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The Dark Night of the Soul (La noche oscura del alma) is a phase of passive purification of the spirit in the mystical development, as described by the 16th-century Spanish mystic and poet St. John of the Cross in his treatise Dark Night (Noche Oscura), a commentary on his poem with the same name. It follows after the second phase, the illumination in which God's presence is felt, but this presence is not yet stable. The author himself did not give any title to his poem, which together with this commentary and the Ascent of Mount Carmel (Subida del Monte Carmelo) forms a treatise on the active and passive purification of the senses and the spirit, leading to mystical union. In modern times, the phrase "dark night of the soul" has taken on the broader meaning of spiritual dryness and existential doubt and loneliness.
Dating and subject
The poem of St. John of the Cross, in eight stanzas of five lines each, narrates the journey of the soul to the mystical union with God. The time or place of composition are not certain. It is likely that the poem was written between 1577 and 1579. It has been proposed[by whom?] that the poem was composed while John was imprisoned in Toledo, although the few explicit statements in this regard are unconvincing and second-hand.
The journey is called "dark night" in part because darkness represents the fact that the destination "God" is unknowable, as in the 14th century, mystical classic The Cloud of Unknowing; both pieces are derived from the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in the 6th century. Further, the path per se is unknowable. The "Dark Night" does not refer to the difficulties of life in general, although the phrase has understandably been taken to refer to such trials.
La noche oscura del alma
Dark Night of the Soul
Commentaries by John of the Cross
The treatises Ascent of Mount Carmel (1581-1585) and Dark Night (the Declaración, 1584-1586), are commentaries on the poem, explaining its meaning line by line. Both works were left uncompleted.
The Ascent of Mount Carmel (1581-1585) is divided into three books that reflect the two phases of the dark night. The first is a purification of the senses (titled "The Active Night of the Senses"). The second and third books describe the more intense purification of the spirit (titled "The Active Night of the Spirit"). The active purgation of the senses comprises the first of the classical three stages of the mystical journey, followed by those of illumination and then union. The passive purgation of the spirit takes place between illumination and full union, when the presence of God has already been felt but is not stable.
At the beginning of the commentary Dark Night (1584-1586) , John wrote: "In this first verse, the soul tells the mode and manner in which it departs, as to its affection, from itself and from all things, dying through a true mortification to all of them and to itself, to arrive at a sweet and delicious life with God."
The dark night of the soul is a stage of final and complete purification, and is marked by confusion, helplessness, stagnation of the will, and a sense of the withdrawal of God's presence.[note 1] It is the period of final "unselfing" and the surrender to the hidden purposes of the divine will. The final stage is union with the object of love, the one Reality, God. Here the self has been permanently established on a transcendental level and liberated for a new purpose.
The term "dark night (of the soul)" is used as referring to spiritual dryness, the absence of experiencing the presence of God, but also more generally "to describe an extremely difficult and painful period in one’s life."[note 2]
This spiritual dryness may endure for a long time. The "dark night" of St. Paul of the Cross in the 18th century endured 45 years, from which he ultimately recovered. The dark night of Mother Teresa, whose own name in religion she selected in honor of Thérèse of Lisieux, "may be the most extensive such case on record", having endured from 1948 almost until her death in 1997, with only brief interludes of relief, according to her letters.
Other authors have made similar references: Inayat Khan states: “There can be no rebirth without a dark night of the soul, a total annihilation of all that you believed in and thought that you were.” Joseph Campbell states "The dark night of the soul comes just before revelation. When everything is lost, and all seems darkness, then comes the new life and all that is needed."
“Before the full and final victory, however, the soul has to undergo another test: it must pass through the ‘dark night’ which is a new and deeper experience of annihilation, or a crucible in which all the human elements that go to make it up are melted together. But the darkest nights are followed by the most radiant dawns and the soul, perfect at last, enters into complete, constant and inseparable communion with the Spirit, so that – to use the bold statement employed by St John of the Cross – ‘it seems to be God himself and has the same characteristics as him'." Roberto Assagioli
References in popular culture
- St. John's poem
- The Spanish singer Rosalía arranged a version of the poem Dark Night of the Soul and released it as a single titled Aunque es de noche.
- Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt set the poem to music on her album The Mask and Mirror.
- Composer Ola Gjeilo has written a SATB choral setting accompanied with piano and string quartet, fourteen minutes long, with the English translation of the poem.
- T. S. Eliot alludes to "The Dark Night of the Soul" throughout his Four Quartets
- Ernest Dowson alludes to the "obscure night of the soul" in his absinthe poem, Absinthia Taetra.
- In his collection of essays published in 1945, The Crack-Up, F. Scott Fitzgerald penned his famous line, "In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning".
- As a comment on the shallowness of modern spirituality, author and humorist Douglas Adams parodied the phrase with the title of his 1988 science fiction novel The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.
- English electronic band Depeche Mode make a clear reference in "I Feel Loved", the second single released from the album Exciter: "It's the dark night of my soul and temptation's taking hold, but through the pain and the suffering, through the heartache and trembling I feel loved".
- Alternative rock band Sparklehorse, along with producer Danger Mouse and director and visual artist David Lynch, collaborated with a number of other artists on an audio-visual project titled Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse Present: Dark Night of the Soul.
- Moby and Mark Lanegan wrote about the Night of the Dark Soul in their collaboration song titled The Lonely Night, released on Moby's eleventh studio album Innocents. The song was rerecorded for Moby's album Reprise containing acoustic and orchestral arangments of his older work.
- In the 2011 video game Crysis 2, there is an unlockable achievement/trophy titled "Dark Night of the Soul", a reference to the Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse album of the same name.
- The phrase has also been used as a song title by several other bands and music artists, including Steve Bell, The Get Up Kids, Ulver, Mayhem, and Shai Linne in The Solus Christus Project.
- Northern Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison writes about the "dark night of the soul" in a number of his songs, including "Tore Down a la Rimbaud" on A Sense of Wonder and "Give Me My Rapture" on Poetic Champions Compose. It also served as the inspiration for the title of the lead release of his 2019 album Three Chords & the Truth.
- In his 1994 novel Insomnia, Stephen King makes a reference to the F. Scott Fitzgerald usage when his protagonist first begins experiencing the signs of insomnia following the death of his [the character's] wife. King also references it in his 1982 short story "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption".
- Ego death
- Existential crisis
- Loevinger; Loevinger's stages of ego development
- Dabrowski; Theory of positive disintegration
- Lawrence Kohlberg; Kohlberg's stages of moral development
- Psychology of religion
- Divinization (Christian)
- In "Mysticism," part II chapter 9, Underhill quotes John: "This," says St. John of the Cross again, "is one of the most bitter sufferings of this purgation. The soul is conscious of a profound emptiness in itself, a cruel destitution of the three kinds of goods, natural, temporal, and spiritual, which are ordained for its comfort. It sees itself in the midst of the opposite evils, miserable imperfections, dryness and emptiness of the understanding, and abandonment of the spirit in darkness." The quote domes from Dark Night book 2 chapter 6:4. (Chong-Beng Gan 2015, p. 189)
- Ronald W. Pies: "The phrase, “dark night of the soul” is often used informally to describe an extremely difficult and painful period in one’s life, for example, after the death of a loved one; the break-up of a marriage; or the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness. For many, the loneliness, isolation and fear associated with the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic is, indeed, a dark night of the soul. There is nothing wrong with these informal usages, and they have obvious links to the concepts of demoralization and despair, as we have defined them. But they differ significantly from the original meaning and context of the phrase, as first conceived by the Spanish mystic, John of the Cross (1541-1597 AD)."
See, for example, Culadasa PhD, John Yates. (2017). The Mind Illuminated : a Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness. Immergut PhD, Matthew. London: Hay House Publishing. ISBN 978-1-78180-879-5. OCLC 971364730.
- Schneiders (2005), p. 4942.
- Lucinio del SS. Sacramento, Nota Introductoria a la 'Subida' y la 'Noche' in Vida y Obras completas de San Juan de la Cruz, 5th ed., Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1954, p. 358.
- "The Dark Night of the Soul". 13 December 2018.
- "Poet Seers » Dark Night of the Soul".
- Ascent of Mount Carmel, Ch. 1, 2
- Underhill, Mysticism, Ch. 4.
- Greene 1987, pp. 22–38.
- Ronald W. Pies (2020), Psychiatry and the Dark Night of the Soul
- David van Biema (23 August 2007). "Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith". Time. Retrieved 7 April 2020.
- Martin, James (29 August 2007). "A Saint's Dark Night". The New York Times.
- Khan, Hazrat Inayat. Thinking Like The Universe: The Sufi Path Of Awakening.
- Campbell, Joseph. Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion.
- Assagioli, Roberto (2007). Transpersonal Development. Inner Way Productions. p. 146-147.
- "Rosalía - Aunque Es de Noche". YouTube.
- "Dark Night of the Soul – Ola Gjeilo". olagjeilo.com.
- "Dark Night of the Soul achievement in Crysis 2".
- "Van Morrison announces new album Three Chords and the Truth, shares "Dark Night of the Soul": Stream". Consequence of Sound. 1 September 2019. Retrieved 24 January 2020.
- Chong-Beng Gan, Peter (2015). Dialectics and the Sublime in Underhill's Mysticism. Springer.
- Greene, Dana (Spring 1987). "Adhering to God: The Message of Evelyn Underhill for Our Times". Spirituality Today. Vol. 39. pp. 22–38.
- Schneiders, Sandra M. (2005). "John of the Cross". In Jones, Lindsay (ed.). MacMillan Encyclopedia of religion. MacMillan.
- Underhill, Evelyn (1999). Mysticism. Oneworld Publications. ISBN 1-85168-196-5.
- May, Gerald G. (2004). The Dark Night of the Soul. A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth. New York City: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-060-55423-1.
- McKee, Kaye P. (2006). When God Walks Away. A Companion to the Dark Night of the Soul. New York City: Crossroad Publishing Company. ISBN 0-824-52380-6.
- Dark Night of the Soul verse translation of the poem.
- Text of Dark Night of the Soul from the Christian Classics Ethereal Library
- Original and Translation of Dark Night of the Soul From The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross
- St. John's commentary
- Modern interpretations
- The chapter titled "The Dark Night of the Soul" from Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism at Gnostic.org.
- Summary of The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross
- The Obscure Night of The Soul public domain audiobook at LibriVox