Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Book Review: Dark Night of the Soul

I have heard about the "dark night of the soul," when one feels abandoned by God. But I had never read the famous book of that name by St. John of the Cross. The book is primarily aimed at spiritual directors, but it's also a good background on the concept and what to expect.

The idea has its roots, really, in the story of Job, who is alternately rewarded and punished by God. In Dark Night, St. John compares the dark night to gold being refined by fire. The process is painful, but necessary for the ore to become something beautiful, pure, and precious. All the dross is melted away as the soul becomes more like its Creator, the better to become one with Him: "Souls begin to enter the dark night when God is drawing them out of the state of beginners, which is that of those who meditate on the spiritual road, and is leading them into that of proficients, the state of contemplatives, that, having passed through it, they may arrive at the state of the perfect, which is that of the divine union with God." (Ch. 1)

There are two stages: the Night of the Sense and the Night of the Spirit. The Night of the Sense is the first stage and, frequently, many who begin the journey go no further. Many beginners fall into the sin of pride--much like the Publican in the parable, they are proud of their devotion, their sacrifice, their good works. But as they grow, they become humble, looking at others as better, "regard(ing) them with a holy envy in their anxiety to serve God as they do." (Ch. 1)

St. John goes on to list and explain other spiritual sins that beginners make. These mostly have to do with our human need to feel (both physically and emotionally), to see, to hear, to taste. Our bodies distract our souls from the perfect contemplation of God and Satan uses these weaknesses to his advantage. During the first night, "God is now changing that light into darkness, and sealing up the door of the fountain of the sweet spiritual waters, which they tasted in God as often and as long as they wished." (Ch. 8) No comfort is found in things of God, nor in "created things." St. John then goes on to explain how those who have entered this first night are to behave and the necessary role of a spiritual guide.

Once this stage is completed, a person may stop there or may experience only a respite for the much more rigorous dark night of the spirit. This stage requires much more from the spiritual director because those going through it feel completely abandoned by God. They must continue on their journey with complete and utter faith in Him. The length of time required for this dark night may be months or years. There may be periods were God shows His Face and His Love is directly and powerfully felt, but then withdrawn, forcing the seeker to trust and believe. And to pray--always prayer.

The end is complete union with God. St. John intimates that for most of us, Purgatory will be our Dark Night of the Soul; very few reach the state of perfection while here on Earth. (This is probably as good an explanation for Purgatory as any I've heard.)

This edition, translated by David Lewis and published by Saint Benedict Press Classics, is 189 pages, heavily footnoted, with short chapters. But the text is really dense. I found I could only read a chapter or so at a time because the prose is a bit clunky. And it can be repetitive, in the manner of a teacher who says, "Have you got this yet?" I haven't read any of St. John's other works which might have helped. A study guide, either a person or a booklet, probably would have helped as well. But Dark Night of the Soul did shed some understanding of what Blessed Mother Teresa experienced and wrote about.

When Mother Teresa's spiritual trials were revealed, I read comments by some Christians that were rather disparaging, mostly from those who hold to sola scriptura. The "dark night" might be a peculiarly Catholic tradition--although I wouldn't be surprised if this is also understood in the Orthodox religions as well, since they have a monastic tradition.

Biographical background about St. John of the Cross can be found in Wikipedia. I was kind of surprised by the list of those influenced by his thoughts, which included Dorothy Day and Pope John Paul II.

This isn't Catholic-lite. And it's not a book that I understood at first reading. It deserves more study than I'm prepared to give at this point, but I would like to return to it and to St. John's other works, as well as those of St. Teresa of Avila.

This review was written as part of The Catholic Company product reviewer program. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on Dark Night of the Soul.

crossposted at The Mad Tea Party

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