Winter has always been the season I dread most: the perpetual grey skies, the cold and drear, no song birds, no color or flowers in bloom. Peering outside the numerous windows in our early twentieth century home, one would assume that all is lost, pointless, and hopeless. Despondency seems to be a natural human inclination during this season in which two thirds of our twenty-four hour days are filled with the absence of light.
In years past, I wanted to hibernate along with the animals, to just sleep the winter away. But then I was introduced to a well-known saint – a Mystical Doctor of the Church – St. John of the Cross. When my former spiritual director suggested I read St. John of the Cross’ collected works, I admit my apprehension and even formidability, for what I had heard about St. John of the Cross was that he was difficult to comprehend, too deep, too mysterious and too focused on “the dark night of the soul.”
What I discovered in my worn version of the classic, however, was a message of vibrancy and hope, a message of developing an authentic love for God not based upon fleeting emotions or spiritual consolations. St. John of the Cross taught me nearly everything I understand today about the mysteries of life and, yes, the beauty to be found in the quiet of winter.
Most of us errantly conclude that all darkness is an unholy darkness. St. John of the Cross introduced countless generations to the gift of a holy darkness, one that is bestowed to certain people as they deepen their faith journeys, one that strengthens their resolve to believe when they cannot see anything beyond “the dark night of the soul.”
“The dark night of the soul” is what St. John of the Cross describes as “purgative contemplation,” in which God specifically darkens a person’s will, intellect, and senses in order to test the authenticity of one’s love for God. Because I am a visual person, I like the metaphor of winter to illustrate the dark night of the soul, because all of life seems to be dead or sleeping, and yet the restoration and renewal of life is actually hidden in the womb of the earth during those long months of the year.
A spiritual novice – a revert or new convert – may initially find him/herself immersed in the sweetness of spiritual consolations, tender affections, and even brief ecstasies or prophetic words. We seek signs from God, and we receive them. We long to feel Him close to our hearts, and He responds likewise. We ask for spiritual enlightenment, the gift to experience a supernatural phenomenon, and God may grant us these. This is a state of spiritual infancy, according to the theology of St. John of the Cross. When a person desires complete union with God, it is necessary that s/he must first enter into a period of time in which his/her senses are darkened, the intellect is clouded, and the will dies to itself.
The person may feel lost, alone, and completely mystified as to what direction s/he is taking in his/her interior life. When one prays, God remains mute. When one longs to feel His love and affection, s/he is met with a seemingly cold, sterile silence. There are no consolations, spiritual comforts, signs or supernatural responses. The person cannot comprehend this feeling of unknowing or isolation, a sense of being completely shrouded in nothingness. One faces the temptation to abandon one’s faith, to conclude that God does not exist – or if He does, in fact, exist, He is not a merciful and loving God.
Initially, a soul is plunged into this terrifying place of spiritual abandonment, and the soul weeps, as it cannot deny its pangs for God, the longings for sweetness, the memory of walking clearly in the path illuminated by God’s grace. The person’s entire being is swept into a state of confusion as the senses are being stripped of their ability to soothe or pacify one’s condition. The intellect is darkened, too, as former gifts of scholarly knowledge or theological understanding vanish and are instead replaced with disillusionment and unknowing. The heart’s affections and the soul’s faculties are equally vanquished, and so the person’s entire being is left with an inexplicable void.
There is no way to estimate how long a soul will remain in “the dark night,” because, as St. John of the Cross explained centuries ago, it is entirely up to God as to how much the soul needs to be refined in the crucible of darkness. For some, this darkness may last for a few weeks or months, but for others it lingers for years or even a lifetime.
The key to withstanding this painful purgation is to remain faithful to the precepts and tenets of the Catholic Church. At times, rote prayer is all the darkened soul can clutch, and yet when one remains faithful to God throughout this excruciating darkness, the unseen favors and graces bestowed upon this soul are unfathomable.
At some point, a person begins to love God for His own sake, rather than indulging in the conditional love that was once based upon favors granted, prayers answered, and consolations freely offered. God no longer becomes a deity who dispenses interminable blessings, but rather He is loved because He deserves to be loved. This realization plummets the soul first into the shameful reality of its pride, and then into a gratifying humility of embracing the truth that our love for God must reflect His love for us.
After this epiphany occurs, a paradoxical joy enters the soul that supersedes the pain and longing for spiritual sweetness. The soul is unknowingly elevated to a deeper union with the Triune God; it occurs unbeknownst to the person, because cognizance of this reality would most likely regress the soul into its former state of pride. This newfound joy somehow mingles with the existing nothingness felt or experienced in the depths of the person’s interior life.
Although bewildering, a person is gradually drawn to meditate more deeply upon the beauty that is often laden in sorrow, most especially the essence of love as reflected in the Passion of Jesus. St. John of the Cross explained that the soul experiences four benefits in this state: “the delight of peace; a habitual remembrance of God, and solicitude concerning Him; cleanness and purity of soul; and the practice of virtue” (The Collected Works, p. 325).
This darkness becomes meaningful to us as we contemplate its gift and the graces we receive without merit. We become acutely aware of our sinfulness but always in light of God’s mercy and infinite love for us. There is no longer despair; where we were once disconsolate, we are now supremely serene. We still struggle, but we no longer rely upon the puerile spiritual state in which we first began our journey towards union with God. We embrace the mysteries of our humanity with resignation and abandonment to God’s Providence. We become learned in the virtue of simplicity. We unite our pining for Heaven with the Sacred Wounds of Jesus in solidarity for all suffering souls on earth and in Purgatory.
Life – in its darkness – becomes vibrant and purposeful. Just as in the dark of winter’s night a seed somehow germinates under the warmth of the frozen earth, so, too, our souls are sprouting with virtue as we navigate the “dark night of the soul.”
St. John of the Cross’ message was both timeless and timely; on his feast day, it seems fitting for us to revisit the quiet courage of the myriad souls who are silently suffering this dark night and to offer words and prayers of hope for them, that they may forge ahead with the confidence that God remains intimately with them in their nebulous travails. Perhaps we are the ones in the midst of this darkness; we can now become more aware of the potential goodness that can be derived from the blackness of our sorrow.
Like St. John of the Cross, let us be luminaries of hope in the emptiness of the soul’s winter, for as he said so succinctly, “In the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.”
*Though I am no theologian or mystical scholar, my understanding of “the dark night of the soul” is based on my personal experience, which is what I shared in this essay; volumes could be written about St John of the Cross’ theology, but for the sake of brevity, a basic foundation was offered here.
John of the Cross. (1991). The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, Revised Edition. Washington, D.C:ICS Publications.