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The Dark Night of the Soul

Q. What is “the dark night of the soul”?

A. The phrase “dark night of the soul” has been given to an untitled poem written by St. John of the Cross, a Spanish Carmelite priest, mystic, and Doctor of the Church, whose memorial we celebrated this week (December 14). The poem describes how the soul seeking God must ascend through a “dark night” to union with Him after being purged of all that would hinder the journey. This imagery is one of the classic descriptions of purgation and union that is a hallmark of the Christian mystical tradition.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in popular religious culture (both Christian and now in some other traditions), the phrase “dark night of the soul” has been appropriated to refer to any period of spiritual crisis, especially one characterized by doubt, dryness, and a sense of abandonment by God. Such a season of trial is common among the saints, by their own admission; it may linger briefly or it may last for many years, as it did for St. (Mother) Teresa of Calcutta.

“Dark night of the soul” can thus be a useful phrase in speaking of seasons in our life with God. But we should remember that this is not exactly what St. John originally meant when he spoke of the soul ascending through a “dark night.” For this mystic, the darkness refers not so much to personal trials as to the soul’s need for enlightenment and its experience of the profound mystery of God.


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