The endurance of darkness is preparation for great light.John of the Cross
Most of our lives are ongoing pursuits of sensory pleasures. And every time we think that we’ve found lasting fulfillment, it doesn’t take long before we need more gratification to soothe the pain of an incomprehensible emptiness that seems impossible to fill. We seek pleasure and avoid pain. And most of us are stuck in that cycle until death.
However, some people go beyond the cycle, like Spanish mystics John of the Cross and his mentor Teresa of Ávila. According to John and Teresa, humans have an inborn longing for completion. This completion cannot be achieved by worldly pleasures. So, instead, we must go within, to reach the inner core of our soul in which ‘the divine’ lies hidden.
Through spiritual awakening, we adopt a different perception of reality. Our predicament becomes clear. Knowing that our past way of life never fills the void, while not knowing where to turn next, can leave us in despair.
According to John and Teresa, we must undergo a transformation that happens in the darkness of our unconscious, to reach the light. This mysterious and confusing transitional experience is called the dark night of the soul.
After his attempt to find God in worldly things, John of the Cross spoke of God as ‘nada’ which is Spanish of ‘nothing’ or ‘no-thing’, meaning that our senses cannot perceive It, and our minds cannot grasp Its wisdom.
As opposed to the typical Christian description of God, which is that of a powerful bearded man in the sky, John’s God is mystical and elusive. This observation closely resembles what the Taoists call ‘Tao’, which is an undefinable and incomprehensible force, that cannot be understood by the human intellect.
John of the Cross became an apprentice of Carmelite nun Saint Teresa of Ávila in 16th-century Spain. Both were deeply concerned with the union between the soul and the divine, and both experienced a dark period in their lives during which their own unions took place. John and Teresa described these journeys as dynamic love affairs, full of passion and emotion.
In his poem called The Dark Night of the Soul, John narrated this union:
O guiding night!John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, 5
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.
Even though the dark night of the soul has its roots in Christianity, it’s not restricted to Christians only. Rather, it’s a spiritual phenomenon that can occur in everyone, regardless of religion. We could call it a ‘spiritual depression’, or a journey towards ‘divine union’ that takes place in the shadow or our essence. It happens in the regions of the soul that we cannot see nor grasp. Thus, the dark night of the soul is an unconscious experience with conscious consequences.
The tragedy behind the unification between ourselves and the divine, according to Teresa, is that we don’t realize who we are and what we want. Blinded by worldly pleasures (the things that our senses can perceive) it’s no surprise that many people don’t go beyond their search for sensual gratification. It’s perfectly possible to live life going from one pleasure to another and find a sense of fulfillment in doing so.
However, some feel that there’s a void that seeks to be filled, which cannot be done by anything that the external world has to offer. Perhaps we thought that money was the answer, but after becoming rich, we discover that it’s not. The same goes for status and fame, which are, at most, temporary substitutes that do not bring lasting fulfillment. Even relationships and romantic love affairs don’t gratify our hearts in the ways we had hoped for.
According to Gerald May, author of the book The Dark Night of the Soul: some people even seem to be born with this realization.
They grow up trying to adjust themselves to the values and strivings that surround them, but somehow their hearts are never in it. They have a deep awareness that fulfillment cannot be found through acquisition and achievement. They often feel like misfits because of the different, deeper, ungraspable love they feel inside them.Gerald G. May, The Dark Night of the Soul, 3
Other people, sometimes even in old age, get struck by a sudden clarity, realizing that life is not what it seems.
An example of this sudden life-changing awakening is the concept of ‘taking the red pill’, which is derived from the movie The Matrix.
After swallowing the red pill, the veil is lifted, and we see reality for what it truly is. Of course, we can choose to be plugged back into The Matrix, but we’ll never experience it in the same way we did when we were residing in blissful ignorance.
The allegory of the cave, presented by Plato, teaches us that we cannot unsee what we’ve seen. So, after the awakening, we can choose to go back on the wheel of sensory pleasures, but we’ll always be lucid about the emptiness of this pursuit. We know it’s phony, and therefore, we can’t enjoy it, and even begin to resent it.
The experience of the gray area between the mundane and the divine, and the great uncertainty that comes with that, is part of the dark night of the soul.
Because we’ve lost faith in old ideas and beliefs, we experience a weakening of the will. This manifests as a loss of appetite in the things we used to enjoy. We know that the activities hold us back from achieving something that we cannot intellectually explain, but desire nonetheless.
No matter what we do, we’ll always feel the pull in a certain direction without exactly knowing why or where it leads us. The more we try to relive old experiences, and reignite the fire of what we once enjoyed, the more useless it all feels.
That’s why, for many people, going back isn’t an option. They must move on. But how? And where to? Should it be done by prayer? The practice of meditation? Or perhaps by therapy, or maybe by embracing some sort of religious belief system?
Unfortunately, we cannot intervene in the process, apart from increasing awareness, sitting with it, and accepting it.
“The purest suffering bears and carries in its train the purest understanding,” wrote John of the Cross. Thus, we might want to contemplate the nature of what’s happening to us, which, according to John and Teresa, is the unconscious movement towards the very thing that our soul wants the most: love.
According to their theology, we humans have, above everything else, a deep desire to love. And this love can be directed towards each other, but also to God. Therefore, the union that comes through the dark night of the soul entirely revolves around love. It’s the Lover seeking union with the Beloved, which is the divine. And the divine is in everything and everyone. So when we become one, our emptiness is filled.
Teresa, for example, as a Christian nun, experienced a period of twenty years, plagued by confusion and self-loathing in regards to her creed. According to May, she was very attached to the opinions of other people, and how they perceived her as a religious person. But when she finally surrendered to God, she let go of these attachments along with all the ideas and opinions of herself and other people. She felt liberated.
The dark night of the soul is a process of shedding off the ego. We unconsciously let go of concepts that block us from becoming who we truly are. It’s a process of giving up control and becoming receptive instead of defensive. During the dark night, we are losing who we thought we were, while not yet having become what we’re supposed to be. We’re in between. We can’t go back, but the way ahead of us is dark and unknown.
The elusiveness of what’s going on in the depths of our souls brings about great confusion. We feel that something isn’t right, but can’t really grasp what it is. This experience can range from quiet awareness to deep depression and hopelessness, so it doesn’t necessarily go together with pain.
Nevertheless, the frustrating thing about the dark night of the soul is that there’s no way to control what we cannot comprehend. We can’t fight it, nor can we intervene in its workings.
Thus, as far as John and Teresa are concerned, the only thing we can do is endure, and before we know it, the dawn will be upon us.
As John described:
I abandoned and forgot myself,John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, 8
laying my face on my Beloved; all things ceased;
I went out from myself, leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.
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