The Dark Night of the Soul – An Evolutionary Reinterpretation

Jeff CarreiraAwakening, Blog Posts12 Comments

Saint John of the Cross was a sixteenth century Spanish monk who famously conceived of ‘the dark night of the soul.’ The phrase has come into common usage generally to mean any time of deep despair or personal tragedy. Saint John meant something more subtle. The dark night of the soul was this great monks description of the soul’s journey into divine union with the love of God. This black night consisted of three distinct parts.

The first part of the dark night was that time when the light of day was fading and evening was bringing the darkness. This represents the loss of our attachment to the life that we were living. As our hearts are pulled toward holy union we move into the mysterious darkness and leave the sensual world behind. At this point the light that brightened on our previous life fades like the light of day and we are directed forward more by pushing away from what had previously been known to us than by any vision of where we are going.

The second part of the night occurs when the light of day has disappeared completely and the new dawn is far from arrival. We see nothing here. Our old world is dead to us and yet nothing new has emerged to replace it. We are blind; and during this part of the night the only thing that can possibly guide us is the fire of our own hearts love of the divine. To progress beyond this point requires a blind trust in the passion of our spiritual heart.

In the third part of the night the new day is beginning to dawn. The light of the sacred beloved begins to reveal itself before us. Yet this light is not like that of our previous life. It is not a light that we can see with our eyes. It is the light of God, which cannot be seen by the senses, and yet it can be seen by an emerging spiritual perception. We are still blind, but we have begun to develop the ability to see anyway.

This is an outline of Saint John’s brilliant metaphor for the soul’s journey into the divine love of God. I would also say that it is a beautiful metaphor for any evolutionary journey of transformation. As we evolve from who we are now to who we will be tomorrow we must travel similarly through a dark night. No transformation can occur that does not involve a disillusion.

We can grow without passing through the loneliness of the dark night. We can develop. We can get stronger, smarter, and more compassionate and never have to leave the light of day.  But if we are to transform, if we are to in some fundamental way move from the person we are now to the person we will become, then we must let go of who we are and we must pass through the blindness of not knowing. It takes tremendous strength and courage to transform. To deeply let go of who we are so that we can open up to the unlimited possibilities of being different.

Saint John was writing in a sixteenth century medieval Christian context, but he was outlining a path of transformation that many of us can relate to. Those of us who have traversed a transformative journey will recognize the stage of forgetfulness as the person we had been begins to fade from awareness. We remember the stage of darkness when we didn’t know who we were and had no direction forward. At this time we felt loss and despair and had only faith to guide us. And we also know the feeling of beginning to see again – to have the barest, inconceivable glimpses  of our unknown self coming into manifestation.

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Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

Reading your post the opposite happened to what I experienced reading parts of the Tibetan death book. Then I thought ‘it is like our struggle’ and with your post I think it is like the struggle after death. Getting enlightened and rebirth seem to have connections. I thought that the first connects to letting go of dark forces in the human condition; the second it letting go of dark forces of the Universe. The truth of the ‘old’ enlightenment seems so connected. The more we connect to the ‘I’ as consciousness, the less we are ‘caught’ by dark forces, the… Read more »

Kurt Roeloffs
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Kurt Roeloffs

Jeff, thank you. Spirit’s unfolding in history is the whole of the Western theological tradition, but the metaphor of light out of darkness, of rebirth from death, begins long before Saint John. The Israelites transmitted to The Way (Christ and his followers) who transmitted to the Sufis who transmitted through the Crusaders to the Troubadours who inspired Saint John. Try this progression of part of the story: Gen 1:1-3, Gen 28:10-18, Gen 32: 24-28, Mark 1:12, Mark: 22:44.

Anonymous
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Anonymous

I is as little a metaphor as Enlightenment. The dark Night of the Soul Is or is not but it is not a metaphor. You might want to link to the Alchemist tradition ( very old mystical stuff indeed) with the three Works of Soul Transmutation: the Black Work ( disintegration) the White Work ( purification ) and the Red Work ( fusion). When you have accomplished the three you are Realized ( not metaphorically but really ). You see that in the Alchemyst’s wisdom there is no great shift without first the DarkNight if the Soul. Another interesting linkage… Read more »

Frank Luke
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My posted reply hasn’t appeared after initially appearing. Pls advise.

John Slade
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Tasty metaphor I’d never unpacked before. Thank you, Jeff.

Frank Luke
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Reposting: There may be those fortunate to be spared the dark night of their spiritual development. For me, there was a time in my 40s when I underwent that dissatisfaction with Self that led to deep depression with a great yearning for the release from the suffering and to be able to attain the peace of Nirvna I learned about from Buddhist teaching. I adopted a ery ascetic lifestyle which amounted to living like a monk in NYC which included smoking dope and doing a lot of meditation. I’m very gratified that it came to pass that after some time… Read more »

Annica
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Annica

Thank you for an enlightening post on soul-development. For those of us who are not well versed in christian history this is very important information.

liesbeth
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liesbeth

Op zaterdag 8 september 2012 schreef Liesbeth (lhoogeveen3@gmail.com) het volgende: > > > Begin forwarded message: > > From: Liesbeth > Subject: d > Date: 08 September 2012 9:32:45 PM GMT+02:00 > From: Entering Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle by Gillian T. W. Ahlgren: So the soul, in this state, is no longer constrained by fear in its desire to reach out in love, instead it is ‘left with great confidence that it will enjoy God’ and is fortified in its desire to give and receive unconditional love. (..) the heart is expanded, but this goes beyond our emotions;  ‘heart’… Read more »

liesbeth
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liesbeth

theonomous personhood; it is a shift in both ‘what’ and ‘how’ the soul knows. ‘Experience’ here does not mean sensations or emotions but a field of knowledge, which in mystical union is the field of immediate knowledge of God. This is not about the object under view but how to orient and position itself in relation to this object in order to grasp it accurately. (E Howells:) As the soul increasingly comes to know itself and God as subject, experience is gradually transformed from the natural way of knowing to the mystical way of knowing God. This stage is about… Read more »

Françoise
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Françoise

Thank you Jeff for doing it ! this is a movement in time beyond any limitation – just one small remark, you should always call him “St John of the Cross” because “St John” on its own does’nt render him who he was. That’s his full name, who he was.

Bill Lamond
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I enjoyed reading your reinterpretation of the dark night of the soul. So much of our collective thinking is poisoned by the endless emphasis on suffering, struggling, and bearing up under, rather than opening to, enjoying and relishing – the very processes that allow our children to grow and without which, children literally die. For me, it is so shocking to know that even the most educated people have no idea about models or how they operate. They make the false presumption that something that is nearly universally agreed on must be the way it really is, when in fact,… Read more »

Frank Luke
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Hi Bill, re wrongness of Awakening

I wonder if it would be accurate to say that individual experiencing of the event is probably multi-varied and not as important as its post-event outcome? The veracity of an Awakening IMO would be a commitment to the teaching of the Perennial Wisdom and spiritual teaching which is a commitment to the attempt to better self, our interpersonal relationships, our communities including the global one and the whole Earth and its biosphere. Your thoughts ??