Saint John of the Cross has a reputation for being a guy who does not care much for your feelings. His name sometimes sounds like a penance. People hear “dark night” and think of an isolated exile with little or no hope. While I cannot correct that error in a short article, I would like to offer a different perspective on his teaching called “the dark night.” I’m not an expert. I’m a guy who has found this saint helpful and think he can be helpful for you too.
The dark night of faith and purgation: what is that? Is it good, bad, weird, unholy, exclusive? The end or goal or point of the dark night is not to merit suffering points, it is to be united with God. Is that not scriptural? “Deny yourself, take up your cross…” does the verse end there? No, it continues: “and follow me.” Is there a purpose to the pain of the cross? Yes. Is the cross meant to put you to death and leave you there? No. Think of what happened on Easter Sunday. Think about – rather, read about – what the New Testament says about the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Here is a little bit of what John of the Cross teaches us about prayer, about the journey to God and life in God.
Spiritual persons ought to deny all apprehensions and the temporal delights of exterior senses … they should not want to grasp for sensory communications or weigh themselves down with these, since doing so it what most derogates faith. -Ascent, 2.11.11
Admittedly, the language can be technical in some spots. He makes the point that spiritual persons (we can say: those who are practicing their faith) should not look for satisfaction or pleasure in “sensory communications.” So, such persons should not seek to base their faith or relationship with God on emotions, on the warm fuzzies that can happen in prayer, in worship, on a conference or retreat. That recommendation is true for each person of faith. The grasping or groping for those kind of spiritual goodies weighs down the person. It’s like snacking on junk food all day. It feeds you, I guess, but is it substantial or lasting? No. Do you crave more? Probably. Do you get any healthier? Nope, you get worse.
That search for “sensory communications” is what St. Paul describes as exchanging the truth about God for a lie and worshipping the creature rather than the Creator. Remember the word idolatry? Remember the attachment of the rich young man to his possessions? Attachment to stuff or people is another kind of “sensory communication” that can weigh us down and ultimately separate us from God.
John of the Cross does not stay on that topic. He does not only talk about the difficult part of the Christian life. Any good writer should bring to light the problem he or she wants to address. So how does this guy do it? Well, John says that the person who can move from the “spiritual milk” (or baby food) to the “solid food” will have the more intimate union with God (Ascent, 2.12.1). He goes so far as to say that it is God who desires this divine intimacy with us, his people:
God … wishes to lead them to more spiritual, interior, and and invisible graces by removing the gratification derived from discursive meditation. -Ascent, 2.12.6
You can only be close to God by removing your closeness to other “stuff.” Your “yes” to something specific is just as strong a “no” to something else. Your commitment to your spouse in marriage is a universal “no” to every other candidate. The yes of the soul to God costs. Of course it does! But you lose nothing that is worth keeping, and you gain everything that had not yet been attainable.
This union with God has a certain quality. This intimacy with God is not a sorrowful experience. Rather, it is a place of rest and refreshment. It is a place of life-renewing encounter. John wants you to know that when God draws you to himself, you should leave your soul “to its more spiritual quiet and repose.” Here’s another way he says it: The soul “desires to abide in this calm and repose of interior quietude, where it is filled with God’s peace and refreshment.” That is the dark night that I read about.
Let’s take a scripture break. What I quoted from the saint is not new, nor was it new in the 16th century. Think of what Jesus said: “Come to me, all who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” “Abide in me, and I in you.” “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while.” “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door…”
Can you make the connection? John of the Cross teaches that which Jesus taught. John wants us to be found with Christ in God. He desires that we rest in him. And so? And so, John writes with great detail and attention the “how” and the “what” of that journey to God. He is not afraid of the mess that comes with journey. John talks about the “aridity, fatigue, and restlessness” of the soul. These difficult things that we go through are side effects of the dark night. The aridity and fatigue of the soul are not the main ingredients or experiences of the dark night.
Rather, when the soul tries to wrestle out of this loving embrace, then it become weak and tired. When the soul fears the warmth and closeness of God, then it tries to do things on its own and thus becomes cold and isolated. FYI: I keep using “soul” and “it” to refer to the human person, like John of the Cross does. The soul does not always understand the peace of God. Such a divine, sublime, deep, and abiding peace surpasses all understanding. Should I shy away from that which I do not understand? No! John is saying, it seems to me, that the pain of the dark night comes when we resist the work and grace of God. Typical fallen nature – I think we know about that resistance.
John of the Cross further writes that the more we persist at meditation (or other things that worked before but no longer work for us) the worse our fatigue and restlessness become. Meditation is not bad. But if 1) God has led me to a place where 2) I abide in him and I 3) decide to do something else, I mean, really, what good is that? It’s like mom offering me a warm bed, and me saying “No! I didn’t make that bed! I’m sleeping on the floor.” While sleeping on the floor can be an act of virtue, denying the gift of God is a serious offense to his love and fatherhood. It can signify our lack of trust in him… but that specific stuff is for another day.
Those who struggle with receiving the love of God in prayer are recommended to “learn to abide in that quietude with a loving attentiveness to God and pay no heed to the imagination and its work.” I and you must act in docility. We must receive what God is “effecting” in us. The soul should “proceed with gentleness of love, moved more by God than by its own abilities.”
Before we can “learn” to abide with a loving attentiveness to God, it may be appropriate to first understand where I currently experience and encounter him. How do you teach that? Well, this little collection of paragraphs is intent on showing the beauty of the dark night of faith, not the road map. I do, however, hope that readers are encouraged and a little more open to the work of God in their hearts. It’s a beautiful and worthwhile journey.
I hope you comment and ask clarification on the iffy and unclear things. I’m still reading his works and don’t have his teaching mastered. I’m okay with that because I’m willing to seek God within all this. I hope the same for you.