I have a relatively new interest in the intersection of psychology and spirituality. I have some good friends who are Catholics and counselors, and while I treasure the opportunities I’ve had to walk alongside people on their spiritual journeys, I’ve never wanted to pursue that path myself. I don’t even have much interest in spiritual direction. But I’m always up for a new book.
One of my roommates is aware of this interest of mine and has been recommending books that might help my casual research. Although I’ve never been much into Carmelites, I decided to give her latest recommendation a try. The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth, by Gerald G. May, M.D., is perhaps the best resource I’ve encountered for beginning to understand contemplative prayer and its role in the spiritual life.
The tricky thing about contemplation is that, if you think you’ve mastered it, you probably haven’t. In that way, it’s like trying to explain the Holy Trinity: the closest analogy you can muster up is probably a heresy. I have always struggled with contemplation and contemplative prayer for that very reason. I’m a very action-oriented person, although I am also quite reflective. This is probably why I can never wrap my head around Carmelite spirituality, but Augustinian principles speak straight to my heart. So I went into this book hoping that I might understand contemplative prayer a little more.
I’ve also struggled with the concept of the “dark night of the soul.” Have I been through it? Am I going through it right now? Is it something I should fear, like a punishment? Is it something I should want, like painful physical therapy that is needed to restore health? Should I fear it despite wanting it? Can I even figure out if I’m in it, or if I have been in it, or if it’s coming?
It’s all very confusing. This book, however, is not.
May approaches both of those topics in a way that makes sense to my often hyper-analytical mind. He starts with short biographies of the famous Carmelite mystics St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. They were contemporaries, fellow religious, and friends. (I love it when saints are friends. It gives me hope that my friends might drag me along their journeys to holiness!) Everything May quotes is translated from the original, although I appreciated the occasional use of the original Spanish terms and the side-by-side translations because I happen to read Spanish. Anyone who knows a second language will attest that poetry is always better and more beautiful in the original. I also find that Spanish tends to be more direct; it gets watered down somehow in English. The concepts, however, work in any language.
May also notes that, curiously, most of the exposure people have to St. John of the Cross is through his own prose explanations of his poetry. That would be like going to Bible study but never reading the actual Bible. No wonder people find him dry! On the contrary, I’ve discovered a depth and accessibility to a couple of 16th-century Carmelites that I’d never known before.
With slightly different frameworks, Teresa and John both clarify that closeness to God is not a goal to be obtained. God is not a prize that can be won. We are made for love, and we are meant for love, but it is only by getting beyond the outer trappings of our consciousness that we can find the deepest part of ourselves and unite that pure love with the love that is God. In that center is contemplative prayer, where we love God, and he loves us back, and that is all. Getting past the outer blockade requires entering into darkness.
Teresa and John both say that we easily become so attached to feelings of and about God that we equate them with God. We forget that these divine sensations are only speaking to us of the divine One. They are only messengers. Instead, we take them up for the whole of God’s self, and thus we wind up worshipping our own feelings. This is perhaps the most common idolatry of the spiritual life.
For me, one of the most helpful aspects of this book was May’s explanation that there are two distinctly different kinds of darkness. When John uses his famous phrase “the dark night of the soul,” his original Spanish wording is la noche oscura. This is a darkness that is simply the fading of light into obscurity. It’s not a bad darkness; it’s good. It’s like shade. Only when the light has been taken away will we free ourselves to be led by the hand by the One we can trust, the One who knows the way. This is not the same thing as the darkness Teresa calls tinieblas, where the Evil One resides. So the dark night of the soul is not a punishment inflicted on the unworthy or a challenge to weed out the faint of heart. It’s a purifying fire. It’s being led across a chasm on a rickety bridge by a guide who says, “Don’t look down.” It’s God’s way of asking us to trust that, when all is stripped away, only the purity of heart that seeks him in love will remain.
Much of the book is given over to May’s explanations of St. John’s active night of the senses versus the active night of the spirit, the corresponding passive nights, and St. Teresa’s levels of prayer leading toward contemplation. I appreciated the depth of these models. Honestly, it helped me understand why I’ve always struggled with the stair-step, “first this, then that” approach of lectio divina. Maybe other people can experience contemplative prayer after twenty minutes with a Scripture passage, but I can’t. Based on May’s summaries, I’m not sure Teresa could!
In the end, though, May describes the connections between the dark night of the soul and the psychological realities of our day. One of the tricky things about the dark night is that it’s very difficult for you to identify yourself as experiencing it. It’s not a one-time thing, it doesn’t always progress “in order,” and it’s possible to be experiencing the dark night as something that makes you happy. He carefully distinguishes between actual clinical psychiatry and spiritual direction, noting how both can be useful or useless for experiencing contemplative prayer or managing the dark night of the soul. And finally, he points out the reality that many miss when they are caught up in the dark night: dawn is coming. There is light after the darkness. God guides us to and through the darkness, but he’s always leading us, in the end, to the light.
At the very least, I am not nearly so put off by the concepts of contemplative prayer and the dark night of the soul anymore. That in itself is a gift.