The medieval Spanish mystic John of the Cross could never have guessed that, over 400 years after he wrote the poem “Dark Night of the Soul,” this expression would come to represent an awakening rite of passage in a modern world scarcely recognisable from his own.
John’s was a discovery, intimate and solitary, from deep within the cloisters of a monastic lifestyle, and later his imprisonment and torture. But why a dark night? Surely all nights are dark by definition. It implies that this is no ordinary darkness but one that serves a purpose.
La noche oscura del alma rolls on the tongue with a different cadence and texture. In Spanish, the night is a feminine noun and so too, therefore, its modifying adjective. La noche oscura. We are drawn into her dusky folds for an experience that is exquisite: sometimes painful, sometimes beautiful, and always towards greater freedom.
For John, the Dark Night was a passageway through which all the old rites, rituals, prayers, and contemplations failed to yield a felt connection with the divine. It was a period of dryness, disconnection, futility, and despair. Where was God now? “Why would you hurt me, abandon me, fleeing like a deer?” he wrote. “I rushed after you, But my cries only drifted in the empty air.”
But this God did not want to be an idol, a symbol, a concept, or a conquest. This God wanted a personal, intimate relationship; this divine was ever eager to love, to push past the places of all resistance, all unworthiness, all withholding.
The late theologian Gerald May wrote in “Addiction and Grace” that “God in immanence is already too close to us, too intimate, too much at one with us to be a clear-cut object, and God in transcendence is too great to be apprehended.”
So how can we find this hidden divine? It is through the groping in the dark, the yearning, the experience of a gnawing absence, that we can relate purely through the heart, not the head; this is where we are most disarmed and have nothing left to offer but our utter nakedness and vulnerability.
“What would happen to our freedom if God, our perfect lover, were to appear before us with such objective clarity that all our doubts disappeared?” asks May. “We would experience a kind of love, to be sure, but it would be love like a reflex. Almost without thought, we would fix all our desires upon this Divine Object, try to grasp and possess it, addict ourselves to it.”
La noche oscura del alma, in both medieval and modern contexts, is nothing less than the reorienting of desire. In the words of author Carolyn Myss, we are being called to become “mystics without monasteries.”
The night is dark to protect us, to stop us trying to micromanage and take control. When we are robbed of our usual senses, we are made supple and yielding. Though we may grope and yearn, cry and scream, as the objects of our old desires slip from our grasp, we are nonetheless being led.
I believe there are many dark nights within the grander night of awakening. And at each breaking of the dawn, as the first tendrils of light reveal a new landscape, something else becomes clear. For me, I realise how close the divine had been to my skin; how the darkness was her embrace and I had been led with a love so indomitable, so gentle and fierce, that I am brought to my knees in gratitude.
As John wrote:
This light guided me More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me–
A place where none appeared.
Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!
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