Dark Night of the Soul

by St. John of the Cross

When my lecturer said that the influence of St. John of the Cross was hugely significant, even today, I thought, ‘Hmm…’ I have grown up amongst churchy people, and I had never heard of him.
Then, later in the week I was watching an episode of ‘Call the Midwife’ and they referred to ‘The dark night of the soul.’ Perhaps my lecturer was right; if it’s reaching as far as a series on telly, I maybe ought to know more.

St. John of the Cross, or Juan de Yepes, was a Spanish monk in the 16th century – the time of Spanish wars with the Moors, Martin Luther writing his thesis, Queen Elizabeth ruling England, the Spanish Armada and the Europeans venturing to America.
His father was a converso (from a Jewish family that had converted to Catholicism) and he was rejected by his rich family when he married John’s mother.
John grew up poor, and when his father died his mother placed him in a Catholic orphanage, where he was educated and taught a trade—though Burke remarks that he was, “a spectacularly unsuccessful apprentice” and all his employers fired him![1] He ended up nursing in a hospital for syphilis patients, which was the equivalent of nursing AIDS patients in the 1980s. He later took vows, and then joined Teresa of Avila as a ‘barefooted’ monk, trying to reform the abuses of the Church from within.

St. John was a mystic, which means he considered things that cannot be explained. He believed the soul was separate to the mind and body, and I’m not sure that I agree with him. I think people are maybe more ‘whole’ than this (in the same way that I don’t think Heaven is full of dis-embodied souls floating around). Much of St. John’s thinking seems to have been influenced by Plato (who also separated the soul and the physical).
Some people suggest we should have “a hermeneutics of suspicion” when examining the mystics.[2] (‘Hermeneutics of suspicion’ is bit of a fashionable phrase at college. ‘Hermeneutics’ simply means how we interpret the text according to our experience, so the phrase is a fancy way of saying ‘Don’t trust everything you are told.’)

St. John had a rough time, with lots of paranoia around, due to the Spanish Inquisition, and the Reformation—so when people rejected his beliefs, he was imprisoned and tortured. It was after this that he wrote a poem: ‘Dark Night of the Soul.’

The poem is similar in style to Song of Solomon in the Bible, and depicts God as a lover. The night reflects the horrors of his time in prison, but with God by his side he has no fear. Some time later, St. John wrote prose by the same name, to explain his poem. He’s fairly wordy, and writes very long sentences, but usually his meaning is clear (you do need to concentrate while reading though, and spousal interruptions are very annoying!) My feeling is that he wrote the poem in a splurge of emotion, putting words to his feelings. Later, he tried to explain the words and the theology behind them (I wasn’t sure that the explanation always fitted the poetry).

St. John believed that there were three different states of being a Christian: Beginner, Progressive and Perfect. Perfection is achieved after physical death. Many people never develop further than ‘Beginner’ as they become complacent, they enjoy using the gifts God gives them, and never seek to develop their relationship further. They are self-satisfied, they feel they know all the answers and are contented in their relationship with God. Although they strive to please God, and to pray, to give to charity, and offer penances, their religion has become more important to them than God himself, and they stop trying to develop their spiritual relationship. (This rings true.)

He describes ‘spiritual gluttony’ where Christians enjoy spiritual gifts for their own sake, and become increasingly religious whilst not being closer to God. They rely on feelings, and if their prayers or works don’t result in feeling peaceful, joyful, holy, they then consider them a waste of time. It is like they think God ‘owes’ them in return for their devotion.

To develop into a ‘Progressive’ one must pass through the ‘dark night,’ which is a state instigated by God. St. John describes a dark night of the senses, which tends to follow a time of spiritual happiness, when the person feels close to God and peaceful but is then plunged into depression, with God out of reach. (This reminds me of when as teenagers several of us were baptised, and afterwards most of us experienced a ‘low’ time, and some stopped coming to church completely.) He writes that God gives this time of depression so the person can become stronger, relying on God and not on the feelings of God (peace, joy, contentment). It reminds me of the Book of Job, which teaches that God is worthy of worship because he is God, not because it results in good things for the worshipper.

St. John views this time of depression as a purging of the soul, a time when instead of feeling good and happy, a person is turned back to honouring God through love and discipline, even though they feel they are gaining nothing in return. I’m not sure how this fits with our modern culture, where mental health seems to mean people should never be depressed. Whilst there is, I believe, a mental illness that should be treated, there is also perhaps a time when mentally healthy people feel depressed, and perhaps we shouldn’t run from this. Perhaps we can learn more from our ‘low’ times than our ‘highs.’ In the poem, the house represents the physical and mental state, which are allowed to rest while the soul meets with God. God then kindles a love, which is not necessarily felt, yet is still real. This is a good, happy thing. The soul is free to meet God without being confused by emotions, it has escaped.

La noche oscura del alma

En una noche obscura,
con ansias en amores imflamada,
¡oh dichosa uentura!
sali sin ser notada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.

A escuras y segura,
por la secreta escala disfraçada,
¡oh dichosa uentura!
a escuras y ençelada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.

En la noche dichosa,
en secreto, que nadie me ueya,
ni yo miraua cosa,
sin otra luz ni guia
sino la que en el coraçon ardia.

Aquesta me guiaua
mas cierto que la luz del mediodia,
adonde me esperaua
quien yo bien me sabia,
en parte donde nadie parecia.

¡Oh noche que me guiaste!
¡oh noche amable mas que el aluorada!,
¡oh noche que juntaste
amado con amada,
amada en el amado transformada!

En mi pecho florido,
que entero para el solo se guardaua,
alli quedo dormido,
y yo le regalaua,
y el ventalle de cedros ayre daua.

El ayre de la almena,
cuando ya sus cabellos esparzia,
con su mano serena
en mi cuello heria,
y todos mis sentidos suspendia.

Quedeme y oluideme,
el rostro recline sobre el amado,
ceso todo, y dexeme,
dexando mi cuidado
entre las açucenas olvidado.
Dark Night of the Soul

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

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.

Translation by Edgar Allison Peers 

I’m finding the writing of these ancient monks to be challenging. Whilst I disagree with the way they tried to find God, it’s hard to reject some of the things that they learnt along the way. I have noticed that it’s often in our hardest times that we draw closer to God, but I’m not sure I agree that without this ‘dark night’ people are limited in their spiritual journey. I also don’t know whether the monks’ rejection of marriage and society (and shoes!) was a sign of holiness or of being weird; but I do respect what they were striving to achieve.

Thanks for reading. I hope that when you have a ‘dark night of the soul’ it will be something precious rather than destructive.
Take care.
Love, Anne x

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[1] Gregory Burke, St John of the Cross (Alba House Publisher: New York, 2001) P.35.

[2] David Stewart, The Hermeneutics of Suspicion, in The Journal of Literature and Theology 3, 1989, Pp. 296-307.