While it has been important in many religions, the Christian Mysticism tradition has long placed a particular emphasis on the Dark Night of the Soul experience.
The 16th century Spanish Carmelite priest St. John of the Cross wrote a poem with the title “Dark Night of the Soul”, and accompanied it with an extensive commentary. It details the stages he went through in his lifelong search for the holiness which would enable him to live in the presence of God. This poem and commentary have proved to be the inspiritaion for similar quests by mystical Christians and others since John’s time through to today. The current revival of interest in holiness and supernatural living has seen a recognition of the value of accounts of the experiences of earlier Christians.
It is all too easy consider the dark night experience to be a negative one, equating it with burnout and depression, and therefore a possible result of driveness or lack of care for one’s own wellbeing. The mystics, on the other hand, recognised it as a blessing. In the journey from being self-absorbed to a single-minded focus on God, there comes a time when our egocentricity must be broken and our utter dependence on God realised. The tool God often uses to achieve this is the dark night of the soul experience.
The essence of the experience is the loss of any connection with God for a time, which may be brief or may last for many years. For one who has discovered the true joy of being able to come into the presence of God through prayer or meditation, such a loss is devastating – a real ‘darkness’. It feels as though God has suddenly abandoned them, prayer has become impossible, doubts about one’s faith and salvation may set in, and one is overcome by an intense loneliness.
Some others who recount such an experience are the 19th-century French Carmelite St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who, according to James Martin of the New York Times, told her fellow nuns: “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into.”
The ultimate expression of such a dark night experience is contained in the desolate cry of Jesus from the cross, “My God! my God! Why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) In fact, Father God had not turned his face away, but was fully engaged in the suffering of his Son. However, for Jesus the experience, for the first time ever, of his spirit being unable to sense his Father’s presence because of the sin he had taken into himself, was a great shock. He discovered truly what it is like to live as a sinful man, whereas we grow up in that condition and become used to it.
On the pages of this site we will be including a short biography of each of a number of the great mystical writers, and an extract or the full text of their book or books that relate to the Dark Night of the Soul. Our first is John of the Cross and his book that coined our working title: The Dark Night of the Soul. More will follow, the next being the English mystic and scholar of mysticism Evelyn Underhill.