Dark Night of the Soul Lived Outside the Cloister

This post is long for two reasons: To do any justice to Saint John’s wisdom, it has to be long. To do any justice to the concrete conditions of laypeople, religious, and priests thrown into the world, it has to be long.

Saint John of the Cross is the Church’s Mystical Doctor. But he wrote from Carmel. He did not write from Kamloops, Kensington Avenue, or Klong Toey.

I am convinced that what he wrote about the dark night of the soul is correct. I’m convinced from theory and from experience.

But it’s written from Carmel. Not all of us live there…

Saint John tells us about three signs that a soul is ready to let go and let God throw it into a contemplative state. Is there anything we can say about these three signs for those of us who do not live in the cloister, but rather on the muddy highways of the world?

In the Dark Night, Bk. I, Ch. 9, the saint writes of these three signs:

The first is this: when we find no comfort in the things of God, and none also in created things. For when God brings the soul into the dark night in order to wean it from sweetness and to purge the desire of sense, he does not allow it to find sweetness or comfort anywhere. It is then probable, in such a case, that this dryness is not the result of sins or of imperfections recently committed; for if it were, we should feel some inclination or desire for other things than those of God…

To make sure we’re not just melancholics or have a stomach virus, John adds that it really just is an intense dryness, about which it is normal to start to wonder:

The second test and condition of this purgation are that the memory dwells ordinarily upon God with a painful anxiety and carefulness, the soul thinks it is not serving God, but going backwards, because it is no longer conscious of any sweetness in the things of God… The true purgative aridity is accompanied in general by a painful anxiety, because the soul thinks that it is not serving God. Though this be occasionally increased by melancholy or other infirmity – so it sometimes happens – yet it is not for that reason without its purgative effects on the desires, because the soul is deprived of all sweetness, and its sole anxieties are referred to God. For when mere bodily indisposition is the cause, all that it does is to produce disgust and the ruin of bodily health, without the desire of serving God which belongs to the purgative aridity. In this aridity, though the sensual part of man be greatly depressed, weak and sluggish in good works, by reason of the little satisfaction they furnish, the spirit is, nevertheless, ready and strong.

The cause of this dryness is that God is transferring to the spirit the goods and energies of the senses, which, having no natural fitness for them, become dry, parched up, and empty; for the sensual nature of man is helpless in those things which belong to the spirit simply. Thus the spirit having been tasted, the flesh becomes weak and remiss; but the spirit, having received its proper nourishment, becomes strong, more vigilant and careful than before, lest there should be any negligence in serving God. At first it is not conscious of any spiritual sweetness and delight, but rather of aridities and distaste, because of the novelty of the change. The palate accustomed to sensible sweetness looks for it still. And the spiritual palate is not prepared and purified for so delicious a taste until it shall have been for some time disposed for it in this arid and dark night…

But when these aridities arise in the purgative way of the sensual appetite the spirit though at first without any sweetness, for the reasons I have given, is conscious of strength and energy to act because of the substantial nature of its interior food, which is the commencement of contemplation, dim and dry to the senses. This contemplation is in general secret, and unknown to him who is admitted into it, and with the aridity and emptiness which it produces in the senses, it makes the soul long for solitude and quiet, without the power of reflecting on anything distinctly, or even desiring to do so.

Now, if they who are in this state knew how to be quiet… they would have, in this tranquillity, a most delicious sense of this interior food. This food is so delicate that, in general, it eludes our perceptions if we make any special effort to feel it; it is like the air which vanishes when we shut our hands to grasp it. For this is God’s way of bringing the soul into this state; the road by which He leads it is so different from the first, that if it will do anything in its own strength, it will hinder rather than aid His work. Therefore, at this time, all that the soul can do of itself ends, as I have said, in disturbing the peace and the work of God in the spirit amid the dryness of sense.

John adds a third sign, which is perhaps the most definitive and telling of them all. We want to be with God, but we get no pleasure from discursive meditation and/or vocal prayers and/or spiritual exercises:

The third sign we have for ascertaining whether this dryness be the purgation of sense, is inability to meditate and make reflections, and to excite the imagination, as before, notwithstanding all the efforts we may make; for God begins now to communicate himself, no longer through the channel of sense, as formerly, in consecutive reflections, by which we arranged and divided our knowledge, but in pure spirit, which admits not of successive reflections, and in the act of pure contemplation (to which the special inspiration of the Holy Spirit gives rise in us).

Now, the question remains, How might these three signs look to a soul whose life, while called to be contemplative, is lived outside the cloister?

I think that one thing is certain. There will be as many distinct modes of being introduced to contemplation on the roads as there are distinct souls being called to live contemplation on the roads. Nothing can be completely the same for any two souls.

But some observations:

  • Because of the situation in the world, I think it often happens that, while remaining in a state of grace, we may fall out of a state of apparent contemplation. This could even be what God wants on occasion. Certainly it is what he permits. Don’t worry. Just trust. We may have to enter into a contemplative state by a “dark night” many times. This does not mean we are deficient or unworthy or poor contemplatives. It just means the road is hard. Our situation is difficult.
  • When we are experiencing dryness or aridity in the world, we might still see and contemplate Jesus in our neighbours, but it will not necessarily appeal to our emotions or imagination.
  • We may not always be sure that our actions are good. This is not necessarily a sign of falling from God’s will.
  • An inability to meditate is not necessarily a sign of distaste for the things of God. The normal consequence of an inability to meditate in someone being called to contemplation in the world is to find Jesus in their sisters and brothers. The soul is dissatisfied with meditation; it looks around; it sees the Jesus it is longing for. Given that seeing Jesus in and behind our neighbours can demand action, this inability to meditate or do spiritual exercises may naturally appear to be an impetus to action. A closer examination may reveal the secret, peaceful step in between: seeing Jesus in our neighbour. If this is the case, then we are not to pursue meditation any farther than God asks.

It is the last of these observations that, I think, not enough spiritual directors dare to apply to laypeople. But it’s very important if we love contemplation: love!


12 thoughts on “Dark Night of the Soul Lived Outside the Cloister

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