St. John of the Cross & The Dark Night

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.  


Jeannie Ewing believes the world ignores and rejects the value of the Cross. She writes about the hidden value of suffering and even discovering joy in the midst of grief.  As a disability advocate, Jeannie shares her heart as a mom of two girls with special needs in Navigating Deep Waters and is the author of From Grief to Grace , A Sea Without A Shore , and Waiting with Purpose.  Jeannie is a frequent guest on Catholic radio and contributes to several online and print Catholic magazines.   She, her husband, and three daughters live in northern Indiana. For more information, please visit her website

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  • Viki63

    Thank you. Very helpful when one is in pain.

  • I’m so glad, Viki. That is why I wrote it. 🙂 Blessings and peace to you!

  • SnowBunting

    I was led to St.John of the Cross and St.Teresa of Avila over 30 years ago by Jesus. At that time I didn’t know there was such a thing as a Catholic book store! I walked in the door, said prayer because I was overwhelmed at everything I saw and was immediately drawn to the collected works of both, bought them and a Rosary…and my life changed forever! That was when I learned what a truly great gift pain is. I was very happy to see your story! Thank you!!
    My favorite time of the year is the dead of winter. There is a beauty, a haunting loneliness and a silence that reminds me of God. Be still and know that I am God. I was reminded of this reading your story 🙂 God Bless you and Merry Christmas.

  • Cooky642

    Jeannie, I had to chuckle at your amazement over St. John of the Cross. I didn’t discover him until I entered the Carmelite Order as a Secular. His wisdom and understanding made me marvel. They were also as clear as a bright, sunny day! If anyone has a problem understanding St. John, try reading the book The Cloud of Unknowing (author anonymous). That filled in the “holes” for me. The description that helps me slough through the Dark Night was that of the old-fashioned cameras that had a flash-bulb. If you were silly enough to look at the flash-bulb, you couldn’t see anything else for several minutes! Yet, you knew (took it on faith?) that the place and the people were still there, where you’d seen them the second before the flash-bulb went off. And God was even more real, more ‘present’ in that darkness. How good God is to us! Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  • wonder

    Count me in with Viki.
    Great job.
    Love alone creates!! One of My favorite Saints coined that phrase. I haven’t visited your site yet but I’m sure you love Maximilian Kolbe as I do. Great Saints abound.

  • Yes, exactly! I did select the title of our blog based on St. Maximilian’s famous quote. 🙂

  • God bless you, too & a blessed Christmas to you, as well. I would concur that the Collected Works by St. JOC has been one of the most life-changing, influential books I have ever read. I am revisiting it for a book I am writing about grief.

  • Yes, the Cloud of Unknowing is another author whose writings I cherish. Very insightful, always refreshing and deep. I am finding that many beloved saints and Catholic authors wrote about something similar to the dark night. I have read countless times a description that matches what St. JOC mentioned in his theological works. Another author I am thinking of who wrote about similar thing was Fr. Jean Pierre de Cassaude.

  • SnowBunting

    That’s wonderful. St. John of the Cross is one of the best kept secrets in the Church. I hope you don’t mind me posting this link for might help with writing about grief there’s so much of it in our lives.- This is about an old woman who meets the Holy Souls from Purgatory and teaches about pain, grief, and suffering. Absolutely comforting and very good.

  • Cooky642

    Thanks for your reply. Please keep us posted on your book on grief. I’d be quite anxious to see where you’re going with it. It’s a difficult subject–I suppose because everyone has experienced it and, even a lifetime later, it still hurts–but God has a plan even for grief. Blessings, Cooky

  • I’m so glad, Therese!

  • Yes, Cooky, that’s for sure. The book on grief weaves my personal experience with grief as it relates to my understanding of redemptive suffering, the mystery of the cross, finding joy in the midst of our pain, finding meaning in suffering, and St. John of the Cross’s theology.

  • I don’t mind at all – I bookmarked the website! Thank you.

  • TomD

    This was a very well written article. You were able to articulate this state of “being”
    so wonderfully. Nice job.

  • SnowBunting

    I loved The Cloud of Unknowing!

  • Cooky642

    Oh, I’m SO glad you loved it! Me, too! I had been struggling with St. JOC’s doctrine of “nada” and also the practice of detachment–it’s fine to tell me what a wonderful experience it is, but HOW do you DO it?–and Cloud of Unknowing was like a textbook–first, do this; then, do that. Reading it was partnered with a sense of I-can-do-this! It’s like a commentary on St. John’s commentary! It made me so happy, I recommend it to almost everyone I have a spiritual conversation with.

  • SnowBunting

    Yes, when I read that little book I felt like I was in Heaven! 🙂 Another good help is The Three Ages of the Spiritual Life by Rev. R. Garrigou Lagrange, OP. I have a very ancient 3 book set of this series- I noticed there’s another called The Three Ages of The Interior Life…not sure if that’s the same books. This series really helped me and so did “Life” St. Teresa of Avila and The Fioretti or Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi. That’s a small list of my favorites!! One thing I really learned is that if God leads you to these deeply spiritual Saints and their writings, He also gives the Grace to understand them, live them. I am not highly educated or scholarly, just an average person but it’s not about that, it’s more about being united with God and He makes it understood on a much deeper level.

  • Cooky642

    Well, St. Paul rhapsodized in several places about God giving us the wisdom to understand God’s plan, so that makes sense. I think that He may have been “hiding” from me just to see if I’d persevere or call it quits. Thanks for sharing a list of your favorites: I’ll keep my eye open for those titles I don’t have, yet.