that you write compellingly. I don’t think I’ve replied to one of your posts before but I would commend you in using this gift of God generously and wisely for His glory.

A brief word on my background: as a husband, father and layman, I find myself drawn almost equally to the Benedictine and Carmelite traditions while reminding myself that my vocation is to the munus regale, the kingly office of service in the world, but not of the world. Where do these traditions meet? In the figure of Elijah, in his cave, listening for the still small voice.

From the Celtic, monastic tradition I take the idea of ‘white’ martyrdom. That is to say, unlike the red martyrdom that involves literally shedding one’s blood, the white variety involves a complete self-giving, through renunciation of the usual ‘goods’ of life (property, autonomy and sexuality), a purification of and through the eight main passions or thoughts that separate us from entering the Blessed Trinity fully as our promised land. To my mind, this is what St John is talking about. For the faithful religious, this takes place through the Paschal mystery of Christ working directly in the soul through the sacraments and prayer.

Yet, for the lay person there is a third way, which we could call 'green martyrdom’. This involves a daily struggle and ascesis in and through our daily involvements in the world. One simple example is that we lay people don’t need to get up in the middle of the night to pray the night office because our children and spouses wake us instead! If I want to get serious about the spiritual life, sooner or later, one way or another as T.S. Eliot says, echoing St John:

To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy

The lay vocation takes the same route of purgation, illumination and union that St John describes but it comes about indirectly through our involvement in each other’s lives and struggling in our work in the world. This was a point made forcibly by Pope John Paul II in his latter years.

Now, for exempla, I’d suggest you look at the life of Ven Louis Martin, father of St Therese, at Blessed Charles of Austria (the emperor during the first world war), Ven Georges Vanier (governer general of Canada), and at Blessed Prince László Batthyány-Strattmann %between% (I know, great name eh?). The letters of Venerable Louis Martin are available and these letters tell his life personally and directly.

Hi Andy -

Two more book thoughts to go along with “The Ascent of Mount Carmel:”

First, from the point of view of asceticism there’s always “Spiritual Combat.” It’s not a modern book . . . but then again neither are the issues you cite in your post. :slight_smile: This book tackles those issues head-on with some very practical, timeless advice.

Second, from more of a (quasi) mystical point of view one of the better books I’ve read lately is “Brother Lawrence and the Russian Pilgrim: Praying Ceaselessly.” This is a very modern interpretation (it begins with a Monty Python takeoff) of two all-time classic works about praying in all times and circumstances. The key point that the author brings out very well is that the “battle” you cite is one that takes place and is fought in our mind . . . we just don’t necessarily recognize it as so.

So we must relentlessly take charge of the thoughts, images and emotions we allow to enter and control our minds . . . which simply take us away from the presence of Christ we seek. We recall our minds from these harmful distractions in a continual effort to “un-forget” Him. This ongoing interior battle with the goings-on in our mind are the demons St. Antony described from the desert, Dante’s imps, St. Teresa’s wild horses . . . and what this author calls living in the monkey house. Read the book and you’ll see what I mean.

Finally, I second the thought of the previous poster that asceticism and mysticism meet in the still small voice we find in “Elijah’s cave.” These two books will help you fight the battle against all those voices of our false self that seek so hard to draw us away from His very presence.

When we learn these simple truths from personal experience, we will know with out a doubt that Christ walks with us in simple presence even in the midst of the troubling circumstances you describe. And when you’re with Him in prayer . . . you will learn to hear His voice . . . and just “know” how you should act.

Hope this helps,
Dave :slight_smile:

The Dark Night is the sequel to Ascent to Mt Carmel. That (Ascent) is the book that describes the soul’s journey in combatting the temptations of the senses, so no, while the first couple of lines of the poem (Dark Night) do refer to that “dark night of the senses” the poem, and the book that explains the meaning of the poem are about the second dark night, the dark night of the soul. That refers to a soul who has already undergone initial purification of the senses and overcome sensual tempation for the most part, although they will still fall from time to time. Remember John of the Cross wrote for nuns and men religious for whom he acted as confessor and spiritual director, not for new converts and those undergoing the initial conversion from sin to new life in Christ.

the Dark Night of the soul refers to the experience of the soul who has passed through the stage of initial purification and is now in the illuminative way, and being prepared by God for the final stage of union with God. It speaks of the pain the soul undergoes who has had that initial conversion and “honeymoon” period with God, and now after taking such delight in all spiritual things, finds herself deprived of the consolations of closeness and comfort from God.

It is not addressed at the the issues OP raises, so naturally will not benefit someone who is now struggling with those issues. It is the guide primarily for the soul who can no longer benefit by her own strengths, works, activities, devotions and strivings, but must learn to trust entirely in God. It is definitely not for the beginner. I have been meditating with the first lines of the first stanza–which has the longest explanation–for many years, and hope to progess to the 2nd stanza sometime before I die.

The best explanation in today’s language of the metaphors John uses are the Spiritual Journey and Journey Toward God, by Fr. Benedict Groeschel

Hey andy, i think you missed some of the points. It helps to read st john at least five times before you venture a guess at what he is really saying. I will give you my best understanding of what he means, if it helps.

  1. the dark night is a universal experiance of people who have been called to a spiritual state, and so it is not as “personal” as you are thinking it to be. the essence of the dark night is to purify the soul through faith hope and love. The result is a detachment from all things- not that one does not experiance them, but rather that one experiances them rightly. this means that the will is ordered properly. for example, one still likes pizza, but refrains from loving it. (which, as we all know is a true miracle in the spiritual life becuase it it humanly impossible not to love pizza without divine assistance:rolleyes:) so what we end up with is the proper ordering of the passions, not a dismissal of them (like stoicism)
  2. the human Christ (properly speaking Christ’s Human Nature) did not stumble. Christ expressed the virtue of rightious igdignation at the money changers and then expressed the virtue of filial obediance in the garden (submitting even his self-preservation insticts in his humanity to the will of God).
  3. the dark night is compatable with all states of life. because it properly orders what the will loves, the will ends up loving only what God wills, and that would include the state of life to which God has called the soul and the nuances to that. God does alot of the work. just because it is difficult or improbable doesn’t make it impossible or unheard of. the retention of the sense faculty happens, you don;t stop being human because you become holier. it simply means that your senses are less important to you than the love of God and that you use them to serve God and honor him.
  4. do not confuse the night of the spirit wit hthe night of the soul. there are two nights. (actually, one night divided into three parts). in the night of the spirit, the souls loves of spiritual things is purified and re-ordered. the senses must be re-done prior to this.
  5. if a layman understands john through therese’s little way, it is possible for him to attain a great degree of sanctity in this life. BUt you must understand both. a monastary is not the only place John’s words apply, it is actualized in the “real world” in a different way.
  6. i agree, a “this is how I solved it” for our times would be a great benefit. I am curious though, would anybody read it and take it seriously?

Hi Andy -

I don’t know if you’re still around but I thought I’d chime in one more time to add to the good comments thusfar. :slight_smile: What I’d like to do is focus on the interplay between St. John’s “Ascent of Mount Carmel” and “Dark Night” because I think his division of things can sometimes bring confusion to readers . . . at least on first exposure.

St. John is often associated with the mystical descriptions of the “three ages” of the spiritual life: the purgative way (aka beginners), the illuminative way (aka proficients) and the unitive way (aka perfect). While this is true, I think what he’s really known for are the “crisis points” that mark the transition between these stages . . . what he called Nights.

And here the confusion begins.

In St. John’s teaching, there are two nights: that of sense . . . which pertains to what we see, hear, feel, taste and so on. And that of spirit . . . which has to do with our spiritual faculties of intellect, will and memory. All of this (sense and spirit) must be purified of all that is inordinate before union with God can come about.

Complicating matters there are two aspects to each night: the active (the purifications WE undertake) and the passive (the purifications GOD works in us). St. John originally conceptualized all of this to be treated in one work begun as “The Ascent” but the reality proved to be to ambitious. Hence “The Dark Night” . . . to complete that which was left unfinished in “The Ascent.”

Here’s how the two works fit together:

The Purgative Way
Active Night of Sense: Book 1 of “The Ascent” which describes all our sensory appetities and how they become inordinate and how we choose to enter this night through self-denial and mortification. I think this book would be most helpful for addressing the issues in your OP. :slight_smile:

Passive Night of Sense: Book 1 of “Dark Night” which describes the various imperfections of beginners (note how lust is treated in a spiritual manner rather than sensual), the three signs depicting the onset of contemplation (which is the most important aspect of this night) and how we are to cooperate with His contemplative work and so on. This night marks the passage to the illuminative way.

The Illuminative Way
Active Night of Spirit: Book 2 of “The Ascent” describes how our intellect is purified of imperfections through OUR response to HIS contemplative gifts . . . both natural and supernatural. This book is marked by St. John’s treatment of extraordinary gifts such as visions, locutions, revelations and so on. Book 3 of “The Ascent” shows how our memory and will are purified through OUR response to HIS contemplative gifts through control of the hold our thoughts, opinions, imagination, feelings and emotions have over us. The practical aspect of this is praying without ceasing . . . sometimes called the Practice of the Presence of God.

Passive Night of Spirit: Book 2 of “The Dark Night” . . . this is St. John’s masterpiece, aka the Dark Night of the Soul when the soul brought to contemplative life is tried in very profound ways by the removal of all consolation and/or sense of God’s presence and tormented by the “gift” of self-knowledge . . . our wrechedness (even when profoundly holy) in relationship to God. This book also wonderfully describes the degrees of love; growth in which is the entire work and purpose of contemplation. This night marks the transition from the illuminative way to the unitive way.

The Unitive Way
For this we have to look beyond “The Ascent” and “Dark Night” . . . the sublime descriptions St. John has for this stage of life lived perpetually in the presence of the indwelling Trinity can be found in “Living Flame of Love” and stanzas 22-40 of “Spiritual Canticle.”

I hope this helps whomever might be following along,


Thank you for the kind words.

You seem to have tapped into a wealth of various sources for your inspiration, and I thank you for sharing them with me.

I certainly will be burning the midnight candle deeply immersed in these.

Andy :slight_smile:

Thanks, Dave, for your clear, well-organized and to-the-point explanations. I enjoy reading them. They are very helpful. :thumbsup::slight_smile:


I’m beginning to discover there were earlier works by him that were seemingly prerequisite for his later books.

Looks like in this book I popped into the wrong classroom as it were. :blush:

Thanks for the help.!


Secular yes, and preferably having obtained approved by the magisterium. I will definitely research Martin’s book.

Thanks James.


No problem . . . and good talking with you:thumbsup: Also, my apologies . . . for on hindsight I think my opening comments were a bit harsh considering your heartfelt OP. Bad day I suppose :blush:

Peace be with you,
Dave. :slight_smile:


This was the sense I was getting from the posters here. Now I see clearly that I need to step back and start from square one. Thanks for explaining the problem to me. :slight_smile:


I mentioned in my opening post the paragraph of the Human Christ to see if anyone would catch a problem. I thought it profound even.

How do we reconcile Christ’s struggles with the Dark Night of Sense, since we know through NT that he was not immune to passion(ie: fear and anger), when we are told he IS the epitome of attained Spirituality.?

It reconciles if the attainment was temporarily to the Father only prior to Christ rising, otherwise if we say he had always qualified has the model, then his sensual human nature would need to have been perfect also. For everyone else and not Christ, then we need to work on our passions of fear and anger and they set us back on the previous rungs.

I’m not even sure if anger and fear are relevant regardless of legitimacy, but they being passions are. It is the passions that John says need to be purged.

See the problem.?

(Of a sudden there comes a collective shout…“Read the first book, clutz!!!”)

OK,OK I’ll do more reading. :smiley:

Thanks all for the help.


I need to second In Light’s thanks, all I can say is … wow!.



Thanks for light hearted post,

pizza without divine assistance:rolleyes:)


Christ expressed the virtue of rightious igdignation at the money changers and then expressed the virtue of filial obediance in the garden

Yes, I heard this also, probably Fides Ecclesiastica. I think it’s in our nature in charity to give the benefit of the doubt. However, hoping I’m allowed a smidgeon of Sententia Pia, I’m still in reserve.

Can’t wait to do a little more reading, you peaked my interest even further.



Andy, in reply to your post #14:

Due to our fallen nature inherited from Adam, we human beings sin and have passions to overcome. We need to be purified.

Jesus, the Son of God and the Word made flash, born of his immaculate mother Mary, has no sin and no darkness in Him at all. Jesus has no need to be purified.

However, Jesus, as true God and true man, does have natural human emotions such as anger and fear. He experienced the normal anger and fear that was part of being human. While experiencing these, Jesus showed us how to trust and how to do the Father’s will. The examples we read in the Bible are not passions in any negative sense that Jesus need to overcome. His anger at the money changers was holy anger, his agony in the garden of Gethsemane showed us even in such unimaginable pain, Jesus still put the Father’s will first. Jesus showed us how to carry the Cross in fear.

Hope this helps.

What wonderful responses.
Might I add that a dark night is just that, dark. We do not need to know where we are along the path. We only need to live according to the gospel message of love as best we can and pray as best we can (our part). God does the rest. Descriptive words are interesting but they are just maps, not the territory lived.
As for the woman who might as well have been practically naked? Jesus would probably have reacted by seeing the potential beauty of the soul within the body. That’s contemplation. No other internal reaction would have occurred even for a moment, whether disgust or temptation.
“The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love.” Teresa Avila

Ooops, that naked lady description might have been on another thread.

I think Inlight answered this very nicely.

The one thing I would add is this: St. John purposely didn’t set out to analyze Christ by any sort of spiritual definitions or criteria for He is obviously beyond all that. No, St. John wrote from the point of view of a profound seeker of Christ speaking, literally, from his personal experience. He speaks as the bride in “Song of Songs” in perpetual longing for the bridegroom (Christ). In fact “Song of Songs” is the model he used for one of his other masterpieces . . . “Spiritual Canticle.” And all his trials and tribulations as bride seeking the bridegroom are now what we know of as the nights. The majesty of his works being that his personal experience has application to all . . . hence the reason he is a Doctor of the Church.

Secondly, St. John does speak of Christ in his formulations in a couple of key areas. The sense of abandonment on the Cross as the epitome of the passive night of spirit experience being one. I can’t recall where at the moment he has this discussion . . . somewhere in Book 2 of “The Ascent,” though.

Additionally, the centrality of Christ is the topic for an entire chapter on the reasons why extraordinary communications (visions, locutions etc) were licit and necessary in Old Testament times . . . but are not now. While this discussion is a bit of topic, you can read about it here if you like:


Dave :slight_smile:

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