Surviving the Dark Night: St John of the Cross

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St John of the Cross' feast day on December 14 commemorates the day of his death in 1591, at the height of the Catholic renewal movement that followed the Reformation.

It seems fitting at the end of this year of sorrows that we remember Juan de Yepes y Álvarez, better known to the Christian Church as St. John of the Cross, on his feast day. His spiritual poetry prompted T.S. Eliot to call him “the greatest psychologist of all European mystics,” for he knew the depths of suffering as well as any tormented saint and conveyed them in almost ineffable beauty.

His feast day on December 14 commemorates the day of his death in 1591, at the height of the Catholic renewal movement that followed the Reformation. St. John was born in 1542 to a family of conversos: Spanish Jews converted to Christianity during the late Middle Ages, usually after tense persecution.

St. John’s life faced similar challenges as he pursued a life of austere service to God and his people. He joined the religious order of the Carmelites in 1563, which drew on the ascetic life of the prophet, Elijah. Shortly after receiving ordination in 1567, he met St. Teresa d’Avila, another famed Spanish mystic and one of three female doctors of the church. Together these two sought to return the Carmelite Order to its austere roots. Their efforts ultimately resulted in the establishment of the first Discalced Carmelite monastery, whose members pursued the contemplative life, unshod. Unsurprisingly, reformation and schism were regarded with suspicion in the Catholic stronghold of Spain, and St. John soon found himself imprisoned between 1576 and 1577.

This season of isolation spent in a cell hardly tall enough to stand in or wide enough to lie in inspired some of St. John’s greatest poems, along with his spiritual treatise, Ascent of Mount Carmel. Three of his most famous poems, The Dark Night (despite common attribution, St. John did not write the phrase “the dark night of the soul”), Spiritual Canticle, and O Living Flame of Love, follow the soul’s journey on the contemplative path toward union with God, exploring in emotive detail the griefs and joys of the Christian life. His writings and ministry earned him beatification in 1675 and canonization as a doctor of the church in 1726.

While St. John’s native Spain remained relatively removed from the effects of the evangelical church, his cross-centered poetry may not repeat but certainly rhymes with Luther’s protesting epiphanies from earlier in the century. The arc of St. John’s lyrical journeys follows the pattern of law and gospel that is so familiar to Lutheran theology.

The journey of the soul begins in the “dark night,” in which the soul passively experiences intense suffering and pain as it endures the “night of sense,” followed by the “night of the spirit.” The first night is the more common, and St. John describes it as a “narrow gate,” which few exit but many enter. This period of spiritual purgation is a time for the soul to detach itself from sense. By “sense,” St. John seems to mean the comforts of the spiritual life that lend the beginner saint a feeling of control over his spiritual journey. In this purgation, likened to an arid desert, the soul finds itself perishing with no comfort to be found, abandoned by all. Most importantly, it senses he has been forsaken by God himself. And yet, it is in these times that St. John says God is most near. The “illumining ray of his secret wisdom causes thick darkness,” that brings the pain of sinful impurities into stark relief, condemning the saint with the law. Who, in reflecting on their own sin, could not help but feel that God has cast him away?

The true theologian must pass through the dark night.

Lest St. John go easy on the reader, the night of the spirit contains even greater horrors and hence, only the greatest saints can advance “towards God in most pure faith.” “Pure faith,” what a hard saying! Who could hear it?

St. John emphasizes that the nights are not immediately successive; rather there is an intermediate period of months, or more often, years to root out sensual imperfections. Yet, beaten and bruised, the soul having surpassed the sensual presses forward in contemplative faith, seeking the Divine Beloved. This is far from an active seeking, though, for God guides the soul through the night. Ultimately, God imparts his wisdom, and the saint goes into the “happy night,” on its way to union with the Divine.

Ascent on Mount Carmel and Spiritual Canticle, building on the Dark Night, ground St. John’s mystical thought in Christ’s work on the cross. In exploring St. John’s connection of Divine union (in marriage) and the atonement, Theologian Adam Johnson writes:

Jesus accomplishes the reconciliation and union of humankind with God through the utter desolation of the dark night of the soul, which he suffered through his Crucifixion and death. In his dark night, Jesus pays our debt and…frees us to ascend with and through him to union with God through our own experience of the dark night of the soul.

The spiritual journey of the dark night is only made possible in Christ, whose death and resurrection rendered a dark night of condemnation into a merely purgative one, which we might call sanctification so that at the dawn, we might also participate in Christ’s Resurrection.

Coming down from the mystical meditations of St. John, I want to finish by turning to a man all too familiar with the dark night, Martin Luther, whose concept of Anfechtung rings of the forsaken sufferings of St. John’s traveling saint. Anfechtung, loosely defined, is an “ineffable suffering,” a spiritual trial or temptation. From the infamous prayer to St. Anne in the lightning storm to his constant anxieties regarding the fate of his soul, it is no wonder Luther was able to write to melancholy souls so effectively –– Anfechtung plagued Luther for much of his life. Indeed, Luther wrote that theologians were forged through “living, no by dying and being damned.” In other words, the true theologian must pass through the dark night.

In the midst of his spiritual angst, Luther, like St. John’s poetic subject, pressed deeper into the Divine, turning to God’s Holy Word for aid. Understanding his condemnation before a wrathful God, Luther needed consolation, which came through a greater understanding of God’s grace in Christ, who suffers alongside the soul and brings us unto himself out of the deepest love. We, too, need this consolation. As we trudge through the dark night of 2020, let us take comfort that Christ has already endured the ultimate suffering on our behalf and will raise us to walk in the dawn of eternal life.