Ever wondered how a holy, infinite God accommodates Himself to a human heart? Ever feel that the evangelical language for talking about it is formulaic or vague? Ever wonder if there’s something wrong with you because the things that used to move you leave you cold? This is the book for you.
My former worship pastor recommended it to me several years ago. Written by St. John of the Cross and considered a classic of Christian mysticism, this book explicates a poem by its author and in the process discusses two different kinds of spiritual refinement that prepare the human heart for the Holy Spirit’s habitation: purgation of the senses, and purgation of the spirit.
The first half of the book develops the purging of sensation as something all believers go through. It’s likened to the weaning of a child:
The loving mother is like the grace of God, for, as soon as the soul is regenerated by its new warmth and fervour for the service of God, He treats it in the same way; He makes it to find spiritual milk, sweet and delectable, in all the things of God, without any labour of its own, and also great pleasure in spiritual exercises, for here God is giving it the breast of His tender love, even as to a tender child.
But in the same way a mother eventually deprives the child in the interest of teaching it to stand independently and “betake itself to more important and substantial occupations,” so God weans the young Christian from pleasure-based worship and practice. This section includes an excellent discussion of the various ways the seven deadly sins can manifest themselves even in the fervour of new faith.
But the true “dark night” of the title is a phase beyond purgation of sense. And while the first purging is a process all Christians go through, the purgation of the spirit, which often lasts longer and is more agonizing, is reserved for only a few. (Mother Teresa is a more modern example of someone who spoke of the dark night.) The roots of sins of the sense are found in the spirit, writes St. John of the Cross, and if a soul is to commune with a holy, infinite God, it’s at this root level that they must be eradicated. Put another way, all our natural, fleshly ways of relating to God must be dismantled, and a new and different spiritual mind must be created.
That’s what the dark night of the soul is: a period of extreme deprivation of any sense of God’s presence, even as He bears in more closely than ever before. It can go on for years. The metaphor given is that of a log of wood burning: first the water is burned out and the wood is dried and prepared; then slowly, from the outside in, the fire transforms the wood into itself. But the end result is true transformation, a way of relating to God that is totally reorganized and not dependent on fleshly understanding or rationality.
Why use the metaphor of darkness to speak of the pressing-in of the God of light? Because God is “darkness” to our “natural lights.” I found this explanation helpful:
The clearer and more manifest are Divine things in themselves, the darker and more hidden are they to the soul naturally; just as, the clearer is the light, the more it blinds and darkens the pupil of the owl, and, the more directly we look at the sun, the greater is the darkness which it causes in our visual faculty, overcoming and overwhelming it through its own weakness. In the same way, when this Divine light of contemplation assails the soul which is not yet wholly enlightened, it causes spiritual darkness in it; for not only does it overcome it, but likewise it overwhelms it and darkens the act of its natural intelligence.
Though I’m Protestant and wasn’t familiar with all the (apocryphal?) books quoted in support of various points, I found the text deftly interwoven with Scripture I was familiar with: Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, John, Jonah, the experience of Moses, the Psalms of David. Because of this, despite its extremely careful and close scrutiny of the inner life, and its lack of discussion of any practical applications in “horizontal” life with others, it didn’t give a sense of isolation. I felt I was being guided through an experience running throughout Scripture, and with some aspects that rang true even in my own small, unmonastic sphere. This was an enlightening book in that it exposed a continuous thread that I’d previously seen most clearly in the book of Job. It also gave me more effective language and categories for understanding the inner life and spiritual journey. I couldn’t ask for a wiser or more profound guide through these waters than St. John of the Cross.