Dark Night of the Soul

Dark Night of the Soul

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Dark Night of the Soul is a treatise by Saint John of the Cross containing a commentary explaining his poem of the same name.

Poem and treatise by Saint John of the Cross

Dark Night of the Soul is the title of a poem written by 16th-century Spanish poet
A poet is a person who writes poetry. A poet's work can be literal, meaning that his work is derived from a specific event, or metaphorical, meaning that his work can take on many meanings and forms. Poets have existed since antiquity, in nearly all languages, and have produced works that vary...

 and Roman Catholic mystic
Mysticism is the knowledge of, and especially the personal experience of, states of consciousness, i.e. levels of being, beyond normal human perception, including experience and even communion with a supreme being.-Classical origins:...

 Saint John of the Cross, as well as of a treatise he wrote later, commenting on the poem. Saint John of the Cross was a Carmelite
The Order of the Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel or Carmelites is a Catholic religious order perhaps founded in the 12th century on Mount Carmel, hence its name. However, historical records about its origin remain uncertain...

 priest. His poem narrates the journey of the soul from its bodily home to its union with God. The journey occurs during the night, which represents the hardships and difficulties the soul meets in detachment from the world and reaching the light of the union with the Creator. There are several steps in this night, which are related in successive stanzas. The main idea of the poem can be seen as the painful experience that people endure as they seek to grow in spiritual maturity and union with God. The poem is divided into two books that reflect the two phases of the dark night. The first is a purification of the senses. The second and more intense of the two stages is that of the purification of the spirit, which is the less common of the two. Dark Night of the Soul further describes the ten steps on the ladder of mystical love, previously described by Saint Thomas Aquinas and in part by Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

. The text was written while John of the Cross was imprisoned by his Carmelite brothers, who opposed his reformations to the Order.

The treatise, written later, is a theological commentary on the poem, explaining its meaning by stanza.

Spiritual term in the Christian tradition

The term "dark night (of the soul)" is used in Christianity for a spiritual crisis
Spiritual crisis
Spiritual crisis is a form of identity crisis where an individual experiences drastic changes to their meaning system typically because of a spontaneous spiritual experience...

 in a journey towards union with God, like that described by Saint John of the Cross.

Typically for a believer in the dark night of the soul, spiritual disciplines (such as prayer
Prayer is a form of religious practice that seeks to activate a volitional rapport to a deity through deliberate practice. Prayer may be either individual or communal and take place in public or in private. It may involve the use of words or song. When language is used, prayer may take the form of...

 and consistent devotion to God
God is the English name given to a singular being in theistic and deistic religions who is either the sole deity in monotheism, or a single deity in polytheism....

) suddenly seem to lose all their experiential value; traditional prayer is extremely difficult and unrewarding for an extended period of time during this "dark night." The individual may feel as though God has suddenly abandoned them or that his or her prayer life has collapsed. It is important to note however that the presence of doubt is not tantamount to abandonment—as there is a strong Biblical tradition of authentic confusion before God. Psalms 13, 22, and 44 display King David, the 'man after God's own heart' undergoing serious confusion before and anguish with God, yet this is not condemned or mentioned as being unfaithful, but rather as the only measure of faith that David could have in the face of such withering apparent abandonment.

Rather than resulting in permanent devastation, the dark night is regarded by mystics and others as a blessing in disguise, whereby the individual is stripped (in the dark night of the senses) of the spiritual ecstasy associated with acts of virtue. Although individuals may for a time seem to outwardly decline in their practices of virtue, in reality they become more virtuous, as they are being virtuous less for the spiritual rewards (ecstasies in the cases of the first night) obtained and more out of a true love for God. It is this purgatory, a purgation of the soul, that brings purity and union with God.

Jesus Christ may also have experienced such a crisis, when uttering My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? on the cross, before dying. Jesus was quoting Psalm 22, which contains many parallels to Jesus' suffering and death, most likely in an attempt to point out the similarities of his situation to the Psalm to the onlookers as he died: "O God my God, look upon me: why hast thou forsaken me? Far from my salvation are the words of my sins".

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a 19th-century French Carmelite, underwent similar experience. Centering on doubts about the afterlife, she reportedly told her fellow nuns, "If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into."

While this crisis is usually temporary in nature, it may last for extended periods. The "dark night" of Saint Paul of the Cross
Paul of the Cross
Paul of the Cross was an Italian mystic, and founder of the Passionists.-Biography:Saint Paul of the Cross, originally named Paolo Francesco Danei, was born on 3 January 1694, in the town of Ovada, Piedmont, between Turin and Genoa in the Duchy of Savoy in northern Italy.Paul, a son of a...

 in the 18th century lasted 45 years, from which he ultimately recovered. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, according to letters released in 2007, "may be the most extensive such case on record", lasting from 1948 almost up until her death in 1997, with only brief interludes of relief between. Franciscan Friar Father Benedict Groeschel, a friend of Mother Teresa for a large part of her life, claims that "the darkness left" towards the end of her life.

In popular culture

F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was an American author of novels and short stories, whose works are the paradigm writings of the Jazz Age, a term he coined himself. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. Fitzgerald is considered a member of the "Lost...

 wrote the famous line "In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning" in The Crack-Up
The Crack-Up
The Crack-Up is a collection of essays by American author F. Scott Fitzgerald. It consists of previously unpublished letters, notes and also three essays originally written for and published first in the Esquire magazine during 1936...

Fitzgerald may have been thinking of Earnest Christopher Dowson who used the phrase 'obscure night of the soul' in his Absinthe poem Absinthe Taetra. Dowson would have appealed to FSF's melancholic side.
Author and humorist Douglas Adams
Douglas Adams
Douglas Noel Adams was an English writer and dramatist. He is best known as the author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which started life in 1978 as a BBC radio comedy before developing into a "trilogy" of five books that sold over 15 million copies in his lifetime, a television...

 satirized the phrase in the title of his 1988 science fiction novel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul is a 1988 humorous fantasy detective novel by Douglas Adams. It is the second book by Adams featuring private detective Dirk Gently, the first being Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency....


Alternative rock band Sparklehorse
Sparklehorse was an American indie rock band led by the singer and multi-instrumentalist Mark Linkous.-History:Sparklehorse's first album, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot featuring Bob Rupe of the Silos and Cracker, was a modest college radio success...

 along with producer Danger Mouse
Danger Mouse
Brian Joseph Burton , better known by his stage name Danger Mouse, is an American musician, songwriter and producer. He came to prominence in 2004 when he released The Grey Album, which combined vocal performances from Jay-Z's The Black Album with instrumentals from The Beatles' White Album.He...

 and Director and visual artist David Lynch
David Lynch
David Keith Lynch is an American filmmaker, television director, visual artist, musician and occasional actor. Known for his surrealist films, he has developed his own unique cinematic style, which has been dubbed "Lynchian", and which is characterized by its dream imagery and meticulous sound...

 collaborated with a plethora of other artists including Vic Chesnutt
Vic Chesnutt
James Victor "Vic" Chesnutt was an American singer-songwriter from Athens, Georgia. His first album, Little, was released in 1990, but his breakthrough to commercial success didn't come until 1996 with the release of Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation, a tribute album of mainstream artists...

, Jason Lytle
Jason Lytle
Jason Lytle is an American musician best known for his work in the indie rock group Grandaddy. He released a solo album in 2009 and is currently in the band Admiral Radley.-Biography:...

 and Wayne Coyne
Wayne Coyne
Wayne Michael Coyne is the lead singer, guitarist, and principal songwriter for the band The Flaming Lips.-Early life:...

 on an audio visual project entitled "Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse Present: Dark Night of the Soul
Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse Present: Dark Night of the Soul
Dark Night of the Soul is an album written by Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse. It features a wide range of singers, which include James Mercer of the Shins, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals, Jason Lytle of Grandaddy, Julian Casablancas of the Strokes, Black Francis...


It has also been used as a song title by several other bands and music artists, including Steve Bell
Steve Bell (musician)
Steve Bell is a Canadian singer-songwriter and guitarist based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He is among the best-known Christian musicians in Canada and is an accomplished songwriter and record producer. Steve has an extensive catalogue of songs including "Deep Calls to Deep", "Eventide" and...

, Loreena McKennitt
Loreena McKennitt
Loreena Isabel Irene McKennitt, CM, OM, is a Canadian singer, composer, harpist, accordionist and pianist who writes, records and performs world music with Celtic and Middle Eastern themes. McKennitt is known for her refined, clear soprano vocals...

, The Get Up Kids
The Get Up Kids
The Get Up Kids are an American alternative rock band from Kansas City, Missouri. Formed in 1995, the band was a major player in the mid-90's emo scene, otherwise known as the "second wave" of emo music...

, Mayhem
Mayhem (band)
Mayhem is a Norwegian black metal band formed in 1984 in Oslo, Norway and regarded as one of the pioneers of the influential Norwegian black metal scene...

, and by CHH artist shai linne in the Solus Christus project.

American Metal Band Fear Factory
Fear Factory
Fear Factory is an American industrial metal band. Formed in 1989, they have released seven full-length albums and a number of singles and remixes. Over the course of their career they have evolved from a succession of styles, as well as steadily pioneered a combination of the styles death metal,...

 used the term in the last track from their Obsolete
Obsolete (album)
Obsolete is the third studio album by American industrial metal band Fear Factory, released on July 28, 1998. Conceptually, it is a sequel to 1995's Demanufacture...

 album, called "Timelessness".

Composer Ola Gjeilo has written a 14-minute choral setting with piano and string quartet.

In the final episode of Father Ted
Father Ted
Father Ted is a comedy series set in Ireland that was produced by Hat Trick Productions for British broadcaster Channel 4. Written jointly by Irish writers Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan and starring a predominantly Irish cast, it originally aired over three series from 21 April 1995 until 1 May...

("Going to America"), depressed priest Father Kevin explains to Ted that he is experiencing the "dark night of the soul".

In episode 5371 of US soap series The Bold and the Beautiful
The Bold and the Beautiful
The Bold and the Beautiful is an American television soap opera created by William J. Bell and Lee Phillip Bell for CBS Daytime. It premiered on March 23, 1987....

, Bridget Forrester
Bridget Forrester
Dr. Bridget Forrester is a fictional character on the CBS soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful. The role has been played by various actresses, including Agnes Bruckner, Jennifer Finnigan and Emily Harrison...

 (Ashley Jones
Ashley Jones
Ashley Aubra Jones is an American actress. She is probably most recognized for her roles as Daphne on HBO's critically acclaimed drama True Blood, and as Dr...

) and Brooke Logan
Brooke Logan
Brooke Logan Forrester is a fictional character from the CBS Daytime soap opera, The Bold and the Beautiful. She has been portrayed by Katherine Kelly Lang since the series debuted in March 1987, although Catherine Hickland and Sandra Ferguson briefly filled in on two occasions when Lang was on...

 (Katherine Kelly Lang
Katherine Kelly Lang
Katherine Kelly Lang is an American actress. She is known for her role as Brooke Logan Forrester on The Bold and the Beautiful .-Personal life:...

) discuss spirituality and the purpose of human existence through reference and direct quotation of "Dark Night of the Soul".

See also

  • Ascent of Mount Carmel
    Ascent of Mount Carmel
    Ascent of Mount Carmel is a 16th-century spiritual treatise by Spanish Catholic mystic and poet St John of the Cross. The book is a systematic treatment of the ascetical life in pursuit of mystical union with Christ, giving advice and reporting on his own experience...

  • Ego death
    Ego Death
    Ego death is an experience that reveals the illusory aspect of the ego, sometimes undergone by mystics, shamans, monks, psychologists, and others interested in exploring the depths of the mind....

  • Existential crisis
    Existential crisis
    An existential crisis is a stage of development at which an individual questions the very foundations of his or her life: whether his or her life has any meaning, purpose or value...

  • Loevinger
    Jane Loevinger
    Jane Loevinger Weissman was a developmental psychologist who developed a theory of personality which emphasized the gradual internalization of social rules and the maturing conscience for the origin of personal decisions...

    • Stages of ego development
      Loevinger's stages of ego development
      Jane Loevinger's stages of ego development 'conceptualize a theory of ego development that was based on Erikson's psychosocial model', as well as on the works of Harry Stack Sullivan, and in which 'the ego was theorized to mature and evolve through stages across the lifespan as a result of a...

  • Dabrowski
    Kazimierz Dabrowski
    Kazimierz Dąbrowski was a Polish psychologist, psychiatrist, and physician.Dąbrowski developed the Theory of Positive Disintegration, which describes how a person's development grows as a result of accumulated experiences...

    • Theory of Positive disintegration
      Positive Disintegration
      The Theory of Positive Disintegration by Kazimierz Dąbrowski describes a theory of personality development.Unlike mainstream psychology, Dąbrowski's theoretical framework views psychological tension and anxiety as necessary for growth...

  • Kenosis
    In Christian theology, Kenosis In Christian theology, Kenosis In Christian theology, Kenosis (from the Greek word for emptiness (kénōsis) is the 'self-emptying' of one's own will and becoming entirely receptive to God's divine will....

  • Kohlberg
    Lawrence Kohlberg
    Lawrence Kohlberg was a Jewish American psychologist born in Bronxville, New York, who served as a professor at the University of Chicago, as well as Harvard University. Having specialized in research on moral education and reasoning, he is best known for his theory of stages of moral development...

    • Stages of moral development
      Kohlberg's stages of moral development
      Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development constitute an adaptation of a psychological theory originally conceived of by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget...

  • Nigredo
    Nigredo, or blackness, in alchemy means putrefaction or decomposition. The alchemists believed that as a first step in the pathway to the philosopher's stone all alchemical ingredients had to be cleansed and cooked extensively to a uniform black matter....

  • Psychology of religion
    Psychology of religion
    Psychology of religion consists of the application of psychological methods and interpretive frameworks to religious traditions, as well as to both religious and irreligious individuals. The science attempts to accurately describe the details, origins, and uses of religious beliefs and behaviours...

  • Theosis
    In Christian theology, divinization, deification, making divine or theosis is the transforming effect of divine grace. This concept of salvation is historical and fundamental for Christian understanding that is prominent in the Eastern Orthodox Church and also in the Catholic Church, and is a...

Ernest Dowson alludes to the 'obscure night of the soul' in his abisinthe poem absinthia taetra

External links