A Dark Night with Saint John of the Cross
The writings of Saint John of the Cross offer a special viewpoint about the suffering of souls, suffering souls on their way to unity with the divine. What follows stands in contrast to the Buddha’s views in The Dhammapada about ultimate happiness without any form of union with the divine. The Dark Night of the Soul may be viewed as a closure on the Christian path to loving unity with the creator. Like the Confessions of Saint Augustine and some of the writing of Saint Francis of Assisi, one repents for earlier sins of unwholesome living and erroneous spiritual beliefs. Here, I am not presenting a magnificent account of the Dark Nights; rather, I am touching upon the common themes required to make spiritual breakthroughs into stronger spiritual experience. In the case of the Dark Night we experience intense suffering leading to final unification – loving unification followed by great happiness “in the happy night.” (p. 106) Here the nights serve as metaphors for spiritual changes. Each night is a deeper, highly personal process on The Way to pure love of god. In the nights, Saint John of the Cross is in deepening contemplation (meditation and concentration) on the proper relationship with the divine. He is seeking a loving unity, a loving connection in the light. It appears that Saint John is seeking the “divine union of perfect…love” so that his “soul transformed through love…” (pp.8-9) His desire for and attachment to this mystical experience is at the core of his struggle and suffering. Let us begin with the temporal metaphor of the dark nights.
In the First Night the soul experiences purgation and purification related to sensual experiences. The sensory pleasures (great imperfections) require removal from the deeper spiritual self. The “depravities of the senses” are so powerful that they require divine intervention. This night refers to a beginner’s path to unification with the divine; this is one who “meditates on the spiritual road” with enough skill that it is a “spiritual night of infused contemplation” (p. 9). It is interesting that in Buddhism, one’s attachment to sensual pleasures is also noted as something to change for the better over time.
In the Second Night we experience the spiritual part of the soul. Spiritual contemplation moves deeper and deeper. The “spiritual purgation of dark contemplation” occurs only after difficult and demanding looking inward. One is not happy with what one sees: Saint John is required to use “great insight and discernment” to overcome the “lukewarmness of his spirit.” (p. 9) He must confront and disavow anything that relates to unwholesomeness and unworthiness. Again, like in Buddhism, one works very hard to overcome unwholesomeness in life.
In the Third Night we observe and experience the actions of the soul. In this “black darkness” (p.11) we discover even more that needs to be dealt with prior to any divine connection. By its action, the soul must free itself from the world of evil. This is a painful process to endure. Deeper and deeper contemplation is required. Here is appears that suffering is the path to liberation.
In the Fourth Night the “affliction is more peaceful” at last. (p. 10) This is a night of passivity of the soul – just being in deeper contemplation on unwholesomeness and unworthiness yet with a strengthening desire for unity with the divine. If one is willing to passively accept this deep suffering for the ultimate union, it may show the strength of spiritual conviction and will. It may demonstrate great belief in and dedication to this spiritual path. Then IT happens! “in peace and quietness” he ascents to the “transforming union.” (p. 10). The soul has freed itself from the world of evil; it enters a “brighter and intenser light.” This “enfolds the soul in the splendors of glory” (pp. 10-11) “Oh, happy chance” to be freed. (p. 16) Saint John continued his spiritual journey in “the happy night…without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.” (p. 106) There is an experience of perfect love in “the happy night.” (p. 106) He has been successful in experiencing perfect union with the love of the divine.
For more information refer to: Peers, E. A. (Ed.). (1959). Saint John of the Cross-Dark Night of the Soul. New York: Newman Press/Image Books, pp. 8-16 and 106.
By Anthony R. Quintiliani, PhD., LADC
Author of Mindful Happiness
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