Darkness is a term found in mystical literature (see mysticism). Darkness is used to describe a group of experiences found in the exercise of solitude. Contemplative prayer is an inward journey where the interior life is developed, and the kingdom of God is discovered within. As such, inward spirituality is often experienced as enlightenment. Thus, the practitioner “sees” truth, wisdom and beauty. The person sees God. God is light, and Jesus is the “light of the world that enlightens every man”. So why “darkness”?
In short, God brings darkness to increase faith. That is, dependence upon Him. Thus, for example, a person may be led by God, by vision, towards a goal; let’s say forming a group of men (or women) who are united in purpose and service. At some point in this following of God, however, the person will come into darkness. They will not see. They will not see how to take the next step. Their “understanding is darkened”. This lack of light, following as it does great illumination, confuses and discourages the most advanced believer. The person persists in prayer though because of all the previous inward strengthening that has prepared the heart. The person does not lose faith, just power. Just as the understanding can be darkened so can the will. That is, the person does not know what to do. There is nothing they can “do”. They are powerless to move forward. Thus they “sit in darkness”. Often these periods are also used by God to enhance contentment, detachment and the experience of “being not doing”. Thus, a person can be in darkness and yet gain a sense of the eternal now.
It’s important to realize that this darkness is an advanced state. It is the perfection of the solitary. It is a temporary state; ending most often in a release of creative energy and fruitfulness. “Temporary“, though, can last a long time, many years. Additionally, the experience of darkness can cycle in the life of a person and can occur in several stages. Occasionally you will read a description of a person who experiences lifelong darkness; in which case the person is referring to a faith walk where they have learned to depend on God and follow without clarity of vision and direction. These are, however, settled, fruitful people; not to be confused with people who never find God and wander in darkness. For a similar concept, see chastening.
Lastly, some authors divided this concept into useful smaller categories. Thus, John of the cross, a 16th century believer, talks in The Dark Night about “the dark night of the senses” and “the dark night of the spirit”. He then divides these into “active night” and “passive night”.