The Dark Night of the Soul


   St. John of the Cross speaks of a dark night with two stages, one of sense and one of spirit. The first he calls “bitter and terrible", and the second "horrible and awful". In graphic language he describes the lowest possible dregs of such an experience, the second night, the night of the spirit, involving the deepest purification and purgation of the will, which he says only occurs to a comparative few. His account is quite dramatic, in which the reader can see why such an ordeal is not for beginning aspirants. Brunton described it as the mystic witnessing the loss of everything he had previously attained, while what is left is relentlessly crushed:

   "Into this dark night souls begin to enter when God draws them forth from the state of beginners - which is the state of those that meditate on the spiritual road - and begins to set them in the state of the progressives - which is that of those who are already contemplatives - to the end that, after passing through it, they may arrive at the state of the perfect, which is that of the Divine union of the soul with God." (1)

   “The Divine assails the soul in order to renew it and thus make it Divine; and, stripping it of the habitual affections and attachments of the old man, to which it is very closely united, knit together and conformed, destroys and consumes its spiritual substance, and absorbs it in deep and profound darkness. As a result of this, the soul feels itself to be perishing and melting away, in the presence and sight of its miseries, in a cruel spiritual death.” (2)

   "The soul must needs be in all its parts reduced to a state of emptiness, poverty and abandonment and must be left dry and empty and in darkness. For the sensible part is purified in aridity, the faculties are purified in the emptiness of their perceptions, and the spirit is purified in thick darkness.....All of this God brings to pass by means of this dark contemplation; wherein the soul not only suffers this emptiness and the suspension of these natural supports and perceptions, which is a most afflictive suffering (as if a man were suspended or held in air so that he could not breath), but likewise He is purging the soul, annihilating it, emptying it or consuming in it (even as fire consumes the mouldiness and the rust of metal) all the affections and imperfect habits which it has contracted in its whole life. Since these are deeply rooted in the substance of the soul, it is wont to suffer great undoing and inward torment, besides the said poverty and emptiness, natural and spiritual...Here God greatly humbles the soul in order that he may afterwards greatly exalt it; and if he ordained not that, when these feelings arise within the soul, they should speedily be fulfilled, it would die in a very short space; but there are only occasional periods when it is conscious of their greatest intensity. At times, however, they are so keen that the soul seems to be seeing hell and perdition opened." (3)

   "It is well for the soul to perform no operation touching spiritual things at this time and to have no pleasure in such things, because its faculties and desires are base, impure, and wholly natural; and thus, although these faculties be given the desire and interest in things supernatural and Divine, they could not receive them save after a base and natural manner, exactly in their own fashion...All these faculties and desires of the soul..come to be prepared and tempered in such a way as to be able to receive, feel and taste that which is Divine and supernatural after a sublime and lofty manner, which is impossible if the old man not die first of all." (4)

   "And when the soul suffers the direct assault of this Divine Light, its pain, which results from its impurity, is immense; because, when this pure light assails the soul, in order to expel its impurity, the soul feels itself to be so impure and miserable that it believes God to be against it, and thinks that it has set itself up against God. This causes it sore grief and pain, because it now believes that God has cast it away...the soul now sees its impurities clearly (although darkly), and knows it is unworthy of God or of any creature. And what gives it the most pain is that it thinks that it will never be worthy and that its good things are all over for it. This is caused by the profound immersion of its spirit in the knowledge and realization of its evils and miseries, for this Divine and dark light now reveals them all to the eye, that it may see clearly how in its own strength it can never have aught else...When this Divine contemplation assails the soul with a certain force, in order to strengthen it and subdue it, it suffers such pain in its weakness that it nearly swoons away..for sense and spirit, as if beneath some immense and dark load, are in such great pain and agony that the soul would find advantage and relief in death." (5)

   "It is clear that God grants the soul in this state the favor of purging it and healing it with this strong lye of bitter purgation, according to its spiritual and sensual part, of all the imperfect habits and affections which it had within itself with respect to temporal things and to natural, sensual and spiritual things, its inward faculties being darkened, and voided of all these, its spiritual and sensual affections being constrained and dried up, and its natural energies being attenuated and weakened with respect to all this (a condition which it could never attain of itself, as we shall shortly say). In this way God makes it to die to all that is not naturally God, so that, once it is stripped and denuded of its former self, he may clothe it anew. And thus its youth is renewed like the eagle's and it is clothed with the new man, which, as the Apostle says, is created according to God." (6)

"Wherefore the soul that God sets in this tempetuous and horrible night is deserving of great compassion...by reason of the dreadful pain which the soul is suffering, and of the great uncertainty which it has concerning the remedy for it, since it believes..that its evil will never end... It suffers great pain and grief, since there is added to all this (because of the solitude and abandonment caused in it by this dark night) the fact that it finds no consolation or support in any instruction nor in a spiritual master. For, although in many ways the director may show it good reason for being comforted because of the blessings which are contained in these afflictions, it cannot believe him. For it is so greatly absorbed and immersed in the realization of those evils wherein it sees its own miseries so clearly, that it thinks, as its director observes not that which it sees and feels, he is speaking in this manner because he understands it not; and so, instead of comfort, it rather receives fresh affliction, since it believes that its director's advice contains no remedy for its troubles. And, in truth, this is so; for, until the Lord shall have completely purged it after the manner that He wills, no means or remedy is of any service or profit for the relief of its affliction; the more so because the soul is as powerless in this case as one who has been imprisoned in a dark dungeon, and is bound hand and foot, and can neither move nor see, nor feel any favour whether from above or from below, until the spirit is humbled, softened, and purified, and grows so keen and delicate and pure that it can become one with the Spirit of God, according to the degree of union of love which His mercy is pleased to grant it." (7)

   "And to this is added the remembrance of times of prosperity now past; for as a rule souls that enter this night have had many consolations from God, and have rendered Him many services, and it causes them the greater grief to see that they are far removed from that happiness, and unable to enter into it."(8)

Brunton states:

   "The Dark Night is not the result of any physical suffering or personal misfortune: it comes from a subtler cause. It induces a depression of enormous weight...The sombre loneliness experienced during the Dark Night of the Soul is unique. No other kind of loneliness duplicates it either in nature or acuteness... It creates the feeling of absolute rejection, of being an outcast...A terrible inner numbness, an unbearable emptiness, is a prominent feature of the spiritual dark night...The situation is really paradoxical and beyond correct appraisal by the conscious mind, certainly by the suffering ego. He is being made to learn, by the severest experience, that the divine reality must not be confused with his conscious reactions to it, nor with his mental reactions to it, nor even with his emotional reactions to it, that it belongs to an unknown and unknowable realm that transcends human faculties and defies human perceptions...It is not enough to recognize the Real in its homeland alone; he must be trained to recognize it under all conditions, even when it is hidden under thick illusion, even in the lowest ebb of the soul's dark night." (9)


1. E. Allison Peers, trans. The Dark Night of the Soul (Garden City, New York: Image/Doubleday, 1959), p.37
2. Ibid, p. 104
3. Ibid, p. 106-107
4. Ibid, p. 152
5. Ibid, p. 102-103
6. Ibid, p. 145-146
7. Ibid, p. 110-111
8. Ibid, p. 108
9. The Notebooks of Paul Brunton (Burdett, N.Y.: Larson Publications, 1988), Vol. 15, 3.22-24, 3.58, 3.59