St. John of the Cross is closely associated with the prayer concept of the dark night of the soul. Living in the 16th century, St. John was a reformer of the Carmelite order of which he was a member. He is regarded as one of the foremost Spanish Christian mystic. His well-known works include the Candicle of Love, the Dark Night of the Soul, Ascend of Mount Carmel and his poem Living Flame of Love. Actually all his works have only one theme and one book was often a commentary on the other. The theme is the contemplative movement of a soul to a unitive experience with God in prayer. The dark night of the soul must be understood in the context of prayer. In the last couple of decades, there has been a revival of usage of phrase ‘the dark night of the soul’ especially by evangelicals. Unfortunately it is often misunderstood as depression, spiritual dryness, or being patience in suffering.
To understand the concept of dark night, we have to aware of the context in which St. John of the Cross wrote. Firstly, he was a practicing mystic and a spiritual director. A mystic just meant a person who have experienced the closeness of God and is aware of the His loving presence. As a spiritual director, he was aware of the pitfalls and dangers of depending on experience alone. He described his works as spiritual theology. His focus was on prayer especially contemplative prayer.
Secondly, he was trained under the teaching of Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas divided a human soul into two parts: sense and spirit. By sense is meant our attachment to the things of this world which include human relationships. The spirit refers to the cognitive part of the mind which includes the will, memories, and thinking. When St. John refers to the dark night of the sense and of the spirit, he was assigning different meanings to the common modern words we use; sense and spirit.
Finally, St. John comes from the apophatic tradition. Christian spirituality basically may be divided into two categories. The kataphatic tradition, to which most Protestant and evangelicals belong, believe that God may be known and described by language. This tradition utilizes creeds, doctrines and lots of words. The apophatic tradition believe that God is too awesome to be described. No human language has words to describe God. God can only be describe by negatives. The only way to describe God is by what He is not. The apophatic tradition is known as via negativa because of its use of negatives. Examples of apophatic theology include God’s appearance to Moses in the Burning Bush; the Name of God which may not be pronounced; and the prophet Elijah’s experience, where God reveals Himself in a “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:11–13).
Prayer is human-God communion. Broadly prayer may be divided into linguistic or non-linguistic. Linguistic prayers which include verbal and meditative prayers are prayers that are practiced using our mind and language. Most Christians are familiar to this form of prayer. We ‘talk’ to God using words. The non-linguistic prayers include contemplative and unitive prayers. Here words are seldom used. It utilizes our other faculties to connect with God. St. John focused mainly on contemplative and unitive prayers. He observed that people who have are advancing in contemplative praying will eventually hit a brick wall on their way to unitive praying. Suddenly they will find their prayers dry, arid, or lose their sense of the presence of God. They may even feel that they have been abandoned by God. When these pray-ers have examined themselves and not find any hidden unconfessed sins, St. John described the stage they are in as the dark night of the soul.
St. John described two dark nights of the soul. One is the dark night of the sense and the other is the dark night of the spirit. Each in turn has a passive and active component. St. John suggested that God is teaching us to detach from our attachments to the world, and attach ourselves to Him personally. It is to teach us to let go and let God be God. According to St. John, the dark night of the sense and the dark night of the spirit do not occur sequentially but are both side of the same coin.
In the dark night of the sense, we are taught to detach ourselves from our worldly possessions, our loved ones and even ourselves. Most of the time, it is these worldly possessions that distract us from being fully present to God. In the dark night of the spirit, we are taught to detach ourselves from our pride in our cleverness, our memories (past), and our willfulness. We are also taught to let go of our past experiences of God as these experiences may bind us down. The passive component is letting God work on us and the active component is our willingness to submit and allow God to work. It must be noted that this is different from the Buddhist discipline of emptying of the mind and attaining the non-self. The goal here is not to empty the mind and self but to detach from all that bind us and distract us from God Himself. The aim of these dark nights is unitive prayer where one become fire.
Only when we have lost all our detachments can we stand close to God who is fire or ‘living flame’ as St. John noted. St. John also noted that not all pray-ers will achieve this unity. Many pray-ers perceive that during the dark nights, God has moved away. God has not moved away. Instead He has moved closer to us. So close that we are blinded by His light. Hence the darkness we perceive.
One metaphor which St. John like to use to describe the process of the dark nights was that of a burning log. When a fire was burning a log, first it dehumidified the log. Then it turned the wood black and charred. Finally “the fire brings to light and expels all those ugly and dark accidents which are contrary to fire” [Dark Night, Book II, Chapter 10]. When the fire of the Holy Spirit burns us, the initial effect is alarming and painful. As the damp log dries and become blacken, cracked and dry, in God’s refining fire, our real self is revealed – blackened, cracked and dry. It has always being there but the flame revealed the truth and the truth always set us free.
This progress of contemplative prayer to unitive prayer as illustrated by the dark nights of the sense and spirit is a useful guide for those who seek to deepen their prayer life. In the process, we are transformed. This process was not discovered by St. John. The early church tradition was very aware of God as refining flame and our purpose to be like God. Here is a short story from the Desert Fathers; Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’ If we will, pass through the dark nights, and become all flame.