Dark Night of the Soul

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Dark Night of the Soul

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The “dark night of the soul” is a step in the mystic life in which, after experiencing some joy and success in the quest for mystic union, one enters a period of profound loss of any spiritual contact. The term entered the mystical vocabulary from the book of that name by Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross (1542–1591), although the state had been described by mystics previously.

Mystics recognize that the development of the higher states of mystical consciousness includes a variety of obstacles and periods in which the joys and ecstasies that so motivate the mystic disappear for short periods as attachments to the things of the world are stripped away. However, the dark night refers to a state that happens only after one has made significant advancement toward thegoal of mystical union. It seems to be a final obstacle prior to moving into a state of constant awareness of the divine presence. Essential to the dark night is a loss of the idea of the mystic’s effort to engage in meditation and contemplation to an understanding of the ultimate impotence of human effort in spiritual affairs. In the end, the experience of the divine is a gift to the mystic. Saint John and others distinguish the dark night from other periods that negatively contrast with mystic highs by its length and the heightened sense of loss and despair.

In the profoundly secular experience of modernity, the idea of a dark night has been generalized to refer to the more common experience of disorientation that occurs during times of personal transition, such as occurs when one moves from adolescence to adulthood or when one experiences significant loss, perhaps through divorce or the death of a family member. In such cases, one often has to make a profound change in self-identity that can be accompanied by depression, anxiety, and even paranoia. Spiritually, it frequently includes a loss of any sense of relationship with higher spiritual realities (expressed differently according to the structures of one’s religious life).

Knowledge of the commonness of the dark night experience allows a sense of hope, based on others’ testimony as to its ephemeral nature, to permeate the time of depression and despair, after which a new self-image may emerge.

Sources:

Harkness, Georgia. Dark Night of the Soul. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1945.
John of the Cross. St. Dark Night of the Soul. Trans., abridged, and ed. by Kurt F. Reinhardt. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1957.
Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1930.