Dark Night of the Soul

Discussion in 'Abrahamic Religions' started by Netti-Netti, May 1, 2008.

  1. Netti-Netti

    Netti-Netti Well-Known Member

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    I've been reading thru the threads here and I see that "Dark Night of the Soul " periodically shows up - usually in reference to faith and doubt issues. I'm not so sure this view matches the vision being described in the writings of John of the Cross by that title.

    The Dark Night experience would seem to be a powerful process of discovering the inner mounting flame that is the love of G-d. In fact, that's how St John describes it in a commonly quoted passage from the work by that title:

    In secret, when none saw me, Nor I beheld aught, Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart. I had no guide, no light, save that which burned within my heart. And yet this light did guide my way more surely than the noonday sun unto a place where waited One who knew me well.
    Here the burning light appears to be a longing for G-d. The burning theme is taken up again later, and this time the element of longing is stated identified fairly clearly:
    (B)y not hindering the operation of infused contemplation that God is bestowing upon it, it can receive this with more peaceful abundance, and cause its spirit to be enkindled and burn with the love which this dark and secret contemplation brings with it and sets firmly in the soul. For contemplation is naught else than a secret, peaceful and loving infusion from God, which, if it be permitted, enkindles the soul with the spirit of love, according as the soul declares in the next lines, namely: Kindled in love with yearnings.
    Notice that the language suggests a welcoming and acceptance of an experience that involves a "peaceful and loving infusion." This acceptance seems to happen after purification and a clearing the mind. Mortal anguish and mental confusion may previously have made it hard for the person to understand and appreciate what is going on:
    This enkindling of love is not as a rule felt at the first, because it has not begun to take hold upon the soul, by reason of the impurity of human nature, or because the soul has not understood its own state, as we have said, and has therefore given it no peaceful abiding-place within itself. Yet sometimes, nevertheless, there soon begins to make itself felt a certain yearning toward God; and the more this increases, the more is the soul affectioned and enkindled in love toward God, without knowing or understanding how and whence this love and affection come to it, but from time to time seeing this flame and this enkindling grow so greatly within it that it desires God with yearning of love.

    I wonder if the night might seem dark only because the spiritual heart is on fire. There may indeed be turmoil that derives from not understanding how G-d is working with the soul. The Dark Night experience ultimately provides that understanding. Notice that in the above passage, the Dark Night is not presented as an isolated event. The term "at first" suggests there are follow-up experiences that are more easily assimilated at a later time.
    And this is the second way of grieving in desire and yearning which comes from love in the bowels of the spirit, which are the spiritual affections. But in the midst of these dark and loving afflictions the soul feels within itself a certain companionship and strength, which bears it company and so greatly strengthens it that, if this burden of grievous darkness be taken away, it often feels itself to be alone, empty and weak. The cause of this is that, as the strength and efficacy of the soul were derived and communicated passively from the dark fire of love which assailed it, it follows that, when that fire ceases to assail it, the darkness and power and heat of love cease in the soul.

    Far from treating the Dark Night as something to be fended off, it should be noted here that St. John values the Dark Night as an experiential reality that has much to offer: Indeed, his description suggests the soul feels most alive and comforted during the Dark Night.

    Needless to say, it is very hard to take care of one's day to day duties when in a permanent state of rapture, at all times engulfed by spiritual fire. But the experience can be internalized and applied. Indeed would say that the light at the end of the darkness has the potential to be of substantial value. The Dark Night often yields gift of increased mindfulness and reverence a sense of gratitude for the blessed opportunity to renew the vows of Dedication with ever greater resolve and a chance to deepen love of G-d and increased compassion and deeper contentment.

    Thomas Moore aptly notes our problematic attitude toward the Dark Night:
    I think sometimes people think of the dark night of the soul as a problem to be solved, and they get hyperactive trying to solve the problem, and it doesn’t go away because that’s not really the issue. The issue is something else, it’s their attitude, the way they’re dealing with some difficult period in life.

    So true. In a sense this is a separate issue from the spiritual significance of the Dark Night. But it is also related in this day and age. Despite the Bush administration's almost nonstop Shock and Awe treatment, the US continues to be a nation driven by instant gratification and histrionic personalities like the charming "socialite" and trendy, ultra-compatible "good time girl" are veritable cultural archetypes. Being the center of attention is perceived as valuable principally because it lends itself to demonstrating one's marketing skills, thus signalling success and the power to consume.

    In this environment, anything vaguely serious may be perceived as a sign of a hangover or a brain infection. Such an attitude toward negative emotion renders us at odds with our experience and cuts us off from growth possibilties inherent in most any experience. The culture does little to encourage other attitudes. In fact, it has given rise to an environment that places a premium on superficial impressions of well-being combined with lots of opportunities to avoid existential confrontations of any kind. Perhaps this is why some observers fear western societies are indeed going into spiritual decline.

    For now, we need a little more "existential openness," that is, a more open and acceptant attitude. We can't benefit from our experience if we think it should be other than what it is and incorrectly define it as a "negative experience." We can't learn from experience if we try to fight it off all the time.

    Personally, I feel the Dark Night of the Soul is a natural experience to be welcomed for what it is .
     
  2. seattlegal

    seattlegal Mercuræn Buddhist

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  3. Thomas

    Thomas Administrator Admin

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    In the context of your own tradition I can understand that. From the Christian viewpoint, as St John employs it, the Dark Night of the Soul is a supernatural experience, beyond the rhythms of the natural being. It's not to be confused with the feeling of aridity that is natural to the life of prayer.

    There are two dimensions to this — the one is the experience of the Presence of God, in the 'Divine Darkness' of by Dionysius the Areopagite, the 'ground of being' that Meister Eckhart speaks of, the other is the absence of the Presence of God, a savour of the Gethsemane experience.

    Thomas





    Thomas
     
  4. Netti-Netti

    Netti-Netti Well-Known Member

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    Hello Thomas,
    What tradition would that be, Thomas?

    To my way of thinking, "supernatural" means above or beyond nature, which would potentially refer to properties of the Divine. I think the term "supernatural" is usually used to describe external events or entities with special powers. The term also appears in metaphysics.

    I would agree with your characterization up to a point. I don't see it as specific to the Dark Night, though. If the idea is to evoke The Sacred, I think the term applies to just about any religious experience, although the term preternatural might be better. However, I don't see the term "supernatural" as being especially useful when describing human experience. Again, it is more suited for describing external phenomena that apparently involve suspending natural laws.

    Not sure what type of aridity you're referring to.

    I can see why you would make these connections, but I'm not sure they are necessary.
     
  5. Thomas

    Thomas Administrator Admin

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    Hello Netti-Netti

    For some reason I had it in mind you were talking from of Hindu Tradition ... sorry if I've made an assumption.

    I would agree in general terms ... however the object of supernatural inquiry in the Christian Tradition is the Trinity (and with reservation, angels which, being created, belong to the wider natural order).

    But we must allow that St John is talking of a specifically Catholic experience, that is one within a Catholic context, which is Trinitarian. I'm not disagreeing with you, my intention was to offer a Catholic view which might not be immediately apparent.

    The idea of 'the Dark Night of the Soul' has become something of a generic term ... but that will always be subsequent to St John's meaning, and might even be contrary to it.

    This is why I raised the point. St John is talking of the human experience of God in the Trinity, which transcends human nature.

    In the Christian Tradition, there are natural rhythms to the spiritual life of the person, 'seasons of the soul', if you like. Some times prayer comes easily, some times hard, sometimes the wellspring of the spirit flows, at others it seems parched ... sometimes there seems as if nothing is happening at all ... sometimes a breakthrough ... sometimes you're 'in the zone' and it seems as if time is suspended ... this is natural, and should be treated with no great significance ... I'm pretty sure a contemplative and an athlete could describe their experiences using much the same technical lexicon.

    The withdrawal of infused, supernatural grace, is a dimension of St John's Dark Night outside and above the seasons of the soul.

    They were insights into the Catholic experience of Love in the Holy Trinity. Sometimes we are allowed a savour of the Transfiguration, sometimes a savour of the Passion ... the Catholic longs for the life in Christ, and not just the celebratory moments ... another kind of Dark Night ... it depends upon how broad one's spiritual shoulders are.

    St John is St John of the Cross, after all.

    Thomas
     
  6. Netti-Netti

    Netti-Netti Well-Known Member

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    Hello Thomas, good to hear from you.

    I was baptised a Roman Catholic. A Hindu would have spelled it correctly: Neti neti. :) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neti_neti

    Understood. However, I would not assume a substantial role for Trinitarian doctrine in this case.

    First of all, there is no mention at all of the Holy Trinity in The Dark Night of the Soul. Further, the very obvious resemblance of this work to Sufism would lead one to reasonably infer that St. John's writings and Spanish mysticism in general were influenced by Islamic mystics, and by the Shadhili Sufis in particular. See the discussion of John of the Cross and his "suggested forerunner," the Muslim mystic Ibn Abbad (1332-1389) of Ronda in the Wiki article on Miguel Asín Palacios, a scholar who developed the connections.

    Interestingly, the Church to this day maintains a dismissive attitude toward the Spanish mystics whom it considers heretics for espousing views very similar to those articulated in St. John's Dark Night of the Soul during the very same era no less!! According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Spanish Illuminati were "false mystics who appeared in Spain in the sixteenth century and claimed to have direct intercourse with God."
     
  7. seattlegal

    seattlegal Mercuræn Buddhist

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    Hmm, misspelling 'neti neti' just seems to add to the concept of 'when words fail.' [​IMG] :)
     
  8. seattlegal

    seattlegal Mercuræn Buddhist

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    Mysticism, by its very nature, tends to undermine and negate hierarchies, as described by the phrase 'neti neti.' Of course, this could be seen as a threat by those who are more interesting in building up and maintaining hierarchies. This is nothing new.
     
  9. Thomas

    Thomas Administrator Admin

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    In his own words:
    "God communicates the mystery of the Trinity to this sinner in such a way that if His Majesty did not strengthen my weakness by a special help, it would be impossible for me to live."

    According to his biographers, among his favourite feastdays were Corpus Christi, Blessed Trinity and the Blessed Virgin.

    And look at his Romances on the Gospel

    I think St John was steeped in the Trinity, it shapes his whole way of thinking, as it shapes the Church and her theology.

    Thomas
     
  10. Netti-Netti

    Netti-Netti Well-Known Member

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    Did John make the above statement in reference to the Dark Night of the Soul?

    That may well be, but Trinitarian doctrine's relevance to the Dark Night of the Soul remains unclear. I would be interested in seeing a statement of how Trinitarian doctrine explains the "withdrawal of infused, supernatural grace" you alluded to in your Post #5 of this thread.
     
  11. Netti-Netti

    Netti-Netti Well-Known Member

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    You mean spiritual blindness is an issue?
     
  12. Thomas

    Thomas Administrator Admin

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    The Holy Trinity shapes the faith of St John. The Dark Night is an aspect of his experience of that faith — one can make no sense of it, as St John means it, without the Trinity.

    I'm not necessarily contradicting. I'm trying to say that one can present the Dark Night as a technical aspect of the experience of the spiritual journey, as it is a commonality on many training regimens — athletes have their own 'Dark Night' — but that is not all it is, and St John was not writing a manual of spiritual technique (as did, for example, St Theresa).

    All I was hoping to offer was a particularly Christian and therefore unique insight into a different order of Dark Night, and that is not the experience of Christ in the self, via the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but the greater transcendent experience of the self in Christ — the purgation and perfection of the soul by the Holy Spirit towards this union, which is variously called theosis, deification, divinisation, filiation.

    In St John the Dark Night is the period of passive observance, when the Holy Spirit works upon the soul, a process in which the individual is occluded and thus the experience is of loss and inability ... the individual can do nothing, and finds no solace in anything he does ... all he can do is remain steadfast in faith.

    Again, beyond this, it is a rare soul who is allowed a taste of the Passion of Our Lord, and enjoins in Jesus' own 'dark night' in the Garden of Gethsemane ... again, others bear the stigmata.

    Check out Adrienne von Speyr, a mystic and stigmatic, who has written extensively on the inner life.

    The experience of the Dark Night will vary according to the breadth of one's spiritual shoulders, as it were.

    Thomas
     
  13. Netti-Netti

    Netti-Netti Well-Known Member

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    Thank you for that, Thomas.

    The Dark Night of the Soul is the title of a book by St John of the Cross that describes the progression of the soul in two phases. The first phase covers an extended period of inner struggle that involves "aridities and trials." The struggle relates to an effort to become purged of "the desires and affections" that have kept the soul trapped in darkness.

    When St John refers to "anxiety of spirit," I surmise he is referring in part to the inner entanglements that result from an individual's ongoing effort to become worthy of G-d's love. The idea that one should be rewarded for one's devotion can be an obstacle even for a very sincere G-d seeking religionist.

    The obstacle may seem insurmountable due to a lack of faith. Lack of faith here means the person is afraid that G-d won't come through with spiritual deliverance despite the heartfelt efforts to seek deliverance by means of efforts aimed at earning G-d's approval. The lack of faith may involve fear and anguish that the power of forgiveness will be inadequate to achieve deliverance even when forgiveness is granted, if it's granted. I'd say this stage is one at which the individual is painfully aware of their sinful nature. The idea of being irredeemable is understandably is a source of dread and tribulation.

    Rabindranath Tagore one put it, we "crave in anxious fear to be saved." This craving generates a welling up of insecurities along with significant internal conflict and tension. In an effort to counteract the ambiguity of the situation the individual may resort to intensified ego-clinging ....if for no other reason that the ego is familiar. This can interfere - if not prevent - the surrender that is Divine union.
    "But there still remain in the spirit the stains of the old man, although the spirit thinks not that this is so, neither can it perceive them; if these stains be not removed with the soap and strong lye of the purgation of this night, the spirit will be unable to come to the purity of Divine union."
    This is a state of desperation and near hopelessness about being able to accomplish the loving transformation. The emotional upheaval is associated with Phase I, which may or may not give way to the next phase.

    St John's description makes it clear that it is very possible to reach a critical juncture without going forward, as when the individual retreats and hold back out of fear. This holding back may reflect a combination of the individual's lack of faith and the undue influence of "distraction and outward clinging of the spirit" (i.e., mental confusion and ego attachment). The sense of disorientation and helplessness would be expected to increase in proportion to the effort to exert control. Such an effort only makes the process of purgation that much more strenuous and painful.

    The retreat from transformative union involves avoidance reactions arising in connection with four kinds of pain which are associated. They seem to overlap. Note that the issues are all self-centered:

    1) The first kind of pain relates to a sense of alienation that results when the spiritual "bright light" illuminates unconscious conflicts. "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 first pain appears to be a primal sense of sin. It is the pain of confronting one's sinful nature:

    2) A sense of helplessness when further clinging tends to reveal that there is actually not much to cling to: the soul feels so weak "that it nearly swoons away. This is especially so at certain times when it is assailed with somewhat greater force; for sense and spirit, as if beneath some immense and dark load." This second kind of pain involves a sense of unworthiness or worthlessness and blinding despair. It seem there will never be any relief from painful confrontation with one's sinful nature and a sense of isolation that is beyond soothing. Hence the feeling "that there is none who has pity" on the sorrowful soul.

    3) An overwhelming sense of engulfment and fear of losing one's self that intensifies the pervasive sense of isolation and vulnerability: "the soul feels itself to be perishing and melting away, in the presence and sight of its miseries, in a cruel spiritual death, even as if it had been swallowed by a beast." This seems to involve grieving over the loss of self, which in turn intensifies a fear of abandonment based on the sense that G-d would no doubt reject the repulsive and is abhorrent person who has been exposed by the "bright light." As St. John puts it: "it is a grave and piteous grief for it to believe that G-d has forsaken it."

    4) A sense of impoverishment and immanent loss relating to previous existence. The sense of being was based largely on sensory experience. The tenuous nature of that previous existence becomes apparent when one realizes the "miseries of imperfection, aridity and emptiness of the apprehensions of the faculties and abandonment of the spirit in darkness."

    Some people tend to link the Dark Night to depression. This makes sense, but only up to a point. St John talks about the anguish that results when "the soul is not serving God." Letting go of the old self and the old ways of experiencing implies a loss of pre-existing incentives for behavior, a disengagement process that would be expected to lead to a depressive reaction of some kind. However, it would dissipate quickly with the loving transformation, if and when it happens.

    It should be noted, however, that St John makes a distinction between depression "melancholy" and the four kinds of pain. The person with melancholy is likely to experience the struggle of purgation more intensely. A preexisting state of depression might add to the distress, but would not be seen as being a result of that distress. Understandably, the depression might be impacted to some degree if the against the impure attachments do not give way to transformative union.

    The dread and tribulation of the Dark Night are brought on by the progress of the purgation itself. As we have seen, there can set up very strong fear-based reactions of avoidance that keep the individual from going forward - i.e., avoidance or flight or defensive intrapsychic maneuvers like projection-denial or splitting that tend produce conflicted relationships with others. One of the implications here is that a person that is undergoing this process of becoming spiritualized may have may have a hard time with their social interactions. Note: No, I'm not suggesting anyone pick fights as a means of making spiritual progress!

    In some ways it would that Phase I represents a cyclic sequence - intensification of clinging followed by giving up - but short of Surrender. One may or may not break out of the cycle. It may or may not give way to surrender when attachment is overcome. The "purgation of desire" is incomplete if continued clinging keeps the soul from being fully receptive to an infusion of Divine love.

    Should the individual proceed to Phase II, this is not a dark place at all. The Dark Night gives way to a new dawning, what I call the Spectral Horizon of Radiance of Clarity: "the soul is purified and cleansed of the imperfections that were clinging to it because of the desires and affections which of their own accord deaden and darken the soul."

    CONCLUSION

    The anguish associated with Phase I is a specific centered fear of losing the former sense of self than the transforming loving union that would nullify attachment. Attachment to self keeps the person in a state of dread and tribulation.

    It seems to me there are Buddhist and Hindu overtones all over St John's descriptions. He is touching on attachment and the associated mental afflictions when he talks about "the imperfections that were clinging" to the soul. These are described in detail as delusional emotions in Buddhism.

    St John also talks about clinging to one's "own will and pleasure" and mistaking the enjoyments for G-d's favors. It seems to me that he is talking about our ego-cherishing involvement with our own mentalistic entanglements - like narcissistic fantasies of having done al the right things to deserve G-d's love.

    We saw that the four kinds of pain of purgation are self-centered. They involve concerns that pertain to the clinging to existence and self, which have been identified under the rubric of bhava or "continuity of life and death, conditioned upon 'grasping' (upadana), the desire for further life and sensation" which keeps the process of becoming and the cycle of rebirth going. From the Wiki, "Bhava is the Sanskrit and Pali word for 'becoming' in the sense of 'ongoing worldly existence.'"

    Ego-purgative disciplines like Buddhism emphasize letting go of the false consciousness that keeps the person from realizing their true identity. Attavadupadana or clinging to self has been described as the most basic kind of clinging. It is said to create the conditions for other kinds of clinging along with the resultant suffering. Attachment to the fruits of one's efforts to earn G-d's love can be seen as one kind of Attavadupadana.

    How self-centred can you get? We think we love G-d when actually we just like the idea of being so lovable to G-d that he wouldn't have any reservations about bestowing His favor! As we have seen, this is an untenable position that causes spiritual distress because it actually prevents union.

    It is important to note that St John alludes to knowledge as the antidote to the situation. At some point the individual is able to overcome "clinging to the understanding." This definition of the problem points to the Buddhist solution, namely, a certain kind of knowledge by which one becomes free of false consciousness.

    Thank you. Thomas. I shall. And sorry for the delay in responding.
     

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