St. John of the Cross & the Dark Night of the Soul

John of the Cross is two amazing things: a saint, and one of the greatest poets in the Spanish language.

For eight months John was confined in a windowless closet hardly big enough to lie down in. The only light came from a small hole into the adjoining room, so high up that he had to stand on a bench in order to read his breviary. Here he composed some of his finest poetry, unable to write it down until finally given some paper after six months. Here is a sample from “The Dark Night: Stanzas of the Soul”: 

One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
—ah, the sheer grace!—
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
—ah, the sheer grace!—
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled …

O guiding night!
O night more kindly than the dawn!
O night that has united
Lover with beloved,
the beloved in the Lover transformed!  

John of the Cross is perhaps best known for his phrase “the dark night of the soul,” which is often bandied about as a synonym for  depression. However, the spiritual dark night is not at all the same as depression, but rather is a time in which the soul experiences an unmooring from certain comfortable familiarities and is challenged to progress less by knowing than by unknowing. 

Of course, such a period of darkened understanding may be associated with depression, but not necessarily. To a mature discernment the two experiences are quite distinct, and the spiritual direction in either case is vastly different. Put simply, in the dark night of the soul nothing is wrong and there’s nothing you can do, whereas in depression something is wrong, and to move forward there are things you must do. Depression always has a root cause which must be addressed, so the ball is largely in your court (though you may need external help to discover this). In the dark night, the ball is in God’s court. Hence the poet exclaims, “Ah, the sheer grace!” 

Similarly, the literal night—that is, the absence of sunlight—has often been used as a metaphor for depression or difficulty, when in reality night is the shadow of the earth, and that is all it is. In spiritual terms, night is simply like the darkness of earth which a seed must experience in order to germinate. Plants thrive on sunlight, but they also require darkness. As do we. And so we might speak of ‘the dark night of the soil.’

David Steindl-Rast, reflecting on John 1:5—“The light shines in the darkness”—writes, “This doesn’t mean that light shines into the darkness, like a flashlight into a dark tent. No, the good news that the Gospel of John proclaims is that the light shines right in the midst of darkness. A great revelation: the very darkness shines.” 

Next Post:  Good Friday: A Poem by Christina Rossetti

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