‘The Dark Night of the Soul’: A Poem by St. John of the Cross on Using Afflictions for Greater Spiritual Growth

The dark night of the soul is a time when you are meant to go through a spiritual crisis to reassess yourself and your values and notions about life, with the ultimate purpose to break through your ego and draw to the divine. (Image: pixabay)
The dark night of the soul is a time when you are meant to go through a spiritual crisis to reassess yourself and your values and notions about life, with the ultimate purpose to break through your ego and draw to the divine. (Image: pixabay)

We all face crippling hardships at some point in our lives. The future might seem hopeless with no way out, with everything in your life falling into disarray for extended periods of time. The 16th-century Spanish Christian mystic St. John described these periods in the Christian faith as going through “the dark night of the soul,” which was the title of a poem he wrote about the deep hardships we face in life and their purpose. As he described it, the dark night of the soul is a time when you are meant to go through a spiritual crisis to reassess yourself and your values and notions about life, with the ultimate purpose to break through your ego and draw to the divine.

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The 16th-century Spanish Christian mystic St. John of the Cross. (Image: Lawrence OP via flickr CC BY 2.0 )

The Dark Night of the Soul is divided into four parts. The first two parts describe the night of the senses in which you are purged of your false desires and attachments. The second two parts detail the process of transforming your notions, memories, and natural understandings of the world into higher wisdom and pure faith. When the dark night of the soul comes your way, if you choose to accept its challenge, your transformation will be like a rebirth or an awakening of your true self.

In the nearly 30 years in my own life that could easily be categorized as “the dark night of the soul,” I have come to realize that the intensity of pain and the emotional turmoil with all of the depression, disquiet, and trials I have endured are not to be avoided, but analyzed, studied, and dissected. It is easy, and it might be a natural response, to avoid diving deep into yourself and the hidden pain. We have our phones, entertainment, the company of others, busyness, and millions of other things in this buzzing modern world that we habitually seek to distract us from facing our intense emotions and deeply hidden turmoil squarely.

Facing your inner world that includes your notions, habits, and base desires squarely could be the most difficult and trying path you can set out on, but if you choose to not distract yourself, dive inward, and begin the spiritual journey toward virtue, that is embarking on “the dark night of the soul.”

At any rate, The Dark Night of the Soul shows us that our emotional suffering, if we can dig deep into it and not turn away from it, can help us grow to become more content and centered with ourselves and our ability to overcome hardships. In fact, studies have shown that how we view suffering and stress can have a dramatic effect on whether our bodies will cope biologically in a harmful or beneficial way. Likewise, St. John would argue that the intense emotions of loneliness, hopelessness, depression and the trials we face may, if we choose, become a blessing.

The night of the senses

In the first two sections of The Dark Night of the Soul, St. John describes this as a process of reorienting your desires and senses from the material world to that of a longing for divinity. Your worldly desires and habitual ways of viewing the world often prove so hard to break that the only way to make you aware of their existence is to throw you into prolonged periods of disarray where you lose everything time and again until you become exhausted and humbled, with your normal worldly dreams and aspirations laid to waste as you throw your hands up in surrender.

In a shattered state, if you choose to take the spiritual path, you inevitably look to the Divine and higher wisdom for guidance on how to deal with the matter. This points you toward a virtuous life and helps you see the true benefits of living in that way. You may be guided to a virtuous life by experiencing the worst treatment from others and be put in detestable environments that could reflect your own inner immorality and indulgences in your mind. Your own base desires and thoughts might also be heightened to a degree that they might bring you great shame. This, as St. John put it, is to cleanse your “self” from the “inner poverty of spirit.” These trials are the first step on this journey.

In this phase of the journey, your soul knows only suffering as the world starts to lose its appeal. You are coaxed into a yearning for purity and divinity as you see the failings of the human condition and want to transcend it.

With your worldly attachments weakened, you slowly live more in tune with the divine nature of the cosmos and its manifestation within you. St. Augustine lays out this process succinctly in his statement: “Let me know myself, oh Lord, and I shall know you.” You will, bit by bit, shed your worldly desires. They are replaced with inner contentment as you no longer find pleasure in base desires, but instead align yourself with more transcendental desires and virtues. Ultimately, you become what you align yourself with.

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St. John of the Cross was a Carmelite friar who spent his life studying theology and philosophy in 16th-century, Spain. In addition to writing ‘The Dark Night of the Soul,’ he wrote a supplemental poem entitled ‘Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom.’ The poem is an allegory of a soul portrayed as a bride in search of a groom. The groom is an analogy of Jesus Christ. (Image: Public Domain)

The night of the spirit

The most harrowing and difficult journey is the night of the spirit. Few people can fully pass through this phase as it tests you to your core. The suffering you endure is intensified to bring you to a greater understanding of your emotions. You dig into them to find that they really have no substance. You may find that in your everyday world, people live their entire lives solely in the pursuit of satisfying their emotions and lower desires. Through this process and realization, your old self is nearly completely undone; as St. John described it, you pass from the natural to the supernatural.

In this passing phase, St. John said you will feel bitterly alone, unable to confide in others. You won’t find pleasure in life, and it may feel like you are completely lost in the world. At this point, you may come to realize you can turn to no other person for help. You are left to strengthen your inner spirit through faith and discernment alone. The world will in effect run counter to everything you will value at this point. Until you transcend your own emotions and rise above them, it will be a living nightmare in this in-between state. St. John in his poem described this transformational stage as such: “This ‘purgative contemplation’ causes the soul to feel like an outcast, ‘of enduring a kind of living hell.'”

In all of the scenarios above, suffering is the catalyst that calls you into a state of reflection or action. If you lived a life without suffering, you would never learn, mature, or strengthen yourself. You would never find the impetus in a carefree existence to look within and find out who you truly are and develop your character.

In this process, you are purged and purified like iron in a blazing smelter, removing all impurities, thus making you more refined and aligned with the divine. Your normal modes of reasoning will be replaced by a higher wisdom, and your desires will be only on aligning yourself more toward compassion, higher beauty, and truth.

St. John goes into great depth and detail regarding the journey of the dark night of the soul and the many pitfalls and experiences you may encounter during it. Above is a very brief summary of his writing. When I encountered this poem, the journey he outlined seemed all too familiar. As I looked back on my past, I found I have created habits unwittingly to try to avoid at all costs looking deeply within. St. John reaffirmed the value and necessity of not running from this pain.

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