Dark Night of the Soul- Part 1


Q: Where did the term “dark night of the soul” come from?

R: The phrase first turned up in the poetry of Spanish Carmelite monk John of the Cross in the 16th Century. He composed many poems while in torment in prison.

Q: “Dark” seems awfully negative, is it?

R: In Spanish the term is closer to the word “obscure”. Though the process may be confusing and painful, “dark” is not implying a negative state. It is a description, especially once one is aware of the progression of growth involved, and knows how the dawn will approach.

Q: Is the “dark night of the soul” the same as depression?

R: No. It’s also not a “spiritual term” for the suffering of someone who needs help for trauma/abuse, medical treatment for illness (mental and otherwise), and/or therapy. Sometimes the two states are seen hand-in-hand, and many times they are not.

Q: Are there different kinds of “dark nights” of the soul?

R: Yes. John of the Cross spoke of a “dark night” involving the senses, and one involving the spirit. One may have numerous dark nights of the senses. (I will go into more detail in future posts.)

Q: What is a good way to recognize a “dark night”.

R: A dark night of the senses may “feel” as though modes of prayer, experiencing the spiritual, or spiritual practices don’t “work” or satisfy. God may “feel” out of reach, distant, unavailable, or gone. It may feel like a dry period, or a time of being in a spiritual dessert. (This is not cause for discouragement or alarm, but for stamina. It is a Divine invitation for growth, and greater spiritual depth beyond what one knows. I will elaborate on what is taking place more in future posts.)

Next time I will post about the “dark night and ‘union with God’,” the process of the “dark night,” any questions/responses that come in from this post, and more. Come back soon.

Information taken from my reading: Gerald G. May, M.D. The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth. Harper San Francisco, 2004.

My (upcoming) book Life as Prayer: A New Paradigm for contemporary Spirituality Inspired by Ancient Piety dedicates a whole chapter to this topic. I will update this blog with details as this work continues. Thanks for your interest. I welcome your thoughts and comments.

(lit. agent Chip MacGregor)

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5 responses to “Dark Night of the Soul- Part 1

  1. I’ve been through this. A very difficult time of life. But once you exit … wow life never tasted so good!

    true spiritual awakening is always a barrier to be crashed through. It involves so much mental rewiring … processing of memories and experiences … self doubt .. etc. Total inner purging.

    but yeah, the end results!!

  2. dark revealing light. see to it, sydrycalWorks.com

  3. Robin Archibald

    This makes me think of Mother Teresa, who, it seemed, experienced a “dark night of the soul” for most of her life. She wrote to Michael Van Der Peet: “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”

    Like many, I was surprised by this revelation when was published (Doubleday, 2007). No one knew this side of Mother Teresa. It never came out in public.

    Apparently her darkness of the soul started when she began her intensive work with the poor and suffering and continued, as her work did, for the rest of her life.

    My dad, Stan Mooneyham, was a past president of World Vision and spent most of his time working for the poor and suffering in developing countries. He once expressed that traveling back and forth from that world of suffering and struggle back to the affluent life in Los Angeles caused him extreme emotional distress. He said he was never able to reconcile the two worlds, sometimes hating life in Los Angeles and wanting to stay with the suffering whose needs tore at him and with whom he felt deep empathy.

    I think his experiences brought him a darkness of the soul. Do we somehow remove ourselves emotionally or spiritually from God when the suffering we experience, whether our own or others, doesn’t align with what we want to believe of him? Is it a part of the question “How could God let this happen?”

    You say that the dark night of the soal is not necessarily an experience of depression, though it may be part of it.

    Later in my dad’s life, clinical depression became evident. I think he had struggled with it throughout his life, only keeping it at bay because of the intensity of his work and by his enormously strong will. Perhaps Mother Teresa struggled with depression as a part of her darkness.

    • lisacolondelay

      Teresa was likely well acquainted with writings of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, both discussed the darkness quite a lot. The author or editor of the book on her may have no idea about such things as ‘the dark night’ though. We may welcome the dark night, not fear it, or become more despondent. Though it will be difficult, it is God’s invitation to us. You dad does sound very likely to have been in one, I agree. Yes, I think we sometimes do remove ourselves from God when we feel his absence, or cannot reconciles our worlds, or suffering he permits. We may see him as separate from us, rather than with us and experiencing our suffering too.