Dark Night of the Soul
By Saint John of the Cross, Mirabai Starr
In the first verse, the soul sings of the path she followed as she left behind attachment to herself and to created things. Through radical humility, she has died to her old self. She tells of living a new life-sweet and delicious-in love with God. The soul calls this going forth a "dark night," which is pure contemplation. The negation of the self and of all things unfolds passively within her.
The soul reports that she was able to make her escape through her burning passion for the Beloved, a passion which he himself gave to her within the depths of dark contemplation. She places special value on the joy she has come to know by having walked through this night all the way to God. Her journey has been so fruitful that not one of the three enemies-the world, the Spirit of Evil, and the animal nature-could possibly impede her passage. The purifying night of contemplation served to muffle the distractions, the hungers, and all the troubling stirrings of the sensual house and lull them to sleep.
And so she begins to sing:
"On a dark night..."
Unfolds the first verse and begins to explore the imperfections of beginners.
Souls begin to enter this dark night once God draws them forth from the state of the beginners, who merely muse about the spiritual path, and places them in the state of the adepts, the true contemplatives. This is the start of a journey that will lead to the blessed place of perfection, which is the divine union of the soul with God.
To better understand the nature of this night of the soul and God's purpose for putting her here, it would be good to take a look at some of the qualities of the spiritual beginner. If, by hearing these teachings, beginners recognize their own fragility, they may take heart and call on God to place them, please, in this night so that they can be fortified in virtue and made ready for the unutterable delights of love with God.
Once the soul has completely surrendered to serving God, she is nurtured and caressed by him, just like a tender baby with its loving mother. The mother holds the child close in her arms, warming it with the heat of her breasts, nourishing it with sweet milk and softened foods. But as the baby grows, the mother gradually caresses it less. She begins to hide her tender love. She sets the child down on its own two feet. This is to help the baby let go of its childish ways and experience more significant things.
The grace of God is just like a loving mother. Grace kindles in the soul renewed warmth and ardor for serving God. Through grace, the soul discovers sweet spiritual milk and effortlessly drinks in all the things of God. Through grace, God gives the soul intense delight in spiritual practices, just as a loving mother places her breast tenderly into the mouth of her child.
And so the soul at first finds her bliss in spending long periods-sometimes whole nights-deep in prayer. Penances are her pleasures. Fasting makes her happy. Participating in rituals and discussing divine things consoles her.
Even though she may tend earnestly to her spiritual practice, the beginner notices that she is spiritually weak and imperfect. This is because she is still motivated to engage in spiritual practices because of the comforts and pleasures they yield. She has not yet been galvanized by the powerful struggle to live the true virtues. A soul only achieves perfection in proportion to the perfect habits she has cultivated. The beginner has not practiced long enough to hone her spiritual skills, so she still works feebly, like a child.
To make sense of the beginners dangerous attachment to the delights spiritual practices offer, let's take a look, one by one, at the seven imperfections. We will see how spiritual beginners are just like small children.