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Dark Night of the Soul

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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.[1]

In modern times, the phrase "dark night of the soul" is used to describe a crisis of faith or a difficult, painful period in one's life.

The poem


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 that the poem was composed while John was imprisoned in Toledo, although the few explicit statements in this regard are unconvincing and second-hand.[2]

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,[3] although the phrase has been taken to refer to such trials.



Commentaries by John of the Cross

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 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").[6] 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.[7]

At the beginning of the commentary Dark Night, 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.[8]

Contemporary understanding


The term "dark night of the soul" can be used as a synonym for a crisis of faith.[9] More generally, it is "used informally to describe an extremely difficult and painful period in one's life".[note 2]

This crisis 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.[11][12]

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."[13] 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."[14]

Roberto Assagioli states:

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".[15]

Other writers have connected the Dark Night of the Soul to the work of Stanislav Grof.[16]

See also



  1. ^ 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 comes from Dark Night book 2 chapter 6:4. (Chong-Beng Gan 2015, p. 189)
  2. ^ 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).[10]

    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.


  1. ^ Schneiders (2005), p. 4942.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ "The Dark Night of the Soul". 13 December 2018. Archived from the original on 5 August 2020. Retrieved 9 January 2019.
  4. ^ San Juan de la Cruz (22 July 1929). Silverio de Santa Teresa (ed.). Obras de San Juan de la Cruz (in Spanish). Burgos: El Monte Carmelo. pp. 4–5.
  5. ^ Saint John of the Cross (1959). Silverio de Santa Teresa (ed.). Dark Night of the Soul (PDF). Translated by Edgar Allison Peers. p. 14.
  6. ^ Ascent of Mount Carmel, Ch. 1, 2
  7. ^ Underhill, Mysticism, Ch. 4.
  8. ^ Greene 1987, pp. 22–38.
  9. ^ Durà-Vilà, Glòria; Dein, Simon (September 2009). "The Dark Night of the Soul: Spiritual Distress and its Psychiatric Implications". Mental Health Religion & Culture. 12 (6): 543–559. doi:10.1080/13674670902858800. S2CID 144177148.
  10. ^ Ronald W. Pies (2020), Psychiatry and the Dark Night of the Soul
  11. ^ David van Biema (23 August 2007). "Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith". Time. Retrieved 7 April 2020.
  12. ^ Martin, James (29 August 2007). "A Saint's Dark Night". The New York Times.
  13. ^ Khan, Hazrat Inayat. Thinking Like The Universe: The Sufi Path Of Awakening.
  14. ^ Campbell, Joseph. Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion.
  15. ^ Assagioli, Roberto (2007). Transpersonal Development. Inner Way Productions. pp. 146–147.
  16. ^ Bache, Christopher M. (1 September 1991). "Mysticism and psychedelics: The case of the dark night". Journal of Religion and Health. 30 (3): 215–236. doi:10.1007/BF00986399. ISSN 1573-6571.



 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "St. John of the Cross". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

  • 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.

Further reading