Dark Night of the Soul

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Dark Night of the Soul (Spanish: La noche oscura del alma) is a poem written by the 16th-century Spanish mystic and poet St. John of the Cross. The author himself did not give any title to his poem, on which he wrote two book-length commentaries: Ascent of Mount Carmel (Subida del Monte Carmelo) and The Dark Night (Noche Oscura).

Poem and treatise of St. John of the Cross[edit]

The poem of St. John of the Cross, in 8 stanzas of 5 lines each, narrates the journey of the soul to mystical union with God. The journey is called "The 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 first verse of the poem is translated:[1]

In an obscure night
Fevered with love's anxiety
(O hapless, happy plight!)
I went, none seeing me
Forth from my house, where all things quiet be

—that is, the body and the mind, with their natural cares, being stilled. At the beginning of the treatise Dark Night (the Declaración), St. 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" does not refer to the difficulties of life in general,[2] although the phrase has understandably been taken to refer to such trials. The nights which the soul experiences are the two necessary purgations on the path to divine union: the first purgation is of the sensory or sensitive part of the soul, the second of the spiritual part (Ascent of Mount Carmel, Ch. 1, 2). Such purgations comprise the first of the three stages of the mystical journey, followed by those of illumination and then union.[3] St. John does not actually use the term "dark night of the soul", but only "dark night" ('noche oscura').

There are several steps in this night, which are related in successive stanzas of the poem. The thesis of the poem is the joyful experience of being guided to God, in which the only light in this dark night is that which burns in the soul, which St. John describes as a guide more certain than the mid-day sun: "Aquésta me guiaba, más cierto que la luz del mediodía." St. John describes this light as leading the soul engaged in the mystical journey to divine union.

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"). Dark Night of the Soul further describes the ten steps on the ladder of mystical love, previously described by Saint Thomas Aquinas and in part by Aristotle.[4]

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.[5]

The treatises, written sometime between 1578 and 1585, are commentaries on the poem, explaining its meaning line by line. Padre Lucinio del SS. Sacramento, who edited the critical edition (edition 5), with extremely thorough notes, of John of the Cross's Complete Works in the Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos series,[6] writes that "the idea of the 'night' to analyse the complex psychology of the soul under the purifying influence of grace is the most original and fruitful symbolic creation of the Mystic Doctor's doctrine."[7] The Ascent and the Dark Night should be considered as forming a single body as P. Lucinio states,[8] quoting Andrés de la Incarnación and P. Silverio de Santa Teresa. Both works were left uncompleted.

In Roman Catholic spirituality[edit]

The term "dark night (of the soul)" in Roman Catholic spirituality describes a spiritual crisis in the journey toward union with God, like that described by St. John of the Cross.

St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, OCD, a 19th-century French nun and doctor of the Church, wrote of her own experience of the dark night. Her dark night derived from doubt of the existence of eternity, to which doubt she nonetheless did not give intellectual or volitional assent, but rather prevailed by a deepening of her Catholic faith. However, she painfully suffered through this prolonged period of spiritual darkness, even declaring to her fellow nuns: "If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into".[9]

While this spiritual crisis is usually temporary, it 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 St. Teresa of Calcutta, whose own name in religion she selected in honor of St. Thérèse, "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.[10]

In popular culture[edit]

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.

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.[11]

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",[12] 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.

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.[13]

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.[14]

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".

In modern mindfulness practice, many authors have named a similar phenomenon in meditation as the dark night of the soul after the poem. It is often described as a lengthened and intense state of depression or ennui caused by errant or irresponsible meditation practices. Author John Yates compares it to a Theravadan term, dukkha ñanas, or "knowledges of suffering".[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Underhill, Evelyn. (1974). Mysticism. 12th ed., New York: New American Library. [1930], p.83
  2. ^ "The Dark Night of the Soul". 13 December 2018.
  3. ^ Underhill, Mysticism, Ch. 4.
  4. ^ "Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book 12, section 1072b". www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 3 June 2021.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Vida y Obras de San Juan de la Cruz, 5th ed. Lucinio del Ss. Sacramento, Ed. Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1964.
  7. ^ Lucinio del SS. Sacramento, Nota Introductoria, p. 359.
  8. ^ Nota Introductoria, p. 357.
  9. ^ Martin, James (29 August 2007). "A Saint's Dark Night". The New York Times.
  10. ^ David van Biema (23 August 2007). "Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith". Time. Retrieved 7 April 2020.
  11. ^ "Rosalía - Aunque Es de Noche". YouTube.
  12. ^ "Dark Night of the Soul achievement in Crysis 2".
  13. ^ "Dark Night of the Soul – Ola Gjeilo". olagjeilo.com.
  14. ^ "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.
  15. ^ 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.

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