Someone sent me an article from Richard Rohr about the Dark Night of the Soul. I am including the full article and then my comments below.
There comes to many seekers, at some time or a few times in their lives, a “dark night,” a period of seeming distance from God, from the ways in which we’ve experienced and understood God. The previous comforts have fallen away and we can no longer conceptualize God.
John of the Cross gave a map of sorts through these dark nights. He distinguished between the dark night of sense (in which all perceptions of God vanish) and the dark night of the spirit (in which we no longer graspideas about God). The goal of these times is to draw the self beyond ego into full transfiguration and union in God. John went through such a dark period during a time when he was imprisoned, tortured, and starved. He felt as if his Beloved had abandoned him.
After John miraculously escaped from prison, he composed his mystical poem “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Almost a year later he wrote the commentary to the poem, which is also titled The Dark Night of the Soul. In her translation, Mirabai Starr writes:
In the dark night, says John, the secret essence of the soul knows the truth, and is calling out to God: Beloved, you pray, please remind me again and again that I am nothing. Strip me of the consolations of my complacent spirituality. Plunge me into the darkness where I cannot rely on any of my old tricks for maintaining my separation. Let me give up on trying to convince myself that my own spiritual deeds are bound to be pleasing to you. Take all my juicy spiritual feelings, Beloved, and dry them up, and then please light them on fire. Take my lofty spiritual concepts and plunge them into darkness, and then burn them. Let me love you, Beloved. Let me quietly and with unutterable simplicity just love you.
This is a wonderful quote. St. John of the Cross grew up in extreme poverty. He was educated by Jesuits but became a Carmelite Friar through the influence of Teresa of Avila who was leading a reformation of the Carmelite Order. John was educated at one of the world’s leading Universities in theology and Philosophy. Because he became a very visible and vocal supporter of Teresa’s reformation of the Carmelite order he was kidnapped and imprisoned by those within the Carmelite order who opposed the reformation. John’s imprisonment was extremely cruel. He was starved and publicly lashed repeatedly. He was imprisoned in a small dark room alone. After escaping from his imprisonment he wrote The Dark Night of the Soul.
Two traditions have developed within monasticism; two ways of knowing God. They are Via Positiva and Via Negativa. Via Positiva is the one we most understand today. It holds that God can be known through the good things that He does for us. Material abundance, friendships, Christian fellowship, answered prayers, and pleasant spiritual experiences are all examples of the “positive” way of knowing God. Via Negativa is much less prevalent today. It would certainly not fit within most of the teaching we hear in the American church.
The idea is that God can be known in a unique way when all that is positive is removed from our experience of Him [this was probably John’s experience while being in prison]. When this happens all of the positive feedback is removed from our relationship with God. We enter a desert characterized by the experience of His absence. All the usual ways that we experience Him are gone. We often feel alone and abandoned. We are in the absence of evidence of His existence in our lives. St. John calls it the “dark night of the soul”. Imagine being in a spiritual desensitization chamber. How could this be a good thing or a way to know God?
Someone I know has said that all of us married God for His money. I believe this is true. We all came to Him because of some need that only He could fill. This is fine for a time but it leaves us with the question; “why do I love you Lord? Is my love nothing but an expression of my selfishness? Is my knowledge of you based on nothing but blessings? Who are you to me when the blessings stop?” The question becomes, “Is it possible to know God beyond the blessings or the positive experience of His presence?” St John says “yes”. Not only does he say yes, but he tells us that it is the deepest way to know God – beyond the blessings. He calls the experience the “dark night of the soul”. And it is. Going through the experience reveals to us how deeply we desire to know Him [just for himself, not just for the blessings]. I lived through a dark night experience for about two years. It was a horrible experience. It was what I needed most. I discovered God is a way I never could have apart from the experience. I now know Him in a way I could never have known Him when I was being distracted by the blessings. It is a transformational experience.