The Dark Night of the Soul

by Robert Baiocco

The spiritual journey is often referred to as the path of faith. The New Testament scriptures cannot emphasize enough that the road to God is one of belief. Yet many who refuse to embark on the journey of faith scoff at the idea suggesting that it is absurd to believe anything blindly and simply trust what cannot be verified.

Indeed they have a good point! To believe anything blindly without any sort of evidence whatsoever doesn’t seem like a wise thing to do, and yet many people of faith seem to think that this is what God is requiring of them. However, God doesn’t ask us to believe in him without any sort of reasonable proof for doing so. In fact the whole journey of faith can be thought of us as a positive feedback loop in which the soul which reaches out in faith receives back certain tangible and intangible signs that it is on a sure road.

The one who decides to trust in God many times sees the invisible hand of the Almighty working in his life, directing the events that unfold. He sees how God has helped him in many a difficult situation and so has a form of evidence to continue believing in him as he continues to walk down the road of life. If such a soul is savvy, he also learns to perceive the various signs and tokens of divine care that are placed along his path to give some verification that he is being led by unseen forces.

We may perhaps call all of this objective feedback that goes into the loop of faith, but perhaps even more endearing to the heart is that subjective feedback that it frequently gets to be assured of God’s presence. And this is the realm of feelings and sensations which though intangible are nonetheless very real and at many times essential to continue marching along the path of faith. Such affections can take many forms, and we can suggest the uplifting feeling that one gets while singing a song of praise to God as one such example. Certainly the deep sense of peace that one might experience while in prayer or meditation is another. When a soul participates in the sacraments of the church, such subjective feedback is also often present as when after receiving the Sacrament of Confession one feels the removal of guilt from his being. Those who have a devotion to the Blessed Sacrament will also attest to the warmth and love they feel radiating from the Host which they sometimes will venerate for hours on end without noticing the time. (Of course without this type of encouragement, few would venture to sit in front of a “piece of bread” for a long period of time to pray.)

The positive feedback may also take the form of the feelings one gets while being in nature where the presence of God is often perceived strongly. Or it may be the perception of divine approval when one has done what is right, that sense that God is pleased with ones actions. We could suggest also that people experience God simply through the observation of a mother with her child, for wherever love is, God is there. Some souls in fact have become so accustomed to being encapsulated by God’s love that they take it for granted that they should have the continual sensation of being wrapped in his warm embrace.

Now imagine for a moment what it would be like for all of this warm and fuzzy subjective evidence to disappear from one’s life and not come back for a long time if at all. More than just a hypothetical suggestion, such a scenario has beset some of the greatest saints in the church throughout the ages. Known generically as the “Dark Night of the Soul,” this vacuum of the divine presence has invaded the lives of quite a few pious individuals in the story of the church. Probably it could be said that the Dark Night is an experience to one degree or another that is essential for all souls before they can complete their earthly journey. Broadly speaking, one who enters the Dark Night refers to a person who has been used to feeling God close to him, who for some reason suddenly finds that he is no longer “available” in those forms that he has known.

One of the most popular saints in recent memory is the nun from Calcutta who served the poorest of the poor. It is widely thought that someone like Mother Teresa, tireless worker for God that she was would be a person to enjoy countless ecstasies and mystical experiences throughout her life. Though it is true that earlier on in her life, she experienced profound union with Christ, “soon after she left the convent and began her work among the destitute and dying on the street, the visions and locutions ceased, and she experienced a spiritual darkness that would remain with her until her death. She disclosed feelings of doubt, loneliness, and abandonment. God seemed absent, heaven empty, and bitterest of all, her own suffering seemed to count for nothing, ‘ . . . just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.’”

When after her death, her personal notes were read, many unfamiliar with the experience of the Dark Night of the Soul were shocked at her sentiments and questioned how a great saint could express such things. Yet she was hardly the first soul to go through such a profound spiritual darkness. About a hundred years before her, the beloved Saint Thérèse of Lisieux endured a similar ordeal. “From Easter 1896 until her death from tuberculosis on September 30, 1897, at age twenty-four, Thérèse endured a trial of faith of the modern kind, which she described as like being enclosed in a dark tunnel. She seemed to hear the darkness mocking her: ‘You are dreaming about the light, about a fatherland embalmed in the sweetest perfumes; you are dreaming about the eternal possession of the Creator of all these marvels; you believe that one day you will walk out of this fog which surrounds you! Advance, advance; rejoice in death which will give you not what you hope for but a night still more profound, the night of nothingness.’ According to tradition she died trusting and loving God in the very grip of this doubt, and promising to spend her heaven doing good on earth.”

For those who would question whether this experience of darkness finds support in the scriptures, they need look no further than the Psalms where David and others lamented bitterly about God “hiding his face” from them. To cite a few passages, we quote Psalm 13 where David groans, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?” In the 30th Psalm he complains, “O Lord, when you favored me, you made my mountain stand firm; but when you hid your face, I was dismayed” The Psalmist writes in the 88th chapter, “Why O Lord do you reject me and hide your face from me? From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me.” And of course the ultimate sense of darkness and divine abandonment is embodied in Psalm 22, the Messianic Psalm which begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out to you by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.”

Clearly the spiritual crisis known as the “Dark Night of the Soul” is a phenomenon that has been chronicled from most ancient times and is an experience that can afflict very devout souls sometime in their life. For reasons known to God, certain individuals are plunged into the Dark Night which essentially means that for a season they are required to tread the path of blind faith, groping in the dark as it were completely devoid of any spiritual sense of the presence of God. Put simply, those who are thrust into these dire straits are asked to continue to work out their faith despite the feeling that God is “dead” and heaven is empty, a very formidable trial to say the least.

We have indicated that the path of faith is generally one that is accompanied by positive reinforcement to give the seeker encouragement along the way. As a pattern this road means that the believer makes the first move by taking a step of faith, venturing into the darkness as it were before God reciprocates and confirms the legitimacy of that move. The person of faith must first take a risk, small as it may be before God validates that action.

The follower of God is always required to make the first move, because it is through believing that the soul is stretched beyond its familiar environment. And in this way it grows. Of necessity, it must venture into the darkness that we call faith in order to expand, for wallowing in what it already knows and feels does it nothing. To grow in its knowledge of God, it must jump off the cliff during the night into the darkness of uncharted waters in order to find God in a previously unexperienced way. This God demands of the soul, for always interested in one’s spiritual advancement, he bids his devotees to become strong in divine reliance rather than become complacent in what is sentimental and familiar.

Those who enter into the Dark Night are invited by God to tread the path of faith in a radical way. Stripped of all joyful sensations, inner feelings, and peaceful sentiments, they are challenged to encounter the transcendent God who dwells beyond all of these affections in a place far above human understanding, in a place of utter darkness. It was for this symbolic reason that in the design of the Jewish Temple, the Most Holy Place within that building was fashioned as a cube without any windows. This most sacred room within the edifice contained the Ark of the Covenant and housed the special presence of God. None could enter this pitch black place except the high priest and that only once per year. While all of the other rooms in the temple were well lit with lamps, this one was deliberately kept in complete darkness to represent how God is totally beyond human understanding and experience. That is to say, he appears as darkness and obscurity to the lowly human mind.

This motif of darkness shrouding the divine presence was certainly prevalent in the Old Testament, for time and time again, God condescended to the human plane enveloped in thick darkness. At Mt. Sinai he fell upon the top of the mountain in the form of dense storm clouds from which he spoke to the people. Later in the story of Job, God came to the suffering servant in a storm and responded to his complaints. In the account of the dedication of Solomon’s temple, we are told that the divine presence filled the building as a cloud so no one could see his hand in front of him.

Saint John of the Cross, the 16th century mystic who was probably the foremost expert on the experience of the Dark Night of the Soul reminds his readers that this concept was also in the minds of the Greek philosophers. He writes, “Aristotle tells us that as the eyes of the bat are in total darkness with respect to the sun, so is our understanding in total darkness to that which is brightest in God.” Certainly God is resplendent light, brighter than a million suns, but to the feeble human frame that light is darkness.

According to John of the Cross, the soul is plunged into this Dark Night in order that it might bypass human understanding and make direct contact with the God of the darkness in a transcendent way. In this night where the spiritual senses are deadened, he communicates with the soul directly and in a way that is necessarily beyond its observation and comprehension. The mystic informs us, “In order to reach [God,] the soul must go forth by not understanding rather than by desiring to understand, by rendering itself blind and entering into darkness rather than by opening its eyes.” Along the same lines, he says, “In order to proceed on its way to God, the soul must walk by not comprehending rather than by comprehending; it must exchange the mutable and comprehensible for the immutable and incomprehensible.”

On the same subject, the saint compares the journey of the Dark Night to a person venturing into new territories. He writes, “When an explorer wants to travel into new and unknown lands, he must seek new roads of which he does not know anything either by his own past experience or by the reports of others. Similarly, when the soul is making most progress, it is travelling in darkness and unknowing.” “To attain then to union with God, the soul must enter into the dark night of the spirit wherein it must totally denude both sense and spirit of all apprehensions and sensory feelings, and must walk in darkness and pure faith which is the proper and adequate means of union with God.”

Of course wandering in the Dark Night is no easy task for the soul. All of the circumstances that surround this experience are pure suffering. And this should not surprise us, because growth in spiritual things usually requires suffering or at the very least discomfort to achieve. St. John of the Cross reminds us that the road of suffering is a far more profitable path to take than one of ease and a carefree life. This is because in suffering man receives strength from God while the easy life simply allows the soul to indulge its own weaknesses and imperfections. Through suffering the soul acquires virtue which it would otherwise not have the opportunity to learn, and through affliction one becomes purified, freed of those attachments which have bogged it down. And according to the mystic, the Dark Night of the Soul is particularly the vehicle of ridding the soul of an imperfection that he calls “spiritual gluttony,” that reveling in the comfortable bosom of God. While we might think this to be innocuous, believers often come to a point of taking the steady divine presence that enfolds them for granted, and this attitude also must be stripped away.

The misery that the devoted follower of God experiences within the Dark Night can probably be summarized in the one word “abandonment.” As we got a sense earlier in the sketches of some of the saints, the feeling that one has, who enters this trial is that God is dead, and if he is not dead then he has simply withdrawn from the universe without a trace. Plunged into darkness, the soul is immediately deprived of all former experiences and enjoyment of spiritual goods. Its spiritual senses dry up completely leaving an aridity in the soul beyond description. And this deprivation of what has been familiar to the pious individual fills his heart with the deepest sadness, bitterness, and tribulation. According to our subject expert, “God crushes and consumes the spiritual substance of the soul and envelops it in such deep and black darkness that the soul believes itself to be perishing in a dreadful spiritual death.”

The feeling that God has simply vacated the cosmos is dreadful enough to the one who is thrown head first into the Dark Night, but just as bad is the thought that God has only abandoned it while continuing to lavish his presence on many other devotees that he sees in his religious circles. No one else seems to complain of this profound disappearance of God, and so the soul begins to fear that it alone has lost its way and has been rejected by the Almighty and isolated in this thick spiritual darkness. Extremely painful is the feeling that it has somehow become God’s enemy, and as his enemy he has become utterly rejected and irreversibly forsaken by the Deity. Its greatest pain then is the fear that it will never be worthy of God and that therefore all his blessings are lost forever. Yes, it comes to believe that it alone has been abandoned by God and thrown out into utter darkness, and it dreads its own death which will surely seal this horrible condition forever.

Of course, the abandonment that the devoted believer feels in the Dark Night of the Soul is only a perceived rejection but not actual. Nonetheless it doesn’t matter to the one experiencing the darkness for the pain is the same whether God’s absence is real or imagined. We must ask what in fact is happening to the soul mechanistically that produces the experience of abandonment that so terrifies it. In reality, God has hardly turned his back on the soul; rather just the opposite is true, for in coming very close to it these dreadful feelings have come upon the servant of God.

This is probably best explained by a metaphor remembering that we have identified God with light. During the Dark Night, God shines down so brightly on the soul that the intensity of his divine rays only serves to blind it. John of the Cross says, “The brighter the light is, the more it blinds and darkens the eye of the night owl. When this divine light of contemplation invades a soul it causes spiritual darkness in it.” As looking directly into the sun temporarily blinds a person who gazes into the sky, so coming into very close contact with God ironically causes one to perceive his disappearance. In this season of the spirit, one must grope through the shadows and experience that perceived abandonment until eventually its eyes adjust to the brightness and its vision clears.

As God is also metaphorically a “consuming fire,” getting very close to the flames causes great misery to the one that he turns the heat on. Though it doesn’t understand the source of its misery, it nonetheless feels the effects of this burning light, for as John of the Cross tells us, “This dark contemplation is in its early stages very painful for the soul, for this divine infused contemplation entering into a soul with many imperfections engulfs it in a sea of miseries.” This divine invasion of light into the follower of God communicates imperceptibly his own lowliness and misery as well as the greatness of the Divine Majesty.

We understand that the light exposes man’s darkness and with its great intensity burns away imperfections in the soul as always happens when one comes in contact with that holy conflagration that is God. The mystic writes, “The Divine fire drives out the soul’s ugliness, but in doing so it first makes the soul black and dark, so that it appears worse than before.

As with all trials and tribulations that come upon the servant of God, the Dark Night is designed to transform the soul, particularly by instilling within it virtue. In the aridity of its spiritual condition, it learns patience and perseverance as it continues to practice its spiritual exercises and live out what it has always done but without receiving any shred of positive feedback. It continues to live as if God is still holding it accountable despite the feeling that God doesn’t exist. The soul also acquires the virtue of fortitude, for in the great difficulties it is experiencing it learns how to draw strength from weakness. Along the spiritual path God is always subjecting his followers to conditions of weakness that they might learn to tap into divine strength. In fact we can only approach God in our weakness, for he is not to be found when we are self-sufficient. This is why the Apostle Paul wrote what appears as an oxymoron, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”

St. John of the Cross writes, “In this dark purgation then, God has so weaned and recollected all the inclinations of the soul that they can no longer find pleasure in anything. All this he does to detach the soul from all things and to draw it to himself.” Stripped of all divine consolations, sweet experiences of God, and any spiritual refreshment whatsoever, the soul learns to love God for himself and not for any of his benefits. The one in the Dark Night must come to a devotion to God alone without the frills and fanfare that it has formerly enjoyed.

Then while in the crucible of God’s proving, an expansion of man’s spirit takes place. In his mystical poem of the Dark Night of the Soul, the saint recounts,

In a dark night,
My longing heart aglow with love,
Oh, blessed lot!
I went forth unseen
From my house that was at last at rest.

He goes on to interpret this poem saying, “While my will was filled wholly with sorrows, with afflictions, and with yearnings for the love of God, I went forth from myself, that is, from my low manner of understanding, from my half-hearted way of loving, and from my poor and limited manner of experiencing the presence of God.”

Now we have outlined the reason why the Dark Night comes upon a follower of God and we have described the effects of the Dark Night on the one experiencing it, but the question remains as to how one is to survive the Dark Night. What is the soul to do when it is journeying through this dark valley?

Probably the best way to deal with this trial is to cling tenaciously to the light that we once knew. In the vacuum of the Divine Presence, one must remember all of his experiences from the past, all of those things that had convinced him of God’s existence, all those memories of divine love that had once bathed it in former times. For if it does not hold on tightly to what it has known, it might ultimately despair and abandon the spiritual path completely.

At this time, though the soul feels nothing and continues to walk about as the “living dead,” it must force itself to keep going through the motions. It must struggle to do all of those spiritual practices which it had been doing previously whether saying prayers, performing acts of charity, or participating in Divine Worship. Even though it may feel empty and cold in all such things, it needs to believe that they are all of value despite the seeming hypocrisy it thinks of itself.

Even though it struggles to pray thinking that it is speaking empty words into the wind, it must try to do so. In the Dark Night, it becomes necessary that one offer the sacrifice of prayer and praise. Before it might have been a good deal easier, but now one has to offer up his hollow words in a great sacrifice without any positive feedback or return on investment. His offering to God in this way becomes akin to the soul just embarking on the path of faith for the first time who feebly worships the unseen God for no other reason than that he desires something better out of life than he currently has. Out of disenchantment with the world, the fledgling person of faith cries out to God like a small mouse more wishing to believe than actually believing. And so it feels the same for one in the Dark Night of the Soul who must say in his heart, “I believe in God, even when he is silent.”

Of course the advanced soul is in a much different place than someone with primitive faith. Yet it must walk on the path of darkness in pure faith and learn to find God afresh and anew, as if for the first time. But in reality it is being invited to play the game of hide and seek with the Almighty on a much higher level than before, and it is challenged to discover God in a new place that it has never known before much deeper in the well of the divine unknown.

In closing this topic, I must now relate my own experience of the Dark Night which occurred in my sophomore year of college. I remember sitting at my desk one evening just after St. Patrick’s Day doing my homework. Strangely, I became acutely aware as I sat there that the familiar presence of God had evaporated. The unfamiliar void was at first troubling, and then when it persisted it became downright terrifying. Like the other figures we talked about, I was overcome by the fear that God was now dead, and if he weren’t dead he had in fact abandoned me while continuing his friendship and love with others around me who still seemed very content and happy in their faith.

The anxiety was unbearable, for I felt that if God had truly vanished, then my feeble material life was meaningless and I despaired of existence. If God were somehow still there, it was clear that he was rejecting me, casting me off into oblivion and consigning me to hell. Try as I would, there were no feelings or sentiments that I could muster to jumpstart the faith that I had always had. I was empty, and I felt like a spiritual weakling and failure who couldn’t conjure up even just a little belief to keep going.

As I had always felt close to God through nature, I found myself roaming the fields on the outskirts of the campus begging God to return to me as he had before, and it seems like I wept copious tears while I was alone. Nature was my biggest hope to find God again but even in that there was just a haunting void. How I had taken for granted the presence of God through the sound of the wind or in the singing of a bird, but these obvious indicators of divine love were just mocking noises to my aching heart. The worst feeling was getting up in the morning and seeing the sunrise and experiencing a complete vacuum of the divine as if it were utterly meaningless.

In my time of desperation, I also frequently stepped into the university’s chapel, often after hours or when nobody was there and would lay prostrate on the floor crying out to God from my profound spiritual isolation. But there was only silence. I walked around the campus with such a dejected face, one would have thought that my best friend had died, and indeed that is how I felt for months on end.

On every occasion I could, I looked to speak with other people who still were enjoying a vibrant and active faith in some vain hope that they could help jumpstart mine. I shared with anyone who would listen to me my sad story, looking for some shred of consolation in my desperate situation. Some could not relate to the tale I was telling. “Why would God ever abandon anyone?” was their response. Others were more sympathetic to whatever spiritual trial I was enduring though they could not offer first hand advice. But a few remembered the writings of St. John of the Cross and pointed me in that direction. At that point I was glad to at least know intellectually that my own trial was not unique and had been experienced by others in the past which gave me some hope that perhaps my affliction of the soul would eventually pass.

All the while that I wandered about in this thick “darkness,” God was still trying to get through to me as if to say he were still there. But any divine communication was beyond my grasp at the time. When I reflect back now, of course God was always there and had never left me, though my perception of his presence was completely missing. Though I couldn’t have contact with him directly, I relied on other people to relay to me words of comfort and perhaps a friendly divine reminder. One such communication came to me through a woman I didn’t know at a gathering of believers one evening. There was a time of discussion and sharing, and naturally I shared my trial with the group that was present. After the meeting, this woman approached me and told me how she had only a few hours before been inspired to write a poem expressing the same feelings that I had shared to the group. She mailed me her poem some time later, and when I received it, I was astonished at how closely it captured my own experience. The composition reads:

God knows our inner-most feelings. How can we hide our hearts from him?
Anguish and turmoil rip through my heart. I am torn apart.
Ribbons of love that once held my heart now float to the ground.
Banners of hope blast through the wind, only to blind my eyes.
Where is the peace, the joy my soul now despises?
Oh God above, where are you now?
Whispers of love can’t touch my ears.
I chose to remain in the rubble of all my years.
Catch me away, throw me around.
No gentle hand can break me now.
I am cold and I am warmed only by this tough skin of mine.

In this concise writing, she captured with divine skill all of those emotions which I had been experiencing for many weeks on end. And though I wouldn’t understand it until years later, she also described the theology of the Dark Night of the Soul. With beautiful eloquence, she noted how “banners of hope blast through the wind only to blind the eyes” of the one in the Dark Night. Of course this is a description of how during the Dark Night the divine light is intensified so greatly to blind the spiritual sight of the soul. In such a time, no divine communication can get through to the soul, and so she penned, “Whispers of love can’t touch my ears.” As the years have passed, I have treasured this poem, especially as I have come to understand its nuances better.

And now I would be remiss not to tell how my trial of darkness ended, but the reality is that there really was no grand conclusion to this crisis of the soul like we might envision with the culmination of the story of Job. The “light-switch” might have turned off suddenly when the trial began but it didn’t turn on just as quickly. Rather I would have to say my rediscovery of God was a gradual process over the course of several months. As the anxiety and depression began to subside, I eventually found a renewed faith, perhaps faith on a higher level that God had intended to procure. It is likely the case that as my eyes slowly adjusted to the brighter light that had blinded them, I was able to believe again and find the One I had “lost.”