Dark Night of the Soul: A Masterpiece in the Literature of Mysticism by St. John of the Cross
(E. Allison Peers)- Kindle ed. -
Progress on my Lenten Reading List continues!
St. John of the Cross is one of the great Catholic authors of all time; he is not a St. Augustine or a Thomas a Kempis, but if you want to face the issue of the role of mystical theology in your life you can’t get around him. That is saying way to little, but perhaps much from where I am standing.
Back on 6 February 2011, I wrote something about an observation made by Hans Urs von Balthasar in an article on theology and sanctity in “I: The Word Made Flesh” (part of a new English edition,1989, Ignatius Press, of a work by him from 1960, entitled “Explorations in Theology”). In my review, I did not mention that in that article by von Balthasar the Spanish Mystics and especially St. John of the Cross took it on the chin, as having contributed to the rupture he described between personal holiness and doing theology. He did so by basically blaming the Spaniards for having articulated, if you will, a distinction between theology and what we call spirituality. This broadside at the Spanish Mystics has haunted me ever since I read it last summer and pushed me this Lent to attempt the “bitter pill” of finally reading the “Dark Night of the Soul” all the way through.
No doubt the “bitter pill” thing will raise an eyebrow or two, but that’s how I see it. I have to say that it is very clear to me that I did not miss my calling to monastic life. I enjoy visiting monasteries; I am thoroughly convinced they may even hold the key once again to saving past civilization and promoting a new synthesis. It’s just not my thing personally.
I am grateful now for the reading, but St. John of the Cross won’t make my ideal hand library. My problem is that his world is off the beaten path of Catholicism, even if what St. John describes as the “dark night” (either of the senses or of the soul) offers profound insights into what holiness or intimacy with God is all about:
“All this, says Divine Scripture, took place by night, when Jacob slept, in order to express how secret is this road and ascent to God, and how different from that of man’s knowledge. This is very evident, since ordinarily that which is of the greatest profit in it—namely, to be ever losing oneself and becoming as nothing—is considered the worst thing possible; and that which is of least worth, which is for a soul to find consolation and sweetness (wherein it ordinarily loses rather than gains), is considered best.” (Dark Night)
It is different from but, perhaps, complementary to Lorenzo Scupoli’s description of the path to holiness through spiritual combat. For me, Scupoli is and will remain more accessible also for the Catholic rank and file.
The issue, in part, is with the lifestyle (seemingly) which sets the stage for the destitution of the dark night and contemplation. I’ve made a week’s retreat in a cell at a monastery most observant of the Rule of St. Bruno… no thank you! Even in the nice little guest cell the good Benedictine nuns provided me in Martinique about a year and a half ago, the confinement brought with it general arthritic pain/trauma from head to toe. It is, of course, much more than that; it is the monastery or hermitage as the setting or forecourt of a mystical sort of prayer unto contemplation.
“First, it describes this dark contemplation as “secret,” since, as we have indicated above, it is mystical theology, which theologians call secret wisdom, and which, as Saint Thomas says, is communicated and infused into the soul through love. This happens secretly and in darkness, so as to be hidden from the work of the understanding and of other faculties. Wherefore, inasmuch as the faculties aforementioned attain not to it, but the Holy Spirit infuses and orders it in the soul, as says the Bride in the Songs, without either its knowledge or its understanding, it is called secret.” (Dark Night)
As much as I love and respect Pope St. Gregory the Great, when he speaks of missing the quiet solitude of the monastery, I cannot see it (once a year, maybe, but not for life). I think that his contemplation in the midst of the world as the Bishop of Rome, without the solitude, was what was so fruitful for the life of the Church. No doubt the study and quiet of the monastery is the rock foundation, the treasury from which he drew forth an abundance for the Church. Serious studies, the ordered life of prayer and study through years of seminary is what nurtures a priestly vocation and prepares a man to be another Christ for the world (not “adventure” or an apprenticeship in the world of work). The aridity or pain outside the monastery comes from being yoked to the Church, from those moments of disarray when the studies and prayer are forged into a new and more profound synthesis after the mind of Christ and His Church in the crucible of suffering ourselves and suffering with our people. The silence or nakedness of the dark night is too distant and analogous to what the shepherd’s life must be about. From the life of St. Patrick we know of all the prayers he said as a boy slave tending flocks on the hillside. Prayer always sustained Patrick’s life and ministry, but his gift to Ireland later in his life was framed in other and very different terms.
Nevertheless, I don’t think either Gregory or Patrick could have made heads or tails of the Dark Night of the Soul in terms of the mission entrusted to them; Gregory’s calling as Roman Pontiff had to be lived out in the midst of the world and of all sorts of activities demanding contact and even a measure of conflict with others. Patrick’s missionary apostolate was certainly powered by his communion with Christ, but the slipping off into the dark imagery seems a stretch.
What Bernini captures, as a sequel and reward to her “dark nights”, in his famous sculpture of St. Teresa of Avila in ecstasy as the angel pierces her heart with a silver arrow, or what St. John of the Cross might have known during one of his imprisonments at the hands of confreres less than enthused by his ideas of Carmelite reform, that I can surely appreciate. Their lifestyle just doesn’t fit me and cannot be the experience par excellence of intimacy with God in Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit that is meant for all who follow Christ. It would be similar to St. Paul’s words about speaking in tongues, where he states clearly that this phenomenon as not for everyone.
“But there is a question which at once arises here—namely, since the things of God are of themselves profitable to the soul and bring it gain and security, why does God, in this night, darken the desires and faculties with respect to these good things likewise, in such a way that the soul can no more taste of them or busy itself with them than with these other things, and indeed in some ways can do so less? The answer is that it is well for the soul to perform no operation touching spiritual things at that 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 a natural manner, exactly in their own fashion.” (Dark Night)
Don’t let me discourage you from reading the great mystics! I hope you have enjoyed the coupe (among many) beautiful quotes I have lifted from St. John of the Cross. In looking at St. John’s poetry even in English translation, I marvel. Maybe if St. John had said that this is only a point on the canvas of a life lived in work and study, that it plays no more of a quantitative role in the life of a monk or a hermit than it does in the life of a person in the world? If he had said that days for him were filled with hard work, study and classical prayer, then all I’d have to grapple with are my own reservations about finding in the Canticle of Canticles a light for my sentiments toward the God I love without peaking through the lattice or swarming over youthful physical attributes which have already seen their day.
He’s beautiful, but my romance and many others, though no less intense, is well a bit more restrained or, let’s just say, happy in its understatement. Enjoy!
1. On a dark night, kindled in love with yearnings—oh, happy chance!— I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest.
2. In darkness and secure, By the secret ladder, disguised— oh, happy chance!— In darkness and in concealment, My house being now at rest.
3. In the happy night, In secret, when none saw me, Nor I beheld aught, Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.
4. This light guided me More surely than the light of noonday To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me— A place where none appeared.
5. Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn, Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the Beloved!
6. Upon my flowery breast, Kept wholly for himself alone, There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him, And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
7. The breeze blew from the turret As I parted his locks; With his gentle hand he wounded my neck And caused all my senses to be suspended.
8. I remained, lost in oblivion; My face I reclined on the Beloved. All ceased and I abandoned myself, Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies." (Dark Night)