Dark Night of the Soul

This well known work is by the Spaniard Juan de Yepes, 1542-1591, who was made a saint by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726. It comprises thirty nine chapters which together form a commentary on a poem of eight stanzas.

The work is a continuation of the Ascent of Mount Carmel, and is split into two books: the Night of Sense (the first fourteen chapters, which is really about the soul and the emotions) and the Dark Night of the Spirit (the remaining twenty five chapters).

I had chosen to review this book, as a task within the Spiritual Direction course, because I had at times found helpful the imagery of probably the most famous extract. This is often used by Christians to encourage those who are going through a “dark” time in their faith in which connection with God seems unpleasantly distant or difficult. The Saint sees such a time as painful suffering but also blessing, and compares it  (Bk 2, ch 10) with a log being burned up. At first the fire acts on the outside of the log, then works in to the inside of the log, the log itself being transformed into fire. The work is about the way that the soul reaches a “state of perfection, which is the union of love with God.” Thus the analogy of the fire acting on the log speaks of the soul being united with the love of God, indeed being transfor! med into the love of God, through the action of God as the fire.

There are two related premises of the Saint throughout the book. The first is that purification is necessary for growth as a Christian, and that this is a work of God. The second is that Christians can only go so far, actively, in seeking to develop their relationships with God. Thereafter they passively accept “purgation” that God does in them, first in the “sense” and then in the “spirit.” To accept the teaching of the book is to accept these premises, which I do: firstly because whatever relationship we have with God is itself a gift from him, as is touched on in the work (so the initiative is not ours); and secondly from experience. This all includes losing a love of the “things of the world” and discovering that what seems to be everything going wrong is actually God helping us to “stand on our own two feet” (I quote).

Having expected the book to be easy to read, as I had found Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich, from a similar era, I was disappointed. The “log analogy” is a brief and refreshing moment of picture language in the midst of dry explanatory prose. (This is not to say that the log analogy was easy to receive emotionally when I first encountered it many years ago. The explanation that a “difficult time” may be caused by God in order to draw us closer to Him is not at first easy to accept.) Maybe a different translation would be easier to digest.

I found the first few chapters of Book 1 most helpful. In these the Saint talks of the traps that a “beginner” may fall into in his quest for God through spiritual practices, which is why God needs to take the initiative further. It seems to me that people may seek God in many ways, but the work points out that for those who seek God through the Christian Religion, “spiritual practices” are not enough. These traps are the spiritual equivalents of the seven deadly sins, so: spiritual pride, spiritual avarice; luxury; wrath; gluttony; envy; sloth. He notes that the concern of the Christian about his faith at this time is a sign that this is not backsliding, but a move of God to “enkindle love” in him or her.

For example, spiritual pride is about liking to be praised for our spiritual works, and thus wanting to teach instead of to learn. Spiritual gluttony is about taking pleasure in spiritual exercises themselves instead of wanting the results that they should bring. Spiritual avarice is about people being discontented with the spirituality that God gives them, considering that it does not meet their need. Uncomfortably I found I could relate to these three!

Implicit in the last, interestingly, is the realisation that whatever spirituality we have is itself a gift from God, with which we should be content. So logically we should not expect others to conform to or grow into a spirituality like our own.

There seemed to be some unanswered questions in the book, such as where the poem that he was expounding came from in the first place, and also why God should choose to “bless” particular people with the Dark Night at particular times. In reading the book I wonder why it was written. Its style is that of a textbook and it seems to me that, although individuals may benefit from it, it is written for spiritual directors or confessors to help them guide those they minister to. This being so, its insights are valuable.

The Saint’s ideas about spiritual gluttony resonate with those expressed in the last century by Thomas Merton (I think) as he comments that forms of worship themselves can become a form of idolatry, because we can become more concerned with the enjoyable feeling than what lies behind them. A scripture passage that is important to me is Matthew ch5 v 16, where Jesus speaks of how his followers should shine like a light. This seems to me to confirm the Saint’s analogy of the log on fire, as both speak of blazing for God as an outcome of life with God. Furthermore, in an emotional or even passionate way, the idea of being consumed by the love of God is as strangely attractive as the idea of a man and woman falling in love may be to those who have not yet experienced it.